Essays: With Whicker in a gay world |
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With Whicker in a gay world

AT the Albert Hall (Show of the Week, BBC2) a lucky spectator managed to grab himself a kiss from Diana Ross without getting totalled by the Tamla muscle-squad. It was the show’s one surprise. As Diana swanned onward with her superstar routine of doling out songs in fragments while interspersing them with coy raps about love and faith, you lusted for the days when all she did was front the greatest chick vocal trio ever to emerge from Detroit. Supremes! Come back to us.

Whicker came back instead. The deplorable Mr Television was heavily manifest, with two episodes of his new series (Whicker Way Out West, Yorkshire) rolling on successive nights, and miraculously revealing a changed man. The rock-drill treble was well in check, his questing tone verging at times on the dulcet, perhaps even the compassionate. In the first programme there was a lot to be compassionate about. Called ‘The Lord is my Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay...’ it dealt with homosexuals in California. A couple of them got married in front of the camera. Thirty of them were burned to death in a church sabotaged by vigilantes. An eloquent gay cleric, the Rev. Troy Perry, spoke the irrefutable case for liberty, and if you could allow for the histrionics of the American preaching tradition his memorial service for the slain was deeply touching. Whicker didn’t sound too convinced by the argument that hetero- and homo-sex are just two different kinds of ice-cream, but in his new incarnation he tactfully forbore to hammer the point. As always, the American experimenters came over as weird and brave in equal proportions. The show ended with a close-up of a burned body, to remind you that the truly sick man is the one who reacts to homosexuality with a flaming sword.

A quick gargle and Whicker was back on the air with another show, called, with equivalent succinctness, ‘I like to think I’m nearer to God than Frankenstein...’ and dealing with yet another experiment in the same laboratory — Californian plastic surgery. More in the realm of choice than the lap of fate, the goings-on were comic rather than tragic and more hilarious than not. People with ugly noses who wanted to get them fixed and who had the money to get them fixed got them fixed. Nothing objectionable there. A surgeon in a funny hat bobbed their probosces and built up their receding chins while Whicker kibbitzed mellifluously over his shoulder.

This same surgeon has apparently rebuilt his wife more or less completely, lowering her ears, expanding her chin, uncovering her eyes, and employing the spare tissue thus gleaned as packing for a brand new pair of mildly boosted counterfeit bazooms. Her hips are next on the schedule for development. Possibly the required meat could be obtained from her head: piping at the fascinated Whicker over her dummy Bristols, she didn’t seem very alert to her position as a prototype android. Her husband, she revealed, had already done an extensive apronectomy on her mother. Mother sprang forward at this point to display a tum-tum as flat as a frozen lake. With muted cries of Why not? Whicker faded under the titles.

The second and last episode of China (BBC2), starring Magnus Magnusson and William Watson, was as informative and gorgeous as the first, but left big questions unanswered. Art ran the gamut from the Taoist to the Maoist, with a 56 ft cave statue of Buddha forecasting the heroics of a future century. The T’ang had horses that could dance to music. A 17-year-old princess who suicided on a point of honour was buried in a pyramid, which MM and WW descended into, discussing the loose morals of eighth-century girls. The Empress Wu’s pyramid has not yet been entered. Undoubtedly it will be a bonanza. The Empress Wu, said WW, killed thousands of her subjects. MM, who had obviously been mugging up the subject at night while WW slept, said that he found it hard to love a woman who used to chop off the arms and legs of people incurring her displeasure and slowly pickle the remainder. WW said she had redeeming features. Perhaps she gave them a blindfold and a cigarette.

Pygmies in the vastness, MM and WW entered the Forbidden City. The Courtyard of Supreme Harmony, the River of Golden Water. Chi’en Lung had a European-built clock with a robot periwigged Englishman who still paints delicious Chinese ideographs. This, like every other revelation, looked astonishing. The two ‘China’ programmes did everything except deliver the promised clarification of the present in terms of the past. It was pointed out that Mao thinks Confucian thoughts rather than Buddhist, but that was all we were told. The Empress Wu had a peer for savagery in Chiang Kai-shek, but Mao’s record leaves both of them looking like Quakers. We were led to assume that the hive-mind of revolutionary China is a natural phenomenon rather than a willed creation. Perhaps that was the price of getting the cameras in. Justified? In view of the fabulous art-works, which are eternal, I’d say yes.

The Brontës of Haworth (Yorkshire) has made a promising start. Christopher Fry has done the script, humbly reinforcing his own articulate prose with lines taken direct from the archives. I see from Winifred Gérin’s book on Emily, for example, that Charlotte’s speech about Emily’s unhappiness at the school has been adapted from Charlotte’s own memoir of her sister, written years after the event. The whole project has the distinction of careful thought and is better than merely opportunistic research. Not only does the wind faithfully blow through Haworth, but the visual techniques dextrously befit the mood: all the colours are squeezed far down, yielding flesh-tones like wax and Gothic ivory, greys like steel, greens like cabbage, air like sepia. The girls are finely cast for their acting, with Emily (Rosemary McHale) subtly telegraphing her doom. Michael Kitchen as Branwell is a cup on a table’s edge: one of the few among our young actors who can keep pace with the actresses, he will make Branwell’s early demise doubly regrettable. A prey to the episodic stumbling of its unplotted realism, this series nevertheless looks to be a superior job all round. Jane Eyre (BBC2), with Sorcha Cusack, is just the usual identi-kit classic serial.

The Observer, 7th October 1973