Essays: Gymnastic kitsch |
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Gymnastic kitsch

CONSIDERING the difficulty which Jews experience getting out of Russia, it is a sad irony that the medley of tunes to which the Soviet gymnastic squad is currently performing should include the theme from ‘Exodus.’

The Russian gymnasts were at Wembley for a bout of International Gymnastics (BBC1). In holiday mood, they were out to display their skills. It rapidly became clear that when the fetters of strict competition are removed and the imagination is left free to expand beyond the rule-book, the result is not more of the aesthetic thrill we have come to expect from this most nearly beautiful of art sports, but less.

Most of the untrammelled lyricism on display was pure kitsch. The floor exercises — always prone, even under competition rules, to infection by Bolshoi choreography — erupted into epileptic fits of tweeness. There was a lady who did things with a hula hoop, rather like a slave-girl routine in some fifties Hollywood re-make of ‘The Thief of Baghdad.’ (A thesis could be written on how the styles set by American film musicals filter through Russian culture two or three decades later, so that the Panovs emit faded echoes of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, while the Red Army ensemble dances ghostly memories of ‘West Side Story.’) Later on the same girl, or another one just like her, did the same things, or other things just like them, with a ribbon on a stick.

The commentary was mainly by Ron Pickering, whom I won’t taunt, since his strivings towards verve were at least more original than anything that was original in the arena. You saw what he meant, or hoped you did, when he announced that the ability of the Russian male gymnasts to perform so many double leg swings on the pommel horse was ‘all about total body tension and rigidity in the lower parts.’

The Naked Civil Servant (Thames) was written by Philip Mackie, produced by Barry Hanson, directed by Jack Gold, and based on the memoirs of the self-proclaimed exhibitionist homosexual Quentin Crisp, who was impersonated in exemplary fashion by John Hurt. It was quite the best thing to have appeared on television since the last thing Jack Gold did, which in turn was probably the best thing since the thing he did before that.

Allowing for the fact that the script had faultless tonal judgment and made a nail-biting story-line out of ordinary chronological progression, you were still left with the salient truth that Jack Gold has a command of naturalism which gives reality the vividness of a dream. His technique is so fine that it takes an effort of will to detect it, but once you start to analyse it there is no end. There was a scene in the Black Cat café, where Quentin and the rest of his effete bunch were set upon by some roughs, which was shot with such economy of visual means and such a wealth of attention to the acting, that the viewer found it hard to tell why he was afraid, there was so much aggravation going on, and yet so little happening. It was violence in essence, with not a punch thrown.

Without setting out to be grand, the programme found all kinds of grand themes accruing to it, as grand themes will if a true story is well defined. Quentin guessed, and at length proved, that his longing for a ‘great, dark man’ was doomed to frustration. Sex left him alone but not degraded, which I suppose is the best one can hope for, anything else being a bonus. The homosexual’s life was not sentimentalised, but it was not caricatured either, and you could see that Crisp was a kind of hero, a mainstay as well as an entertainer, whose queer friendship in the long run was at least as valuable as normal love to those who knew him.

The Good Life (BBC1) is by now clearly established as the best Nice Couple sitcom on the screen, partly because Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal are a genuinely Nice Couple, but mainly because of the inspired interference from their snotty neighbour, Margo. The Nice Couple have gone back to nature, a move which Margo fears will label them as defectors from their class and diminish property values in the immediate vicinity.

A meticulously groomed, flint-profiled ball-breaker with a taste for leopard-skin prints, Margo is the repository of every known prejudice common among the landless landed gentry — as bigoted as Alf Garnett but without his flexibility. Penelope Keith plays the role with just the right flare of nostril, plus a hint of inner fire which lends credibility to Margo’s admission that she was hot for Duncan Sandys when she was young. Is Margo a closet raver?

World About Us (BBC2) showed the runners of Kenya, who start young, drink blood to eke out their porridge diet, and never see a proper Tartan track until they come abroad. They seem to win all the time, however. Ron Pickering (he’s everywhere) was keen to find the reason. To the lay eye, the uncanny fluency of the Kenyans had little to do with total body tension and rigidity in the lower parts, but you never know.

The Nearly Man (Granada) wheezed to a close. Perhaps I have been unfair to it, but I still found it hard to care about the hero. At the end he was supposed to be getting his desires in line with his abilities, and ‘the uneasy alliance between he and his wife’. (I quote the TV Times, who have apparently given up on the English language and started to speak something else) was presumably fated to stagger on.

Arthur Hopcraft’s attempt to write about failure was admirably ambitious, but doomed to fail on its own terms, since one was never convinced in the first place of the potential which the hero squandered in the second. John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey (Play for Today, BBC1) said a lot more about what it is like to be second-rate and given to self-delusion. Leo McKern had a fine time as the orotund hack barrister whose central love of the law was a kind of salvation.

Love’s Labour’s Lost (BBC1) looked as if it was taking place in the garden of a Cambridge college. The costumes were Ghirlandaio-goes-to-Glyndebourne: slinky legs, baggy sleeves, tight bottoms and wan cod-pieces. As Berowne, Jeremy Brett was the best thing in it. He is a speedy speaker, but needs to watch his eyebrows, which tend to camp it up on their on account, especially the left one. The horses were ill-rehearsed and one of them crapped on camera. The lads barged around composing verses in the forest glades and manfully pretended not to notice one another, which was just acceptable as carefree production, but the masked encounter with the ladies was ridiculous, since you couldn’t tell which of the men was which. The play has its moments but it makes you hanker for Beatrice and Benedick, who are Berowne and Rosaline with the actuality of wit, and not just the claim.

Last week’s episode of the level-headed Spirit of the Age (BBC2) had Patrick Nuttgens dealing with the Arts and Crafts movement. The coverage of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art was particularly good.

The Observer, 21st December 1975