Essays: Fingers on the trigger |
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Fingers on the trigger

IF only Ronald Reagan’s vision matched his courage. Were he to favour sane gun laws he would go down in history as a great President of the United States. Instead he wants to be a great President of the National Rifle Association.

Every news programme and back-up show ran the footage over and over with freeze-frames at the appropriate points, but really all you saw was how thoroughly the Secret Service men closed the stable door after the horse was gone. They all drew guns and looked around frantically for someone to point them at. Some of them pointed them at one another. One man was suddenly holding the kind of sub-machine gun that looks like a pencil case and can cut a sofa in half with a burst. They were ready to fight an army. Unfortunately the damage had already been done by one young man armed with the next thing up from an air-pistol.

The media reception to this latest assassination attempt showed at least one big advance: there was less talk about psychosis and more about guns. Only Donny McLeod, roving in America for Pebble Mill At One (BBC1), was still striking the old note. Having roved only as far as Boston, he reported over the transatlantic telephone, talking eloquently about the ‘underlying sickness, which is just under the surface of American life.’

But as most of his audience must have guessed, the same underlying sickness is just under the surface of Birmingham life — unless the laws of human nature have been suspended in that one area, it should be possible to trawl up enough murderous nutters within a 10-mile radius of Pebble Mill to mount individual assassination attempts on all current members of both Houses of Parliament.

The difference between the British dingbat and his American equivalent is that the British version is confined to expressing his dementia by means of 16-page foolscap letters written in green ink and tied at the top left hand corner with a bootlace, whereas the American version is carrying a Winchester pump shot-gun, an M-16, two pearl-handled .44 Magnums and a bazooka.

But even though the focus has at last shifted from the supposed sickness of contemporary Americans to the more fruitful consideration that the temperamental quirks they share with other nationalities can in their case be translated into lethal violence at the pull of a trigger, there was still a lot of talk about the constitutional right to bear arms.

TV Eye (Thames) was only one of the back-up news shows to feature articulate Americans ready and able to point out that the framers of this constitutional provision did not necessarily envisage 50 million hand-guns rattling around loose or the Ku Klux Klan equipping itself with armoured fighting vehicles by mail order. All this was well said, but the man who should have been listening to it was fully occupied by his current role, that of an aged gun-fighter staging a miraculous recovery by sheer guts.

There is nothing false about Reagan’s true grit. Far from being too much of an actor, he is not actor enough. That those principles of his might dish us all has just been evidenced by how close one of them came to dishing him. Julius Caesar was a good actor, but Augustus was even better, never making Caesar’s mistake of appearing to be powerful.

To study the career of Augustus is to see histrionics making history. Nor was he the last popular ruler to play a part. One way or another they all did. Indeed it could be said, taking Napoleon and Hitler as extreme cases, that the greatest danger a charismatic leader can run is to forget that he is an actor and start believing himself actually capable of doing the impossible, such as invading Russia. Caesar should have listened to the soothsayer. Reagan had a soothsayer too. Called Tamara Rand, she showed up on all channels in the form of a taped image, which proved that somewhere back in January she had foreseen the whole thing in a psychic vision. Perhaps Reagan didn’t catch her act. Perhaps he caught it and ignored it. Caesar should be a beast without a heart, if he should stay at home today for fear.

An actor who becomes President faces nothing worse than getting fatally shot. An actor who remains an actor must regularly face the possibility of dying while he is still alive. An Actor’s Life for Me (BBC1), which was composed entirely of intercut taped interviews with some of our best actors and actresses, was hag-ridden by anxiety. Even the most robust thespian ego soon reveals itself, by its use of the fear-soaked theatrical vocabulary, to be teetering on the edge of oblivion.

When actors laugh inadvertently on stage they call it corpsing. When they fail to go over, they call it dying. ‘I died the death.’ What no civilian will ever quite realise is that the terminology is accurate. If Tolstoy can’t convince you of how it feels to be Ivan Ilych, try doing a stand-up routine in front of an audience that doesn’t like you.

Denis Quilley had a good horror story about an arrow that was supposed to spring up out of a table and say ‘boing,’ but waited until he had been forced to produce the spare arrow by sleight of hand, whereupon it added catastrophe to disaster by cranking itself very slowly into position saying ‘erk erk erk.’ Quilley was too shy to tell the story of how the trick chair caught him out during the preview of ‘Sweeney Todd.’ Sheila Hancock told it for him. I was there and can vouch for the fact that she didn’t tell the half of it. Freddie Jones spoke well about Dr Theatre — the adrenalin rush that makes you feel you can do anything. Anna Massey and Jane Asher were brave about the necessity to live with the fear of rejection. Denholm Elliott spoke with a touch of the poet. The whole programme was very British, very quiet.

The Academy Awards (Thames) was very American, very noisy. Because of the Reagan shooting the show had been postponed, but not long enough — forever would have been about the right span of time. Robert Redford and Robert De Niro, in other respects formidable men, gave speeches in which it was revealed that they both loved everyone. Henry Fonda managed to retain his dignity, but otherwise it was a mass case of cancer of the personality.

It is an American characteristic not to stop running even after you have arrived. Successful American actors carry on like would-be actors. There is not much difference between them and our beloved MP Geoffrey Dickens, who so rotundly conforms to the gossip columnist’s belief that the proper place for a public figure to lead his private life is in the newspapers. On News at Ten (ITN) Geoffrey explained why he had returned to his wife. ‘I was very conscious of the appeal she made on ITN. I thought that was quite heart-rendering.’ Probably Geoffrey had got what had happened to his heart mixed up with something the builders had done to his house, but the really fascinating thing about this statement was his assumption that grief somehow becomes more real when it is acted out on television.

Even the best actress can’t expect to play good roles all the time. Sarah Badel, quite apart front being lovely to look at, speaks the language in a way that makes a writer glad about his choice of profession, but there aren’t many plays as good as Andrew Davies’s Bavarian Night (BBC1), and not even that one gave her many lines. Under Jack Gold’s customarily adroit direction she emerged very believably as a writer’s wife haunted by the way he turned their life together into raw material. A good topic into which the writing might have gone deeper. Since it didn’t, the main thing to marvel at was Gold’s technique: he gives television the fluency of a movie.

The Observer, 5th April 1981