Essays: Dodging the big one | clivejames.com
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Dodging the big one

EVERY other critic in town has by now completed his preliminary estimation of War and Peace (BBC-2) and quit the examination hall, leaving this writer alone in draughty silence. At this rate people are going to start suspecting that I haven’t read the book. The smell of fear rises damply.

The Big Question stands out on the examination paper in letters of fire. Compulsively I footle with the little questions, half hoping that my sketchy answers will add up to something. It must be terrific to be a Marxist. And even better to be Nancy Banks-Smith: she just came straight out and said she hadn’t read the book. I don’t know much about Yasnaya Polyana but I know what I like — that’s the line to take. Only I have read the book. Except I can’t say that because people will think I’ve read it specially. Jings, Look at the clock. And I haven’t even finished writing about ‘Six Faces.’ Talking about Kenneth More when everybody else is on about Anthony Hopkins. I wonder what Kenneth More would have been like as Pierre. As Pierre Bezuhkov, the legless Russian pilot. Concentrate... That new series, ‘The Pathfinders’ (Thames), has got pilots in it, but they’ve all got legs. Mine have gone to sleep.

Six Faces (BBC-2) has now clocked up two episodes, like ‘War and...’ No, wrong approach. ‘Six Faces’ has now presented us with two of the promised six aspects of its leading character, a worried businessman played by Kenneth More. More has never been among my favourite actors, first of all because of his unshakeable conviction that the expletive Ha-ha! delivered straight to camera conveys mirth, and secondly because be has not done enough to quell the delusion, prevalent among the populace of the Home Counties, that he was responsible for the defeat of the Luftwaffe in 1940. Nevertheless, he is very good in this series, using a certain crumpled puffiness, or puffed crumpledness, to hypnotic effect: the complex pressures working even in sheer plodding ordinariness have rarely been better registered, and the series already bids fair to leave us pondering on all the weary little ways a salesman meets his death.

The production values, under the control of Stella Richman, are first grade. The use of locations in the first episode, set in Milan, was a perfect complement to the unobtrusively literate writing of Julian Bond and the invisibly expensive camera work of Alastair Reid, who had been allowed to budget for dolly-shots instead of the usual tripod set-ups that make TV film-sequences look so constricted. The second episode, with Zena Walker nobly assisting More in his task of imitating an apple flan reaching critical mass, stuck to studios but still looked great. It’s a pleasure to salute an effort that rings so solid. But we’ll need the other four faces before deciding whether it cuts deep.

Cobbett’s Rural Rides (BBC-2) was an engaging programme featuring Donald Bisset as Cobbett and Christopher Brasher as a man with large specs who keeps bursting into shot to provide glosses, asides, expositions and free lessons in the art of stressing every single component of an English sentence until it becomes so clear you can’t understand it. Nevertheless, Brasher fits the format like a dream, and the programme couldn’t lose. ‘Poverty,’ announces Cobbett, ‘leads to all sorts of evil consequences.’ Plenty of permanent relevance there. The unselfconscious crispness of language was a pleasure, like the shots of Bisset riding through the sky on a concrete bridge joining two pieces of old England sundered by the motorway.

Farewell to the excellent Betjeman In Australia (BBC-2), another can’t-lose proposition from the moment Sir John’s adorable bonce first emerged from a clump of fern. In the final episode he was on about the splendours of St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane and the State theatre in Sydney — marvellous commentary, delighted and delighting. He rhapsodised over Brisbane’s nightscape as if it were Pompadour’s garden of china flowers. His effect on Australia’s consciousness of its past must already be considerable.

I’ve been working for Granada lately and feel honour-bound to bitch the living daylights out of a few of their programmes, just to keep the books balanced. Soon, perhaps. For the moment, there is nothing for it but to go on praising World in Action, which last week ran the story of David Knight, a young tearaway who got sent down in 1965 for pinching the Colenso Diamond from the Natural History Museum. After three years in the Scrubs Mr Knight was still claiming he’d been framed by the two policemen whose word the jury had taken against his. There was a disturbing question here about whether anybody should be locked up on a policeman’s say-so. The question was duly pondered, with special reference to the extra powers of conviction the police now seek. John Shepherd and Richard Martin produced this fine programme, with the subtly expressive Doug Fisher filling in for David Knight in the reconstructions.

Controversy has now finished. By and large it proved the point that close, informed argument on special subjects can be of intense interest to the layman. The final topic was mental illness, with the suave Dr Szasz persuasively contending that treatment should be given only on request. Dr Szasz was a demon in the tight corners. A psychiatrist in the audience said he knew of a professor of psychiatry who told his colleague he was entering a suicidal depression and asked them to give him ECT. They didn’t, and he killed himself. This was obviously meant to prove that treatment should be imposed, but Dr Szasz was in like a shot: the treatment was so drastic that the psychiatrist wouldn’t dream of giving it to a colleague. Strictly for patients!

The Incredible Robert Baldick (BBC-1) stars Robert Hardy as the Incredible, and should rate like mad: it’s a kind of take-home Hammer film wrapped in silver foil. The well-heeled hero is a piece of nineteenth-century fuzz dedicated to fighting evil in its more occult manifestations. He steams about in a special train — which should add the railway nuts to the horoscope consulters and swell the ratings even further. Precociously democratic, the Incredible has a pair of polymath servants who ask, ‘Doctor, what are we up against?’ and when he answers, ‘All in good time, all in good time’ gaze at him in worship instead of crowning him with the fire-tongs.

Mrs Warren’s Profession (BBC-2) showed that Coral Browne is as good at Shaw as ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ proved she was good at Wilde. Other actresses, among whom Maggie Smith shall be nameless, should take a long look and painlessly absorb a few hints on how not to go over the top on the tube. The Millionairess (BBC-1) would have benefited from a bit less irrepressible theatricality in the title role. To complete this round-up of recent drama, let me say that I saw Peer Gynt (BBC-2), thought the updating was a pain in the eye and the Hiawathan trochaic translation a pain in the ear, and feebly wished that the wonderful Colin Blakely had been appearing in, say, ‘Z-Cars’ instead.

Speaking of which, last week’s Z-Cars (BBC-1), did a needle-sharp job of setting up a promising new character — a busy, mess-making inspector who spreads entropy wherever his inquiring hooter intrudes. This gives the regular bobbies a chance to philosophise on the qualities of a good policeman. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Sgt Stone is a very good policeman. Still on the same subject, Softly, Softly (BBC-1) had a good week, too — just at the right time, because the current run has had the fidgets in a big way, quite apart from the transcendental foolishness of equipping Harry the Hawk with a love-life. (He’s supposed to have a cape and a boy assistant, why don’t they realise?)

Even when P.C. Snow just stands there thinking about Zen archery he’s got more dasein than anything else on television, so it was doubly moving to find him supplied with a beautifully written episode (by Stewart Alexander) which at last made sense of his telepathic relationship with dogs. I wonder if they asked Snow to try out for Andrei Bolkonsky. He looks like he could fly a plane, too. Seems to bend his legs in the normal way. God, the bell’s ringing.

The Observer, 8th October 1972

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]