Essays: Flashing frost-bite |
[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]

Flashing frost-bite

THE big deal of the week was nude bathing at Brighton. The sky was the colour of washing-up water, the sea was the colour of what floats on top of washing-up water, and the news crews were out in force to immortalise the bravery of anybody who cared to defy the elements with nothing but a birthday suit to stave off death by exposure.

Scarcely anybody did, but by the end of the short, freezing day there were enough takers for the television channels to shoot an item each. From the resulting output you could read off an exact measurement of the inhibitions, or lack of them, obtaining in each organisation. On News at Ten (ITN) a naked man came limping and shivering out of the sea to tell the camera what a terrific time he was having. He was visible down to a line drawn about half an inch above what would probably have turned out to be, if we had been allowed to see it, a frost-bitten cashew. On Newsnight (BBC2) another man was to be seen doing the full flash. He was about a mile and half from the camera, but you could tell he had no pants on, unless some manufacturer has recently come up with a line of trunks in subdued shades of potato juice blotched with purple.

Nude bathing, one fears, is destined not to be a British thing. What Britain does best is horses. A case in point was the Grand National (BBC1), or ‘Sun Grand National’ as it is officially known. ‘The Grand National,’ David Coleman informed us, ‘is, of course, sponsored by the Sun, as is the next race ...’ The proprietors of a certain newspaper got their money’s worth. So, to be fair, did we. It was a tremendous race, with four finishers out of thirty starters, so that by the end there were far more BBC commentators than horses. At the start there were merely a few more.

Before the race the top jockeys relax by talking to David Coleman. They smile to themselves, as one does when one is dressed in a funny hat and then suddenly meets a man dressed in a hat even funnier than one’s own. David’s special racetrack hat is a great loosener of tension. His opening question is invariably about the horse. ‘Hooray Sod is a bit of a family pet at home, isn’t he?’ ‘Yeah, the governor still rides ‘im eventin’.’ The next question usually focuses on the jockey’s recent injuries. ‘That bone ... you’ve suffered?’ ‘Yeah. Bit of a boogah.’

The next bit is the race itself. Nothing about it is predictable, except that a lot of horses will crash and that The Pilgarlic will not win. Towards the telephoto lens they all come thundering, as if the course were a terrace of rice paddies. A jockey hits the ground and rolls carefully into the path of every horse available. Far out in front, an American amateur is in the lead, challenged only by a loose horse. A loose horse is any horse sensible enough to get rid of its rider at an early stage and carry on unencumbered.

The American wins and is regaled with the big prize — a long interview with David Coleman. ‘It was a thrill. There’s nothing like it. Great thrill. Great thrill.’ There is modesty to go with the enthusiasm. ‘I happened to be a passenger today on the horse that was the best of the day.’ The Sun Grand National is over for another year. Nude bathing cannot hope to compete, although aggressive sponsorship might help to transform the picture. There could be a prize for what the cold sea does to the lower regions of the average male. The Everest Double Glazing Chilled Acorn Competition. The Birdseye Frozen Foods Jelly-bean Puissance.

Occupying a whole evening on BBC2, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia was a gas. Short of money, the designer was thrown back on improvisation, with excellent results. Some of the costumes, in particular, looked marvellous. For once Anne Howells was given clothes worthy of her captivating looks. Usually there is a very British conspiracy to weigh down this telegenic mezzo with a load of unlovely schmutter, thus to offset the advantages conferred on her by nature. This time she was allowed to strut dynamically about in highly becoming velvet pants-suits plus Renaissance accessories.

Joan Sutherland was clad monumentally in outfits that fully occupied any part of the set she happened to be parked in. This worked especially well in the climactic scene when the back wall flew up to reveal Lucrezia stashed behind it. The look of the thing matters: with musicians of such high calibre one expects everything to sound good, but if it doesn’t look good, then the whole thing is a step back, since there is no point in televising an opera performance if the main result is to turn off the punters.

Somewhere in the middle of a marathon Agatha Christie mystery called Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (LWT) I had to go to Paris. Arriving in my hotel room just in time to switch on the American Grand Prix live from Long Beach, I watched the cars fall apart while the French equivalent of Murray Walker did his chose. But all the time a question was nagging me: Why didn’t they ask Evans? Back in London, I switched on my new Japanese miracle VCR that watches three channels at once and writes my column. Alas, it had failed to discover why Evans had not been asked. Instead, it had made me a cup of coffee. Obviously I had pushed all the wrong buttons.

After a desperate search I gained access to the relevant cassettes, and settled down to a further two hours of viewing which would surely yield an answer to the question of why Evans had not been consulted. Eventually all was made plain. As with all Agatha Christie’s stories, there was no hope of sussing the plot. The old dear cheated like mad.

‘Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?’ was filled with glaring impossibilities. People imitated each other’s voices, etc. But it was all highly enjoyable, once you accepted that the idea was to wallow in what you could not swallow. Nonsense has rarely been so well dressed. The clothes, cars and aeroplanes were all solidly in period and a treat to look at. You could feast your eyes on them while the characters got on with wondering why no inquiries had been directed at Evans.

At the centre of the sumptuosity, Francesca Annis was her radiant self, plus an upper-class accent and a limitless wardrobe of silk suits. Everybody in the cast had a good time, the directing was done with a light touch and only a curmudgeon would have objected that it took so long and cost so much money to find out why Evans had not been subject to interrogation.

The Observer, 6th April 1980
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]