Essays: Disco dementia |
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Disco dementia

NEVER SINCE Damocles danced beneath the sword has there been anything like the World Disco Dancing Championships (Thames), brought to you live from the ravishing Empire Ballroom, Leicester Square.

Disc jockey David Hamilton was the man in charge, his old young features more than usually agog with excitement. According to statistics, he informed us, the audience for this ‘greatest dance contest ever held’ would be ‘approximately 200,000,000 people around the world. Staggering, isn’t it? My bottle’s gone, I can tell you.’ Since David never does much except stand there looking keen, it was hard to see how his performance would be significantly impaired by the defection of his bottle, but that was by the way. Because already it was time to meet what the TV Times had courageously billed as ‘a celebrity panel of judges.’

Perhaps they were celebrities in the narrowly specialised field of disco dance contest judging. For the general viewer their names tended not to ring a bell, except in the case of Agape Stassinopoulos, Arianna’s sister. Agape was described by David as ‘the lovely actress from Greece’. Her fair presence was some consolation for the absence of Arianna, who was probably writing a new book that night. The other judges mainly fell into the category of ‘international cabaret star.’ If you have spent six weeks in a sequinned jacket singing ‘My Way’ to an audience of uncomprehending Lebanese, you are an international cabaret star.

Most of the dancers were international too. The Australian representative for example, was called Alfonso Falcone. This aroused the expectation that the Italian representative might be called Wokka Whitlam, but before you could say Jack Robinson (of Malawi) on came Frankie Foo from Kuala Lumpur. As the floor pulsed with light and the air shook to the sledgehammer beat, one dancer after another gallantly attempted the impossible task of shaking off his own pudenda without touching them. The athleticism involved was awe-inspiring. Tadyaki Dan of Japan spent most of his time in mid-air, upside down with his hands behind his back, trying to bite pieces out of the floor.

Disco dancing is really dancing for people who hate dancing, since the beat is so monotonous that only the champions can find interesting ways of reacting to it. There is no syncopation, just the steady thump of a giant moron knocking in an endless nail. But with that proviso, this was still an event from which it was difficult to prise loose your attention. Which dancer would have the first hernia of the contest? Would Thomas Brown of Bermuda (‘He’s a trainee chef! Trace of the old hot stuff there.’) manage to pull his toes out of his ears before he hit the floor? After the celebrity panel of judges finished totting up the scores, it was Tadyaki Dan of Japan who drove away the TR7 full of money. Doubtless he will be back again next year. So will they all. So will I and the other 199,999,999 viewers.

For a mercy, the Bavarian State Opera’s rendition of Lohengrin (BBC2) was relatively free from symbolist pretensions. It was just as boring as every other production of ‘Lohengrin’ I have ever seen, but that was inevitable, because ‘Lohengrin’ simply happens to be a bore. The important thing is that it was not offensively boring. No Marxist half-wit of a producer had equipped the grail knight with a homburg hat. Instead the radiant hero was properly attired in shining armour. His long aluminium combat jacket made his legs look like a hamster’s, but at least he wasn’t riding a penny-farthing.

Unfortunately he wasn’t riding a swan either. Instead of the large aquatic fowl which Wagner was unreasonable enough to specify in the text, the producer had fixed Lohengrin up with alternative means of transport. It took the form of an angel with prop wings. In view of this fact it was strange to hear Lohengrin singing ‘Farewell my beloved swan’ when he should have been singing ‘Farewell my beloved walk-on in tatty angel’s costume plus lighting effects.’

The excellence of Richard II (BBC1) made it seem doubly strange that so mediocre a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ had been chosen to usher in the Bardathon. Why not set the expected standard with something good instead of something bad? Or can’t the man in charge tell the difference? Anyway ‘Richard II’ had everything ‘Romeo and Juliet’ hadn’t. David Giles was the director. He showed his firm hand immediately, framing the actors’ faces as closely as possible while they got on with the essential task of speaking the text.

Whenever the shot loosened, it was in order to view rich costumes, solid props and dense, convincing backgrounds. Thus was fulfilled the first condition of a successful Shakespeare production on television — that it shall not try to look like a movie. The focus must, and should, be on the actors. If there is a vista to be described, let the actor’s face describe it with a look. Usually there will be some lines available to help the evocation.

In this production there was fine acting to be had. Derek Jacobi gave intelligent, fastidiously articulated readings from beginning to end. The ‘sad stories’ soliloquy was as masterfully worked out in the reciting as it was meticulously planned in the shooting, with each turn of thought given its appropriate vocal weight by the actor and its perfectly judged close-up by the director. This kind of technical command is rarely noticed by critics and never by the public, but it is the heart and soul of what makes television drama dramatic.

Jacobi’s Richard had let his divinity run away with him. It was a fruitful emphasis to make. In Richard Cottrell’s famous stage production Ian McKellen made Richard a tearaway gay. That performance launched McKellen in every sense, including the literal: even for his curtain calls he leapt into position. Jacobi was faced with a hard task in transferring the focus from the physique to the mentality. He did it, though. Not only did he contrive to make you not think of McKellen’s Richard, he also managed to make you not think of Jacobi’s Claudius. This latter challenge was probably the more important to him.

The revelation of the evening, however, was Jon Finch’s Bolingbroke. Finch gave the role the performance it needs, since when you look at the text you see that there is not an awful lot there. Indeed there is a good case for asking the actor playing Bolingbroke to content himself with standing around looking worthily staunch. If he is to do more than that, he must play the role on two levels, speaking what is set down for him and transmitting his ambitions — if it is supposed that they exist — by other means. Finch was adept at finding means. Even when he was standing still you could tell he was heading for the throne of England by the direct route.

The Observer, 17th December 1978

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]