Essays: Formula for soap opera |
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Formula for soap opera

NOTHING but electronic snow and a low-pitched pfft in the ITV channel. Dark studios. Dead monitors in the control galleries. Spools of videotape rotting in their boxes. The nymphs are departed.

Back at BBC Television Centre, alias Rancho Notorious, the product was moving as usual. In the case of Private Affairs (BBC2), very much as usual. These famous modern love stories must have looked a good idea in outline, but when it comes to the scripts there is not much for the actors to bite on, and they are obliged to spend most of their time coal-heaving the exposition. Scott and Zelda crammed their relationship with each other and with Ernest Hemingway into one day, but still all three spoke clichés instead of quiddities.

Mussolini and Claretta Petacci trailed a few tatters of tragic grandeur but that was scarcely the point — the point being that in real life there was no grandeur at all, since Mussolini in his last days was nothing but a farceur without a theatre and Petacci was a B-girl on the skids. Neither Robert Hardy nor Helen Mirren (especially not her) could play it that low down, even when supplied with dialogue drained as dry of interest as the Pontine Marshes.

Last Friday week’s episode was about Parnell (Eric Porter) and Mrs O’Shea (Geraldine McEwan). This was a great love indeed, and wonderful things must have been done and spoken, but most of them died with the lovers, leaving us with Mr Porter and Miss McEwan running giggling up and down hill or locking fevered eye-balls in the gazebo. Grandiloquence for gravitas; petulance for passion; elocution for eloquence. The formula for soap opera throughout the ages.

Eager as ever to meddle with what works, the Beeb fiddled ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’ out of its accustomed slot to make room for ‘Whatever Happened on the Sixth of June?’ or, as its producer Darryl F. Zanuck preferred it to be called, The Longest Day (BBC1). This monumentally dreadful motion picture is of exclusively clinical interest, being a megabudget fictional realisation of Zanuck’s frustrated wartime efforts to defeat Germany single-handed. As a colonel in the Signal Corps, Zanuck would infest the battle zones equipped with nothing but a Bell and Howell 16 mm. camera, 10 film magazines, an Abercrombie and Fitch sleeping bag, a limitless supply of cigars and a hair-triggered Tommy gun with 120 rounds of ammunition.

Nobody — certainly not the hapless entourage riding in the same jeep — could doubt Zanuck’s fanatical urge to hurl himself at the enemy. What was unusual was that the same urge should still be so powerful in 1960, when he tried to re-create D-Day for 8½ million dollars. A lot of money for a picture, but peanuts for a war. The result, of course, was unreality on every level, with big stars outdoing one another in hamming up their meagre lines of duff dialogue — a Krappy Kameo Kompetition from which Richard Burton surely emerged the winner, although Rommel (‘a coilt sprink of men, ships and plaince’) ran him close. The film saved Fox at the bank, bearing out Max Beerbohm’s observation that blasphemy pays.

Real war is not so neat, even at its most cinematically self-conscious. How the War Ended (BBC1) was a special on the fall of Saigon, fronted by Brian Barron, who was there. In a scene seemingly lifted from ‘Bataan’ or ‘So Proudly We Hail,’ the Little Yellow Men drove their tanks right up to the cameras. But when you got down to it, under those stern masks of determination — they were just ordinary guys! Kids! Not all little yellow men are evil. Some little yellow men are idealists. This was a film with a message.

There was a dead spot in the action, which Zanuck would have cut out. It was a man in shadow saying that he feared the worst: when all the foreign media-men had left, there would be a massacre. The Communist triumph has been civilised so far, a fact which made this chap’s fears seem groundless. But a movie can be true to the moment and still miss the meaning, and it is what will happen when the cameras are gone which will determine the meaning of what we have recently been shown.

A saint who looks like a movie star? Jeez, Darryl — what a concept! Inside Story (BBC2) was about Liz Thomas, a young English nurse who has made her life in Saigon as the protectress of some of the more pitiful human spin-offs from the American presence: teenage junkies, seven-year-old opium smokers and basket-cases of all varieties. Crying, beside a short grave, she asked ‘Why the children?’ As Ivan Karamazov knew, all religious questions are finally reduced to that.

Making due allowance for Miss Thomas’s beauty and my own propensities to romance, I never saw anyone who was so obviously an avatar. The new regime has asked her to stay on, so she will be seeing what happens when the movie is over. One hopes that martyrdom will not be part of her destiny, which is already hallowed enough. Not that she is even slightly sanctimonious — a nice corrective, that, to the trainee nuns in Chastity, Poverty and Obedience (BBC1), earnestly sublimating their self-regard with many a confident reference to the Eternal. ‘Part of the Franciscan thing,’ chirped one keen lass, ‘has been this terrific sense of reverence for Creation.’ Thus drivel penetrates even the cloisters.

The French took every precaution to ensure a dull European Champions’ Cup Final (BBC1). They prepared a bumpy pitch, trained special teams of slow stretcher-bearers, provided a referee and a linesman who could not understand each other, and laid on a camera team with all the wrong lenses. To no avail: the match was still a thriller. Barely was Don Revie’s half-time prediction of victory for Leeds cold on his lips before Jerry counter-attacked in the Ardennes, with von Rundstedt (Franz Beckenbauer) sending his spear-point panzers to wreak havoc in the Allied back areas. Christ, Darryl — it’s raining Krauts! Suddenly the Heinies were everywhere, with the square head of that bow-legged bastard Müller sticking out of the turret of a Tiger IX. At the end of the Longest Night, our troops were back on the beach and wading for the transports. C’est la guerre.

On Midweek (BBC1), Tom Mangold presented an excellent report on the Palestinians, explaining why the PLO are moderates compared to the more serious lads busily rehearsing behind a nearby dune. Eight-year-old children doubled past the camera with drill-sergeants firing live ammo at their feet to harden their nerves. What a time to be alive.

The Observer, 1st June 1975