Essays: The fantastic voyage |
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The fantastic voyage

IN THE continuously astonishing Voyage of Charles Darwin (BBC1**), a couple of hundred thousand giant lizards, few of them members of Equity, have been doing walk-ons, or rather glide-ons.

For the animals, birds and fish of the Galapagos Islands, where not a lot happens, the arrival of the Beeb’s film unit must have been the biggest event since Darwin himself made the scene. No wonder, then, that they have shown themselves to be such keen performers. Out of the dressing room and on to the set in less time than it takes the assistant director to lift his loud-hailer, they are ready to fight, run, fly, dive, eat, drink and make love without a single tea-break. Apart from one iguana who looks a bit like Corin Redgrave, there is not a trouble-maker in sight.

A rape scene starring two giant tortoises, one of each sex, was particularly effective. Perhaps objecting to the male’s unduly abrupt style of courtship, the female zoomed away at top speed, which looked to be something like a mile a week. Not to be thwarted, the male, who had the general bearing of a Playboy Club key-holder, howled off in pursuit.

It was the work of an epoch for the male to close the gap, but eventually he caught the female. His next task was to mount her. After about an era they were in business, like two Minis one on top of the other. The actor playing Darwin looked on enthralled, just as Darwin must have looked on enthralled — perhaps at the same pair of tortoises, since they live a long time.

Little on the Galapagos Islands has changed. The simple, powerful idea which made possible this most wonderful of all nature series was exactly that — that nothing in these places had changed, and that all you had to do was go there. Another powerful idea was to use Darwin’s clear and rhythmic prose to link the narrative. Such inspired notions seem easy to hindsight, yet they spring from the rarest kind of creative imagination. A vast amount of painstaking generalship has gone into the details of this great production, but the secret of its success lies in that first, impossibly ambitious supposition of what might be possible. The BBC has every right to be proud.

Whether the BBC will get a chance to be proud of its Shakespeare enterprise is more doubtful. Destined to come up with brand new productions of all the Shakespeare plays over the next six years, the Bardathon got under way with Romeo and Juliet (BBC2). Since the Zeffirelli movie of the same play still stands, with all its faults, as one of the most satisfactory filmed realisations of a Shakespeare text, it might have been smarter to start with something else, and thereby avoid comparisons.

Verona seemed to have been built on very level ground, like the floor of a television studio. The fact that this artificiality was half accepted and half denied told you that you were not in Verona at all, but in that semi-abstract, semi-concrete, wholly uninteresting city which is known to students as Messina, after the producer of the same name. A glance at the credits in Radio Times confirmed the suspicion that Cedric Messina was indeed the man in charge, but this did not mean that the director, Alvin Rakoff, would be entirely without responsibility. Indeed it soon became clear that Messrs Messina and Rakoff were made for each other.

The Trevor Nunn production of ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ should have shown everybody that the way to get the effect of wealth with a television budget is to shoot tight on the actors; use a few good props; and keep the background darkly suggestive. But in Messina the lesson was never learned. So here once again was the supposedly teeming street life, composed of an insufficient number of extras dutifully teeming as hard as they could. All the perspectives were evenly lit, as if specifically to reveal their poverty of detail. The eye went hungry, which made the ear ravenous.

Unfortunately there was not much worth listening to. As the Chorus, Gielgud set standards of speaking which none of the youngsters in the cast could even begin to match. In his opening fourteen lines he showed how the pentameter needs to be both analysed and integrated, so that its formality and its freedom are alike revealed. ‘From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life...’ Ten beats, five in each line, with the line break barely observed but definitely not missed, and the word ‘lovers’ picked out at the zenith of the rhythmic curve. All it takes is talent and application. In 1953 Gielgud played Romeo opposite Ashcroft’s Juliet. Imagine how terrific they must have been.

Anyway, Patrick Ryecart and Rebecca Saire looked fetching enough in the title roles. Both spoke cleanly, but neither gave the sense of having spotted the difference between prose and blank verse. They didn’t murder the poetry: they merely ignored it. In the long run Mercutio’s approach was preferable. He did murder it, breaking every line up into tiny, twitching pieces. ‘O, then. I see. Queen Mab. Hath been. With you.’ He was. Enough. To drive. You mad, but at least he had the virtue of demonstrating, by getting it so wrong, that Shakespeare’s verse is something that has to be got right.

The first in LWT’s new series of Alan Bennett plays, Me, I’m Afraid of Virginia Woolf, was one word too long in its title but otherwise perfectly judged. ‘In the entire history of the world,’ said the author on voice-over, ‘Hopkins could recall no one of note who had been called Trevor.’ The scene was Halifax, where it was Trevor’s fate to conduct doomed night-school seminars about Bloomsbury and put up with his mother, who relentlessly talked the kind of banalities which Bennett overhears in bus shelters and writes down in his famous notebooks.

‘Course I’d have been educated if I’d stopped on at school,’ observed Trevor’s mam. Trevor had no response except to disintegrate even further, showering himself with dandruff. A terrible girlfriend loomed. He fell in love with a male student. On the blackboard, Virginia Woolf’s fastidious profile was like a signal arriving from a star long dead. Stephen Frears directed with his usual touch.

In New York briefly last week, I turned on the television when I woke up and found Nixon talking at the Oxford Union. My sleepy puzzlement about how I had managed to go there in order to watch him talking here was dispelled by a sudden, glowing rage at the effrontery of the man. He clearly imagines himself to be on the come-back trail. Luckily for the country whose constitution he subverted, he seems to be little better now than previously at choosing his allies. With Lord Longford helping him, he has no chance.

The Observer, 10th December 1978

[ ** BBC2 ]

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]