Essays: Feeling disconnected |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Feeling disconnected

ON BBC News Tony Benn promised ‘not to disconnect old people until the end of May.’ Which left you to consider the implication that they would be disconnected in June.

In This Week (Thames) another Labour Minister found himself saying equally strange things. Denis Healey did his best to tell Jonathan Dimbleby why a Labour Government, of all Governments, felt it perfectly natural to introduce large cuts in public spending. It was a masterly exercise in advanced communications. Healey was so avuncular that one wanted to spank Dimbleby minimus for persisting with his awkward questions.

One of the awkward questions concerned how many public service jobs would be lost. Healey replied that the expansion in public service employment, coupled with the decline of employment in the manufacturing industries, had been a disaster. Yes, said Dimbleby, but how many public service jobs would be lost? Healey replied that the number of public service jobs couldn’t be allowed to go on growing at the same rate. So how many jobs would be lost? None at all, said Healey: there would be fewer jobs, but nobody would actually lose one.

Whatever Dimbleby did, up to and including physical assault, Healey was never going to admit that anybody would lose a job. The way he swerved around this question while appearing to tackle it front-on was worthy of Wilson himself, confirming him as the natural heir to the leadership.

‘In an hour’s time,’ said the ITV linkman, ‘we’ve got some professional wrestling. But let’s meet some people now who are wrestling... with life.’ Breakdown (Granada), an interesting play by Julian Bond, went out in the ‘Wednesday Special’ slot, which is hardly peak time, but could have meant that a good proportion of the ‘News at Ten’ audience who had been slow to go to bed during the subsequent commercials might have stuck around to watch the start of it. Watching the start was practically a guarantee of staying hooked till the end, since the course of the action was inexorable.

Jack Hedley played Ralph, an insurance broker forced to the edge of breakdown by the pressures of second mortgage, second woman, second mess. Sylvia (the second woman, ably played by Wanda Ventham) woke up in the middle of the night to discover Ralph standing at the window of their high-rise flat, talking of suicide. The following scene was mainly an extraordinarily well-sustained speech delivered by Hedley with the skill the writing deserved. You needn’t have gone all the way to the brink yourself to see that this was just the way someone on the point of a crack-up would talk, if he could talk at all.

Needless to say, Sylvia didn’t quite realise the magnitude of the problem. Nobody ever does, which is why you have to have the breakdown, to tell everyone that it’s not a matter of being reasonable or seeing things in proportion — it’s a matter of getting all the pressures off, now. ‘My poor, poor love. Come to bed,’ cooed Sylvia, but it wasn’t enough. A pair of friends were called in to offer reasonable advice, but that wasn’t enough either. In fact it was that while the friends were talking that Ralph flipped his wig. For Hedley this was the last big scene, since later on he was required to do no more than look dazed. He went spare wonderfully, his mouth going all rectangular like a crying baby’s. Watching him was a rough ride.

Sylvia reluctantly committed Ralph into the care of a blunt but simpatico medico who didn’t talk down either to her or to us, which made him almost unique in screen history. But the pressure of seeing Ralph make no apparent progress soon started telling on Sylvia in her turn, so that she was in a bad way herself by the time he was finally allowed out, with her job in jeopardy and no assurance that the same thing wouldn’t happen all over again. In the last scene she was standing at the window — thus completing a neatly circular construction, without allowing us to think that anything had been resolved.

Bond captured with praiseworthy accuracy the way someone who abruptly finds everything too much retreats to simple decisions and then can’t even manage those. It’s the near-vertical steepness of the gradient that makes the decline so memorable. Unfortunately (and this the play didn’t touch on) letting go is also kind of fun, which is why some unscrupulous people fake it, spoiling the market for the rest of us.

Another worthy production on commercial television was Death of an Informer (ATV), a dramamentary about the death of Kenneth Lennon, which might or might not have had something to do with his having been a police fink. Tom Bell played the leading role in a style redolent of authenticity, deliberately fumbling his lines so that they sounded improvised, which made them sound less like life than ever. This wasn’t his fault — it’s the inevitable consequence of trying to reconstruct reality while being limited to the known facts. Since the known facts always sound like a bad script, the sense of realism has to come from somewhere: you can’t blame the director or the actors for trying to pour it on from a jug.

Cilla (BBC1) was back, in a typically sclerotic show representing Light Entertainment at its most predictable. The star and Jim Dale did some worthless sketch material together, punctuated by the usual vox pops and tired dance routines. The Beeb’s death-wish ran rampant throughout. Similarly with the Freddie Starr Show (BBC2), in which the eponymous mimic was allowed to saddle himself with the usual Light Entertainment format, up to and including the Nigel Lythgoe Dancers.

Parkinson (BBC1) interviewed Fred Astaire and drew a blank. Astaire never answers that question about who was his favourite partner. Knowing this, Dick Cavett once asked: ‘Who was the biggest klutz?’ Astaire didn’t answer that one either, but had a lot more fun dodging it. On Match of the Day (BBC1), Malcolm Allison wore a very silly hat. Was this because he is a very silly man?

The Observer, 22nd February 1976

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]