Essays: In deepest Dallas |
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In deepest Dallas

STRIKE-STRICKEN on Monday evening, Nationwide (BBC1) was replaced by a thrilling programme about growing leeks in the North. Now that the series of strikes is temporarily over we will just have to try getting used to the rare experience of normal conditions.

More fascinating than ever in its current series, Dallas (BBC1) continues to offer its uniquely Texan combination of wealth, family conflict and sumptuous, scantily draped females. The men wear Astroturf haircuts topped off with ten-gallon hats. Marginally more simpatico this time, J.R. Ewing has a new haircut which changes colour from shot to shot and a hatband composed of what appear to be crushed budgerigars. In the normal course of events he is an easy man to loathe, but lately he is having a prarlm with his wife. A prarlm is something difficult to solve.

Sue Ellen has had a baby, of which J.R., all unbeknownst to him, is not the father. She used to have a drinkin’ prarlm, but quit. Now she has a different prarlm: she hates J.R. ‘If we trah, really trah,’ J.R. tells her, his hair changing colour and his hatband fluttering in the wind, ‘we can solve all our prarlms.’ Sue Ellen sneers at him and doffs her robe preparatory to a dip in the pool. J.R. eyeballs her fair form and declares himself lustful, as well he might, because Sue Ellen is beautiful enough to make a man break down and crah.

Spurned by Sue Ellen, J.R. climbs into his powerful convertible and drives off to lernch. A meal taken in the middle of the day, lernch is when characters in ‘Dallas’ get together to discuss the plot. It transpires that Sue Ellen’s baby may well be suffering from neuro-fibrowhosis, a rare disease which attacks children who have been written into a long-running series and may have to be written out again later. Sue Ellen, it is agreed, must not be told. ‘Sue Ellen’s already so guilty about the baby this could well put her over the edge. Don’t you understand she’s not well emotionally?’

Not well emotionally, Sue Ellen climbs languidly out of the pool. She looks quite well in other respects. Beads of chlorinated water cling to her peachy epidermis. But just when you are thinking that no woman could have a more attractively lopsided contemplative smile than Sue Ellen, her sister Kristin comes back. Kristin has been away. That is why she has come back. In order to come back, she had to go away in the first place. Kristin wants J.R. She and Sue Ellen engage in a lopsided contemplative smile competition.

The third beautiful woman in the cast is the level-headed even though lovely Pamela. For a cattle man who’s had a hard day at the computer terminal, coming home to discover one or more of these ladies lying around the pool sure takes a weight off his mind. Removing his hat would take even more weight off his mind, but there are limits.

‘Dallas’ would have the same basic selling proposition as ‘Charlie’s Angels’ — three gorgeous females who partly disrobe one at a time — if it were not for the additional presence of such weirdo supernumeraries as Lucy, a neckless blonde sex grenade only half as high as everybody else. Miraculously preserved, the elder Ewings hover worriedly in the background. Called Jock and Miss Ellie, they are out of an up-market version of ‘The Waltons.’ In fact ‘Dallas’ is like every American soap opera you have ever seen, all rolled into one and given an unlimited charge account at Neiman-Marcus.

Straining to fill its schedules, commercial television is the underdog at the moment, so perhaps it is worth pointing out that the South Bank Show (LWT) is one programme, at least, which consistently leaves its BBC equivalent looking pale. Since its BBC equivalent at the moment is the ill-starred Mainstream (BBC1) this might not seem much of a compliment, but there is no gainsaying that ITV’s big-budget flagship arts round-up justifies its airtime. People who attack the show as cultural dilution can’t think much of culture, if they think it can be diluted so easily.

Nobody’s reputation gets attacked on the ‘South Bank Show.’ On the other hand nobody’s reputation gets enhanced. What happens is usually a wrap-up, rather along the lines of a Vogue profile. But a Vogue profile can have its uses, especially as an introduction. Germaine Greer was given an episode to expound her thesis about women painters, using as examples the star graduates of the Slade School in the nineties. Brilliantly refuting her own argument, she inadvertently stumbled on the real reason why so few women painters have been geniuses like Gwen John. According to Dr Greer, men painters make women painters neurotic. But the case of Gwen John suggested that only the rare woman is neurotic enough.

Dr Greer narrated the programme in the characteristically vivid style which her book lacks. The programme was consequently an unexpected bonus to her years of scholarly effort in this subject. In another episode, Glenys Roberts (one of the best practitioners in London of the above-mentioned despised genre, the profile) ably interviewed François Truffaut. It can easily be said that Truffaut scarcely needs introduction, but on the whole Melvyn Bragg is right to assume that it is not just good box office but good sense to go on wheeling out the established names. Besides, those with inflated reputations can be relied on to attack themselves. Talking amiable drivel about Gary Gilmore, Norman Mailer scarcely needed close questioning. All Melvyn had to do was sit there, which he did.

Joyce Grenfell’s death gave pause for thought to all who knew her. Between them, she and C. A. Lejeune laid the foundations for this kind of column. When I first came to this country I flattered myself that she took a special interest in my early attempts at writing. Later on I learned that there were scores of us, all thinking of her as our guardian angel. Elegant in all things, she was a great one for economical composition. Her songs and sketches went exactly the right distance and then stopped. She would have had no quarrel with her maker if he felt the same way about her life. Her faith was profound. So was her humour, which was so devoid of malice that some people called her sentimental. She wasn’t. She was just greatly good.

The Observer, 9th December 1979
[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]