Essays: Strong medicine |
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Strong medicine

HAVING been reduced to well-nigh terminal brain-strain by ‘Condominium: When the Hurricane Struck,’ your dedicated critic took off for a week of sun and surf, which in effect meant seven days spent lying rigid on a beach while wondering what was happening in Flamingo Road (BBC1).

Images of Constance kept invading the helpless mind. Does she use clear lacquer on her teeth? And was Fielding born stupid, or was he driven that way by the endlessly uncoiling metaphors of dreary old Titus? It will be appreciated that this obsessive interior questioning did little to aid recuperation, so that what had gone away leaning on the arm of a nurse came back as a cot-case. Luckily the schedules proved to be even more than usually packed with medicine shows, of which, the most frenziedly informative is Medical Express (BBC1), in which the chief presenter, Chris Searle, carries the plonking style pioneered by ‘Nationwide’ to hitherto un-dreamed-of heights of rococo bravura.

The essence of the plonking style is to put the emphasis on every second or third word in the sentence as if the listener were ten years old and needed to be convinced, with no possibility of misunderstanding, that the house was on fire. In the latest episode, or dose, Chris interviewed a bearded medico called Professor Noel Dilley on the subject of obesity. With Chris plonking away like a piece of road-mending equipment and the logorrhoea-prone Prof giving the impression that he had recently swallowed a generous handful of benzedrine tablets, it was difficult for the viewer to take in what he was being told, but if I understood them rightly, almost any diet counts as a fad diet and fad diets don’t help. The thing to do is to do nothing. ‘The only people who have to worry,’ gabbled the Prof, ‘are the fatties.’ So that took care of that. The Prof and his beard having been wheeled away, Chris signed off by warning you against certain proprietary medicaments: ‘Her face swelled up, and she even started to grow side-burns!’ But there was some consoling advice to send you away happy. ‘One way of easing strain in a tired back is to sit in a rocking chair!

The giraffes were excellent in the first episode of The Flame Trees of Thika (Thames), dramatised by John Hawkesworth from the novel by Elspeth Huxley, with Euston Films supplying the lavish production values, which include Hayley Mills and the giraffes, who are only marginally more stilted than the dialogue. But the lines, however unsupple, should do little to detract from a story with all the inherent attractions of both ‘Where No Vultures Fly’ and ‘Anne of Green Gables.’ Little Elspeth is played by Holly Aird and should prove a magnetic point of identification for children staying up late. Local black extras wear paint and feathers with conviction. Sharon Mughan is about to turn up as a beautiful but mysterious neighbour.

The general idea is to tame the dark continent and grow a lot of coffee. Elspeth’s father, Robin, is staunchly incarnated by David Robb. All he needs is a leopard-skin hat-band and you would be reminded of Anthony Steel saying: ‘Look, darling! No vultures in the sky!’ So far there is an overwhelming air of that especially British, especially modern brand of nostalgia in which one harks back to when things were simple and nobody asked any questions — such as the question of how the black people would react to the appropriation of their land by the white people.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, by reminding you of Southern Television’s fruitful connection with Glyndebourne over the years, made you wonder all over again about how they ever managed to lose their franchise. Blessed with notably graceful sets, this was a production good-looking enough for the camera to get in amongst and search about, although not even the directorial skills of Peter Wood were able to mobilise the essentially actionless action. Instead of combining in duets, the principals tend to sing arias at each other, which leaves the one being addressed with bags of time to fill in. In this case there was a lot of fiddling with bird cages. But Mozart is still Mozart, even when he has not yet written Le Nozze di Figaro. One way or another the line to Glyndebourne must be kept open. 1 can’t think of anything more democratic than to make such excellence so freely available.

Imported from American public service television, Mourning Becomes Electra (BBC2) has survived being broken up into episodes, even though the resulting partitions of time inevitably work against O’Neill’s salient dramatic gift, which is to draw you all the way in and not let you out until every last yard of dirty linen has been thoroughly laundered. The main reason why the piece coheres even in such fragmented form is the binding energy provided by Joan Hackett, who plays Christine in a way that reminds you of what great acting looks like. The thing it doesn’t look like is great acting. It looks like natural behaviour, except intensified in a way the viewer can’t analyse because too enthralled.

‘I think I’m happiest working with a square,’ said one of the Masters of Modern Sculpture (BBC2). Although only one of the sculptors involved seemed to me to have any real talent, all of them were brilliantly successful at talking like their own catalogues. When Michelangelo was frescoing walls and ceilings nobody, least of all the man himself, had anything to say about what he was doing beyond a generalised observation that it looked kind of terrific. Today a man whose idea of art is to arrange six rectilinear concrete elements in a landscape will take time off from his labours to tell you he is ‘involved with structuring a film.’ He isn’t just making something, you see, he’s ‘involved with ... that particular situation ... challenging ... ways of dealing with space ... that particular situation.’ There should be a new deal by which artists who wrap stretches of coastline in polythene get their grants doubled if they promise not to talk balls.

There were a lot of repeats about, not all of them as good as Shoestring (BBC1), which, or whom, the public has understandably taken to its bosom, as a tribute to good stories and a simpatico leading actor. As a reminder of the days when spies were in vogue, Callan ... Wet Job (ATV) brought the prototype sand-bagger back from the stud-farm. With Callan still played by Edward Woodward, this was not, alas, a repeat. If it had been, one might have clucked over it with some fondness. Instead there was an emptily up-to-date story climaxed by the most boring line in television: ‘You set me up, didn’t you?’

Otherwise the screen was stiff with movies, of which the most outrageous was The Eagle Has Landed (ITV), featuring an epic hamming competition between Michael Caine (non-Nazi German war hero) and Donald Sutherland (embittered IRA man redeemed by love for Jenny Agutter). Having already seen this masterpiece in the cinema, I was pleased to be given another look at it, in order to find out whether Oberst Michael Caine really did pronounce ‘Berchtesgaden’ as ‘Burgess garden.’ He really did.

The Observer, 6th September 1981