Essays: Don't miss the bus |
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Don’t miss the bus

GRANADA’S new mega-budget series Sam is only two episodes along its way, but its virtues are already discernible, and I hymn them at this early stage in the hope of getting you plugged into the show while the characters are still building up. Leave it till later and you’ll be lost.

It’s hard times at t’pit. Little Sam’s dad has done a bunk, leaving him alone with his mother. Surrounded by family — Ethel, George, Polly and grandad Jack, who has been out of work for eight years — they are both involved in a penury verging on starvation. If the Poor Law does you out of six shillings a week, it’s a disaster. At night the household sleeps three to a bed. By day they stand around employing Yorkshire accents. ‘Yow’ll miss boos’ means you’ll miss the bus.

The whole deal is practically a bound-in-buckram prospectus for the kind of television programme that sends me plummeting to the land of Nod. Add to all this the fact that they barely average a laugh an hour, and the formula for unviewability should be complete: unrelieved petty suffering, claustrophobic personality clashes, po-faced moralising and an opulent shortage of action. And yet the show survives and lives.

John Finch has put his autobiographical heart into the writing but there is nothing startling about the lines themselves: his main achievement has been to create distinct characters. The direction has already provided us with some masterly sequences (Dora’s love-scene while hanging up the sheets was filmed with unobtrusive fluency in a few long tracking-shots) but on the whole has that suspect perfection which tended to prettify ‘Country Matters’ — a series made by the same company and in many ways this one’s ancestor, especially with its nostalgic lyricism. (‘Sam’s’ other ancestor, paradoxically, was BBC-2’s ‘Germinal’ — which exported Yorkshire accents to the French coal-fields.) But seeing that the script has allowed for character and that the direction is subtly equipped to pay attention when character develops, the conditions could not be better for the emergence of good acting. And good acting is exactly what has occurred, right across the board.

Michael Goodliffe as Grandad has the unrewarding task of looming about being a model of injured pride and delivering such uningratiating exhortations as ‘Get thee to that school and stick tha nose into them boeks.’ He is, nevertheless, little short of excellent. In a fight with Dora he is goaded into revealing his shame at being made a useless man. The zoom flies in to catch him flinching, but the directing is only the half of it — it’s powerfully economical acting from a man miles deep in the role. Ray Smith as George is good, too, although his job is somewhat easier, George having apparently been singled out by Finch to embody the show’s quota of lovability.

Praise, lavish for the men, must border on the unbridled when it comes to the women, who are already investing their roles with a profundity of sympathy which convinces you that they were never trained in the theatre at all, but gained their experience of life in a profession which had more to offer in the way of humanity. Alethea Charlton as Ethel is a part-time shrike who melts and shines when beloved George comes lurching into the kitchen; Maggie Jones as Polly has a face full of the knowledge of what it is like to exist on nothing at all, instead of on the comparative affluence of not nearly enough; Barbara Ewing as Dora is well embarked on what is bound to be an epic trek to fulfilment.

We haven’t heard much from Sam himself yet, but it’s possible to say that the show’s most obvious fault is in its disinclination to see from Sam’s viewpoint. To a fatherless son, any man of authority looks about 10 ft tall — the ineradicable feeling of being a moral midget shapes the whole of life. Such distortions of eyesight are missing from this production, which is neutral to the point of clinicality. But it contains marvellous things, and I urge you to make a date with it on Tuesday nights.

Heavily committed to Penelope Wilton, Charles Gray and Denholm Elliott, I have tried to wax enthusiastic about Song of Songs (BBC-2), but something keeps going wrong with the wax. The show gets disablingly fixated on what ought to be the subsidiary aim of providing a guided tour around the social structure of alt Wien. Last week we had anti-semitism and a brisk introduction to Gustav Klimt, at the mention of whose name the reactionaries promptly defined themselves by adopting all manner of sneers and emitting all manner of snorts. The familiarity of this was overwhelming.

‘Man of Straw,’ was it? Anyhow, déjà absolutely vu. I watch on for Wilton and particularly the mighty Elliott, who’s having a fine time spitting venom through his fringe.

Part two of the mini series on The Energy Crunch (BBC-1) was laid on by the ‘Tomorrow’s World’ team, who run to intrepid clothes end a tendency to climb up, over or into whatever device they’re talking about, but who had no trouble in concocting a better commentary than the one which echoed portentously over the first programme.

The main theme this time was waste-disposal. The trouble with atomic waste is that it will go on being toxic for as far as we can see ahead. You can only put it down a hole if it’s the right kind of hole. We were shown Cavern Z9, an underground salt gallery where radioactive glop was stashed away for years until somebody decided the place wasn’t safe after all. Whether the stuff already stashed away was then dug up, or whether they contented themselves with just not stashing any more away, wasn’t stated. We saw some spiteful little piece of trash being wrapped in lead, cast in concrete, clad in steel, transported at 0.5 mph on a long low loader, unloaded with a tenter-hook and peeled with kid gloves.

It was then suggested that another way to handle the stuff might be to put it on a rocket and shoot it into space. Well, why not? What could go wrong? One watched the programme in the unshakable certainty that nothing one can do could possibly affect matters in the slightest. One also reflected that the decisive answer to anarchism lies in the glaring fact that it would take a very high degree of organisation to dismantle the technology we’ve got now.

For his cuddlesome bonhomie and heart-warming capabilities in Who Needs a Conductor? (Omnibus, BBC-1) André Previn gets the John Betjeman Medal, with oak-leaf clusters and wreathed smiles. Previn has got so much going for him — erudition, professional eminence, wit, looks and eternal youth — that you suspect him of having access to an elixir. Doyen of a different métier, this character Nastase is supposed to exude a comparable charm, but personally I find his mercurial temperament a pain in the tail. As things stand, we are apparently fated to see him being interviewed every day of Wimbledon, with brief pauses while he wins in straight love sets against an assortment of adolescents and geriatric cases. Great.

The Observer, 24th June 1973