Essays: Fanatic devotion |
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Fanatic devotion

WHISTLING in from Brisbane to Sydney last Friday week on a TAA airbus, I was on the flight-deck beside the pilot flogging him onward, lest I be too late back to my hotel for Miss World, which arrives in Australia after bouncing off half a dozen different satellites.

In 10 years as a television critic I had never missed ‘Miss World’ and nor did I this time, but it was a near run thing. Richard Boston dealt admirably with the subject last week, but you could tell that his was the view of the detached intellectual rather than the experienced fanatic. You have to be able to remember the way Miss Spain almost fractured an ankle in a previous competition if you are fully to appreciate the way the current Miss Venezuela can’t move any distance, no matter how short, without tripping at least twice. Similarly it takes a fond scholarly appreciation of how Michael Aspel used to handle the job of emcee if you want to assess Peter Marshall in the same role. Michael Aspel was an intelligent man pretending to be interested in the surrounding nonsense. Peter is not pretending.

Assisting Peter to marshal the traffic, Judith Chalmers was chiefly remarkable for the way she combined her time-honoured hockeysticks manner (‘What a jolly difficult decision to make!’) with a women’s liberation bodice that was much more up to date, not to say down to earth. Her patter was hardly epigrammatic, but compared with Peter she sounded like Wittgenstein. In fact Peter, if Wittgenstein had ever encountered him, might have inspired the Viennese genius to a third position on the nature of words. Wittgenstein started off by believing that each word meant something. Later on he believed that words meant something only in relation to each other. It never occurred to him that someone could speak endlessly without meaning anything at all.

Yet that is exactly what Peter can do. In all cases except his, the secret of vivid language is to set up a tension between the expected and the unexpected. Nothing Peter says is unexpected. Yet it is all so expected that it startles. When one of the girls comes weaving along the esplanade, Peter says: ‘Yes, she does like to be beside the seaside.’ When another girl leans awkwardly against the hull of a beached yacht, Peter says: ‘Well, it’s hello sailor to contestant No. 4.’

Normally this level of prose is obtainable only in Fleet Street, where experienced journalists, after a few decades of having their brains pickled in alcohol, are allowed to work out their time writing captions for the photographs on page three. But Peter has got there in a single intuitive leap, while still young enough to enjoy his sense of mastery. The young Beethoven, when improvising on the piano, would sometimes laugh at the audience as they sat there petrified by his demonic powers. In just such a way Peter smiles slightly to himself when he thinks of a question to ask Miss Zimbabwe. ‘You like to watch soccer. Ever tried playing it?’

Since the next thing I saw on Australian television was Barbara Woodhouse appearing live on a chat show, there seemed no reason not to get back here as quickly as possible. I arrived just in time to see the last episode of Brideshead Revisited (Granada). Once again I found it very worthy, even estimable, but still inexorably enslaved to the stylistic beauty of the original text. Waugh is the greatest modern master of elision. How can you fill out a scene which he has deliberately compressed to a single line? There is only one answer: awkwardly.

When Julia gets engaged to Rex Mottram, Waugh writes the whole thing down in a few words. ‘So Julia went into the library and came out an hour later engaged to be married.’ Here John Mortimer has no choice but to write some dialogue, since Charles Ryder’s voice-over has already gone on too long. Mortimer is a skilled dramatist, but not even he is up to the task of supplying extra lines for Rex, a character who draws his whole force from being left elliptical. Julia and Rex exchange a few lines indicative of very little. Then Julia comes out of the library while Charles intones: ‘So Julia came out of the library an hour later engaged to be married.’ What lasts seconds on the page has taken minutes on screen. The net effect is to make the series windier than the novel.

It should go without saying that some of the acting is very good. From British actors, who, mainly thanks to regular television work, are in a high state of training, one expects nothing less. But I can’t believe that the principal casting has been either very appropriate on the one hand or notably adventurous on the other. Charles Ryder need not look like Evelyn Waugh, but it is a bit much to make him look like Alan Quartermaine. If Charles looks more aristocratic than the aristocrat, where does that leave Basil?

A really adventurous choice for the character to look like the author, incidentally, would have been Mr Samgrass. John Grillo plays him well, but as Uriah Heep. Actually Waugh was in precisely Samgrass’s position, getting himself well in with the great. He did it with ease, but because of his genius — the thing he valued least in himself. He wanted the gentlemen to take him for a gentleman. Some of them told him that the aristocratic society portrayed in ‘Brideshead Revisited’ was a fantasy, but he didn’t listen, probably because he already knew but preferred the myth to the reality. He knew everything about himself, transmuting his own anguish into the serenity of an art which condenses substance into style and therefore ultimately defies adaptation.

The latest 40 Minutes (BBC2) was all about gorillas in a zoo on Jersey. The starring gorilla was Jambo, billed as ‘the most virile gorilla in the world.’ Looking like a Russian weightlifter in a grey satin leotard plus blue mink bolero, Jambo enjoys enviable success not just at attracting female gorillas but at impregnating them, which is apparently a difficult trick, even for a gorilla. Jambo himself, for all his macho strut, can’t do it alone. He needs the help of Dr Seager, or it could have been Dr Eager, who extracts Jambo’s semen and tests it for fertility.

The process of extraction was the Bad Sight of the Week. ‘Dr Seager has perfected a method of extracting semen from gorillas. He calls it electro ejaculation.’ Jambo was knocked out and examined by the doc. ‘Look at the size of his testicles,’ murmured the probing medico, ‘they really are remarkably small.’ It was also remarked that the size of Jambo’s penis was nothing to write to Africa about.

But Jambo’s humiliation had only just begun. ‘Dr Seager smears a probe with lubricating jelly and inserts it into Jambo’s bottom.’ Ten-volt charges were then transmitted to ‘certain nerves’, a technique which, we were assured, ‘brings about erection’. It worked at least as well as showing Jambo some old eight by ten glossies of Fay Wray. ‘We’ve got full erection here now.’ Dr Seager meant that Jambo had full erection. Up Jambo’s defenceless fundament went the test tube to catch the sperm. ‘During the operation Jambo was to orgasm four times.’ I was to spasm with terror at least twice that many times, but my eyes never left the screen. ‘Unlike chimpanzees the gorilla appears not to masturbate.’

The gorilla is more dignified than the chimp all round. Not only does it not wank, but it keeps most of its genital equipment to itself, instead of wearing its engine externally like an old motor-cycle. In fact the gorilla was a model of decorum until it met man. ‘They’re a very private animal ... a lot of their display to man is bluff.’ But ours to them is in dead earnest. All Jambo does is beat his chest like a set of flaccid bongos and make with the face. But if we threaten to shove a probe up his bum and plug his poor inadequate little dingus into the mains, we actually do it, don’t we? Good old us.

The Observer, 22nd November 1981
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]