Essays: Dashing downhill |
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Dashing downhill

AS if in answer to a madman’s prayer, Ski Sunday (BBC1) was back, fronted as ever by the indispensable David Vine. ‘Look at that!’ cried David. ‘Oogh! Aagh! Ease coming down the ill!’

The hill he was coming down was at Val d’Isère. The event being the downhill, the emphasis was on speed, courage and danger. David verbally evoked these concepts for the benefit of those of us who were unable to deduce them from the visual information amassed on the screen. ‘Augh! You wouldn’t! Ease going into the bend ... Ease gone!’ Gallantly providing David with the appropriate provocation to eloquence, a condom-clad competitor got his skis crossed at 100 m.p.h. and rammed the snow with his helmet.

The women go slower than the men but not much. One feels protective when they crash, especially since the protectives they are wearing do not look all that protective. Luckily the British girls, in sharp contrast to their continental counterparts, move at a sedate pace. Valentina Iliffe is our star. She has been canned from the British team for breaking training. ‘A lot of talk in British camp about this,’ opined David, as Valentina finished in twenty-seventh position, five seconds behind the leaders. Apparently the rest of our girls are even more stately in their progress, so clearly they are in no peril.

The big sporting occasion of the week was Sports Review of 1979 (BBC1), during which the British Sportsman of the Year was chosen. For weeks the question had been asked: who can beat Sebastian Coe? (Known to his admirers as Seb, Sebastian is temporarily immortal for holding several world records at once.) The Radio Times ran a long article about the programme, asking: who can beat Sebastian Coe? People throughout the sporting world, it was plain, had been forming agitated huddles to ask: who can beat Sebastian Coe? In the event it was no surprise that Sebastian Coe won the trophy. Only Kevin Keegan looked mildly startled, possibly at his own generosity in flying all the way from Germany just to come third.

Awarded during the same programme, the trophy for International Sportsman of the Year went to Bjorn Borg. Borg, Frank Bough reminded us, had won Wimbledon four times. ‘Can you make it five?’ asked Frank. ‘Why not?’ Borg replied. Nastase handed Borg the trophy. ‘Ease a nice trophy, you know?’ Borg nodded politely, as if another trophy were just what he wanted.

Borg is always nice, knowing that he will never be resented for his wealth as long as he stays shy. Meanwhile the Scots sprinter Alan Wells is being hounded about his expenses at the Highland Games. Perhaps he fiddled an extra haggis at breakfast. There is something very British about the possibility that Wells might lose his amateur status and thus miss next year’s Olympics in the Soviet Union — whose every athlete is a full-time professional.

Appearing in the World Gymnastics Championships at Fort Worth, the Romanian girl gymnasts showed up on Sportsnight (BBC1) as unlovely streaks of gristle and sinew. ‘Remarkable how slim the Romanian girls are,’ mused Ron Pickering and/or Alan Weeks. ‘Quite slim indeed.’ Poor, grim little darlings, they looked anorexic. Obviously the general idea is to keep mass to a minimum, so that the girls can achieve speed without momentum. The tricks are stunning, but the physical cost is high. Breasts look exactly like shoulder blades. By now Nelli Kim, who won a stack of gold medals for the Soviet Union, is almost an anachronism, being in possession of a detectable bottom.

As well as for sport, it was a big week for Shakespeare. Latest in the Beeb’s Bardathon, Henry IV, Part I (BBC2) was good, solid, worthy stuff, proceeding staunchly between the lower levels of excitement and the upper strata of tedium. Interiors tended towards straw-on-the-floor naturalism, an effect not much helped by the studio floor cloth. More straw or less cloth would have taken care of that, but some of the costumes sat with incurable stiffness on the people inside them.

One of the people inside them was Jon Finch, who played the King. The King had a thing going with his gloves. The gloves were grey and the King kept fiddling with them as if to find out whether they were real velvet. The odds are almost overwhelming that they weren’t. The trouble with low-budget naturalism is that it never looks natural. Imagination is a better bet, but inevitably it is in short supply.

The exteriors, perforce, had to be scamped a bit, which meant that the cameras had to move in close on the actors and leave the background to suggest itself. As usually happens, the whole affair instantly became more convincing. The night scenes before the battle of Shrewsbury looked particularly fine. The actors wore their colours and metals with a swagger. Hal (David Gwillim) and Hotspur (Tim Pigott-Smith) had at each other loudly. Clive Swift, playing Worcester, scored points by keeping relatively quiet.

Stumbling about the battlefield in a tin hat, Falstaff cut a believably preposterous figure. Anthony Quayle was necessarily competing with Orson Welles’s portrayal in ‘Chimes at Midnight,’ but came out of the contest well. He was also competing with George Melly, who fronted the accompanying episode of Shakespeare in Perspective (BBC2). Puffing and blowing, with mighty consumption of ale, Melly conjured the great heart and chicken liver of his rotund predecessor. He also quoted the odd Shakespearian line, showing that he could tell a pentameter from a pint pot. Singers are nearly always good at bringing out the rhythm of blank verse.

Actors nearly always aren’t. There are notable exceptions, but as a general rule it can be assumed that even the best actor will bring everything out of a blank verse line except its five pulses. Since Shakespeare’s blank verse has so much in it anyway, it might seem churlish to want rhythm too, but there is such a thing as being inundated with the superfluous while remaining starved of the necessary. This, I thought, was the central issue of a fascinating South Bank Show (LWT) featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company at work on the technique of verse speaking.

The first of two programmes to be devoted to this subject, here was a show you could get your mind into. Trevor Nunn was the man in charge. As thoughtful as he is gifted, Nunn is not a man to disagree with lightly. Backed up by John Barton, who provides the scholarship, Nunn took his actors through speeches and sonnets. Lines were pointed until every drop of double meaning stood out like sweat on a navvy’s forehead. Yet in the end Alan Howard’s was the voice that thrilled. I have seen him only once in the theatre, playing Coriolanus as an Alternative Miss World. But he has a knack for those five beats.

Charlie Muffin (Thames) starred David Hemmings in a wearily familiar story about a working-class spy wearing cheap shoes. Tinkers, tailors, soldiers, cobblers.

The Observer, 16th December 1979
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]