Essays: Fuzz on the screen |
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Fuzz on the screen

AS ALWAYS there was trouble in other countries, but it was a quiet week domestically. The screen crawled with patrolling cops. Statistics show that most television police emigrate from America and used to be actors: Ironside (Raymond Burr), Madigan (Richard Widmark), MacMillan (Rock Hudson), Cade (Glenn Ford), what’s-his-name in ‘Streets of San Francisco’ (Karl Malden), and now Kojak (Telly Savalas). These, and others so obscure I can’t remember their faces, constitute a pax Americana of dreams. We are importing an ethic which was already a fantasy in its land of origin. The disturbed viewer is left longing for the home brew. Whatever happened to ‘Z-Cars’? Where is ‘Softly Softly’? Bring back Harry the Hawk! I never thought I’d find myself saddled with so square an emotion as pining for the indigenous culture.

But even if the man who makes the pinch comes from outside, the trial still tends to be held here. Justice (Yorkshire) has now finished another series. It will be sorely missed in our house. On Friday nights it always overlapped Ironside (BBC1) by about half an hour. We never punched the button until ‘Justice’ had ended. Anyway it was refreshing, after seeing Harriet through a difficult court case, to switch over and watch the Chief’s team working on a problem which you had to reconstruct while they were unravelling it. This gave the programme an element of unpredictability.

Not that ‘Ironside’ really needs anything beyond its archetypal situations. Fran is no substitute for Eve, whose hairstyles were masterpieces of the metallurgist’s art, but Ed’s jokey interchanges with his lovably gruff boss are still there (some psychopath tried to put Ed in a wheelchair of his own a few weeks ago) and Mark goes on grappling with the eternal problem of wringing a performance out of the two lines of dialogue and five reaction shots he is allotted per episode. (Mark’s two lines are usually ‘I’ll make some coffee’ and ‘Guess I’d better make some coffee,’ and the variations of emphasis he can get into them are like something Beethoven turned out for Diabelli. His situation demands comparison with that of another token black — the one in ‘Mission Impossible’ who gets no dialogue at all, just the reaction shots. All he can do is pose like a corpse in a photo booth.)

Harriet’s excuse for leaving the screen is reprehensible. She has ratted out of the sex war by marrying her doctor. If this means giving up the bar it will be a cruel blow for the feminist cause, not to mention for certain sectors of the James family, by whom she has been applauded devotedly as she runs rings around all those bewigged chauvinists bent on incarcerating her clients. After a hard day of duffing-up opposing counsel and shaking the complacency of fuddy-duddy judges, Harriet would swan back to her chambers and kick her male clerk around the office. The way this pitiful factotum cringed at the sight of Harriet’s crocodile-skin shoe was greeted with a purr of satisfaction from sources close to the present writer.

‘Justice’ is (was?) a fantasy but an interesting one, full of character. The Inheritors (Harlech) is a Wilfred Greatorex mini-series devoted to the clash of generations in a landed family. The wheelings and dealings are more realistic than fantastic, but the realism is drenched with Greatorex’s characteristic brand of wish-fulfilment. Despite every attempt to make the ruthless Lord Gethin into a heavy he still comes out as dead cuddly. (Casting Robert Urquhart in the role did nothing to undermine this process. How could anyone hate Urquhart?) The old boy is even equipped with an adoring young secretary, who may or may not be on the make but whose already wide eyes are dilated to the size of saucers when she contemplates her noble employer’s frail humanity.

Plot-wise, our expectations are turned neatly upside-down: the father is the right-wing radical who wants to evict the tenantry and flog off the mineral rights, while the son is the left-wing conservative who wants to preserve the valley by handing it to HMG in lieu of tax. (The tax-inspector is the most powerful piece in the game, but possesses nothing.) People wise, however, the show is automated throughout. Robots shout at slot-machines and go to bed with androids.

Stiff as it is though, ‘The Inheritors’ can’t fail to win its clash with The Haggard Falcon (BBC2), a dire cloak opera imported at minimal expense from Scotland. There is a soldier of fortune, a mountebank, and, (we are promised) Mary Queen of Scots. You can tell the mountebank from the others because he is even less amusing. The production is enchantingly tatty, with nobody putting a foot right. It ought to be called ‘The Faulty Haggis’ or ‘The Wrinkled Tights.’ There are scenes of roistering and banter in Edinburgh taverns which get me quaking with laughter, they are so superbly boring. Perhaps the series will be repeated in all its magnificence.

Alistair Cooke’s America (BBC1) has been better the second time around. It is still soft in places, but probably nobody else could have held the thing together. Wynford (Harlech) gave us Wynford Vaughan-Thomas talking very interestingly to an invisible John Morgan in the first of three episodes. Further viewing can be recommended with confidence. Pathfinders (Thames) is being repeated, or perhaps it’s just the first time this terrible series has been screened in my area. A very crappy, independently confected package which should have been refused a showing anywhere. Supposedly war-time RAF types run around saying things like ‘You know something?’ and ‘Deep trouble.’ The writers have no historical sense or any other talent worth mentioning, the actors’ time is wasted and the truth is driven that little bit further into the mire of forgetfulness. An Osmond fan has sent me a bed of nails.

The Observer, 25th August 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]