Essays: Earnest and the Election |
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Earnest and the Election

IN A MOMENT, My Special Pre-Election Television Round-Up. But first, a glance at some of the normal programmes we found time for last week, a week in which the great parties were shaping up for the most important General Election since the invention of the wheel.

Not wholly stifled even by this apocalyptic phenomenon, telly bravely continued to function. Cedric Messina, fertile producer of classic drama, regaled us with a hitherto neglected confection called The Importance of Being Earnest. The name Wilde rang a dim, cracked bell in the back belfry of my retentive mind. Minor Elizabethan? Restoration wit? Ah yes, fin de siècle fop. Dandy who got done for decadence. Wonder if he could write? Can’t hurt to tune in and check up.

Well, it turned out he could. There were plenty of elegantly shaped scenes whose lines you could ponder the perfection of while dejectedly watching how the means chosen to embody them failed to generate a commensurate style. There were even one or two scenes that generated the style as well, but these, you felt, depended more on the gifts of individual actors than on the producer’s magic touch. Wilde came out of the evening sounding pretty good. ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is, I still think, his one and only really excellent thing.

Despite the standard pieties on the subject, there is no reason at all to be overawed by the film version, which Anthony Asquith directed limply, eking out the dialogue with yawning pauses and leaving the scenes between Cecily and Gwendolen awash with ennui. What the film did have, of course, was the definitive Lady Bracknell. Unfortunately Dame Edith’s performance was destructive as well as definitive: her voice gave her co-authorship in the role, and no one can now speak the part in normal tones without sounding underpowered.

In this production the impossible job was given to Coral Browne. She had previously been memorably good in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan,’ bringing to Wilde an unaffected precision of speech that did something to offset the fustian of his epigrams. This time, though, her uncluttered cool worked against her. She was not outrageous, and Lady Bracknell is: in creating Lady Bracknell Wilde got beyond himself, and Coral Browne has only just got as far as Wilde. But she still would have been the best thing in the cast, if not for a sudden outburst of brilliance in an unexpected quarter — Cecily, for once, was marvellous.

Gemma Jones won’t mind my saying that she found it hard to resist borrowing Joan Greenwood’s pout for Gwendolen, and ought to take as praise the assurance that she put it to much less idiosyncratic use. She was naturalistic. Everybody was. The main reason the show fell flat was that all the principals except one were that and nothing more. The one — whom it would be invidious to single out, and whom I single out without hesitation — was Celia Bannerman. I don’t hope to see a better Cecily. She was poised without archness, modest without coyness, charming without cuteness. She had, for a mercy, not a ghost of a lisp: nor would her nose agree to tilt. She contented herself with merely looking delighted and sounding delightful. When she was on screen the whole thing fairly sang along, and you gladly forgave the inevitable Messiniana. ‘I hope your hair curls naturally,’ she said to Julian Holloway, whom the camera was currently demonstrating to be the man with the straightest hair in the world. He smiled besottedly, and so did I.

Come Dancing (BBC1) and Best In The Ballroom (BBC1) featured appearances by our world Champion ballroom dancers, Richard and Janet Gleave, fresh from their triumphant victory in tho World Championships at Madison Square Garden. ‘Tell me about those World Championships in Madison Square Garden,’ asked Terry Wogan. ‘was it fairly tense?’ Doubtless it is the memory of such profound televisual moments which leads the occasional Richard Gordon to deny Eamonn Andrews’s contention that This Is Your Life.

Meanwhile, in a This-was-your-Reich episode of The World at War (Thames), Albert Speer was doing his by now familiar number. ‘I should have been warned,’ he husked, pre-empting with his abject sincerity your urge to yell ‘you can say that again.’ Himmler’s face sprang its usual surprise — a picture of bee-brained mediocrity that never fails to fascinate. The Volksstürm staggered, limped and toddled out through the Brandenburg Gate to be slaughtered by the Russians. As often in this series when the subject matter embraces politics, the commentary was simplistic.

To make politics plain takes integrity and talent. Devoid of both, the lads in charge of the Tory political broadcast called the ad-men in. The results were the kind of slop you might have expected, with an additional squirt of cynicism to make them look exciting. What the agency wizards lacked in veracity they made up in sneaky cunning. Shirley Williams was quoted in a caption as saying ‘we can’t control world food prices.’ The simultaneous voice-over said she had ‘admitted’ Labour ‘could do nothing about prices.’ Nothing about ‘world,’ you see. This was obviously meant to fool all those people unable to read quickly, who some advertising spark obviously calculates are in the majority.

In contrast, the Labour broadcast was simply drear. Robert Mellish, in a monotone so pentetratingly tedious that it would fell a running deer like a rifle shot, introduced four young Labour candidates. Two of them were men, who were promptly forgotten in the face of the other two, who were not. These were Anne Mallalieu and Helene Middleweek, beauties both, and both television naturals. One’s undivided attention ached to be given. Unfortunately each girl is still at the stage (it will pass after they watch a few playbacks) of getting the hands up into frame so as to illustrate one’s words with meaningful gestures. The result in both cases was a flurry of distraction and a pungent odour of falsity. Typically in a Labour broadcast, there was no one on hand to point out these elementary facts.

The Tories come over as possessing the civic sense of dogfish and Labour give the impression of being as thick as two short planks. Somewhere in the middle, the Liberals get lost in the crush.

Nobody came up last week with a turn to rival the previous week’s discovery (by Gus McDonald, producing a special pre-election World in Action) of the potential comic energy which might be released by bringing Richard Crossman and Sir John Foster into close contact. The first instalment of their tour of the hustings was remarkable indeed, the clichés dripping down either chin as the two retired stalwarts forked up a faceful of the buttered asparagus before plunging onwards in the Rolls. The best we got was Robert Kee on News at Ten introducing some footage of Robert Carr sprinting around his constituency, kissing hands and shaking babies. In its bogusness and irrelevance this spasm of frantic mummery seemed fully appropriate to the times. Switch Off Something — your intelligence, for example.

The Observer, 24th February 1974