Essays: Hamming it up |
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Hamming it up

RAPE bulked large on the week’s television, producing ructions which are discussed at length elsewhere in the paper, so I will confine myself to entering a dissenting view about the episode in question of the series Police (BBC1). As interrogators, the policemen concerned seemed to me more guilty of ham than of harassment.

Last week I was careful to make clear that as the father of small daughters I consider rape a bad thing. (Several letters from feminists have arrived asking why I should think my feelings relevant, when what counts is the way women feel.) But having a false charge hung on you is a bad thing too. Hence the legal difficulties raised by rape, in which the defence is often obliged to attack the plaintiff’s character. In this television programme the police were doing, perhaps not as adroitly as they might have, precisely what the defence would later do if the case came to court.

Media indignation was high all week because a woman whose face had been cut to pieces was too sick to testify, whereupon three men were let go who might otherwise have faced charges. This was horrible, but for people to be hauled into court on a mere say-so would be no less disturbing. There is always an abundance of plausible nutters with time on their hands. Histrionic tendencies are more universal than is often allowed. Why, for example, did Thames Constabulary allow cameras on the premises?

Something else we should be slow to believe in is the fly-on-the-wall theory, by which it is claimed that people can forget the presence of a camera and behave normally. People never forget the presence of a camera: they just get better at pretending it isn’t there. The natural, unselfconscious thing to do when there is a camera about is to look straight at it. If people don’t do that, then they are either being filmed unawares or else they are acting. Many documentary directors will tell you this isn’t so, but take it from someone who has come to terms with the ham in his own nature.

Most gripping new series is undoubtedly Airline (Yorkshire), starring Roy Marsden and his large shoulders, plus at least one refurbished DC-3. Ruskin Air Services is struggling to get off the ground after the Second World War. Flying the odd cargo of black market eggs from Ireland helps pay the bills. Ruskin, an erstwhile sergeant pilot in the RAF, was educated in the ways of smuggling by a well-connected officer, played by Anthony Valentine. The well-connected officer would have provided a rich instigation to class warfare had he survived, but unfortunately he flew into the side of a house at the end of the first episode. Chippy Ruskin is thus left with not much to react against, but it is still fun to watch him get ahead. You find yourself pulling for him as for Sir Freddie Laker.

Muck and Brass (Central) is also about getting ahead, and once again you can’t help pulling for the hero, even though this time he is a thoroughly bad hat, name of Craig. Played by Mel Smith of the ‘Not’ squad, Craig looks pretty bad even without the hat, since Mr Smith would be the first to admit that he is not Cary Grant. Craig is a scruff. But he radiates energy.

For years the town Craig inhabits — it is somewhere in the Midlands and everyone talks with a rising inflection — has been corrupt. Craig wants his fair share of the corruption. He is indignant about how the councillors have been fixing deals with the big contractors and shutting out small contractors like himself. He will change all that. His ethnic assistant, played by the suavely sinister Darien Angadi, cooks the books. The whole town is on the fiddle. Some of the finagling is too complicated to follow, but while trying to figure it out you can always wonder what colour Craig’s underpants must be. A sort of bluish grey, probably, with potato shoots.

Doing its best to get the haircuts down to the proper length, ‘Airline’ still suffers from anachronistic dialogue: nobody said ‘No problem’ in 1946. In ‘Muck and Brass’ it goes without saying that the haircuts are authentic, especially Craig’s, which has obviously been washed in used bath-water. As for the dialogue, it sounds convincingly idiomatic and presumably the inflections are rising at the correct angle. But if you want to hear how the use of language can be the making of a series, the re-run of Porridge (BBC2) is the show to watch.

Those scripts by Clement and le Frenais were gold in every molecule. ‘Her flat fell through.’ ‘Fell through to the flat beneath, I expect.’ When you recover from laughing at the way Ronnie Barker delivers it, you realise that a lot depends on how the writers wrote it: the word ‘beneath’, in particular, is perfectly chosen and placed. Years from now, when all those semi-documentary, semi-improvised, semi-truthful epics about working-class rebellion have dated hopelessly, the work of Galton and Simpson and Clement and le Frenais will still be there to testify that there really was such a thing as common speech with a rhythm of its own.

The archaeologist Schliemann was the subject of Horizon** (BBC2). Schliemann, it transpires, was a good example of how histrionic tendencies distort the facts. It remains a fact that he excavated Troy, but all the subsidiary facts he probably falsified. Among the many things a rather aimless programme did not consider was the possibility that Schliemann had missed his vocation. He worshipped Homer and perhaps should have been a poet himself. Artists imaginatively shape facts into a special kind of creative truth. Scientists are in pursuit of only one kind of truth and their whole ethical imperative consists of respecting the integrity of facts.

There can be hell to pay when one sort of mind mistakes itself for the other. Lysenko, for example, created a fiction that got half the biologists in the Soviet Union killed. But apart from doing irreparable damage to Troy, through which he drove a large trench, Schliemann has luckily caused nothing more dangerous than a certain amount of confusion, culminating in this programme, which had every characteristic of the dud documentary, right down to the actors in funny hats and the joke psychiatrist, who gravely explained that Schliemann was an example of how ‘zer liddle chailt liffs on in zer grade...’

At least Kenneth Griffith’s documentaries aren’t terrible in the conventional way. As The Most Valuable Englishman Ever (BBC2) amply demonstrated, they are terrible in his. This time Kenneth was pretending to be Tom Paine, but also took the opportunity to be George Washington, Napoleon, etc. Kenneth can do them all in different voices. He can say ‘the sometime corset maker’ and make it sound like a death warrant. He can push his large face at the camera with such emphasis that he goes out of focus entirely. He has discovered the visual equivalent of tooth-ache, but at least he is his own man.

So is David Vine, now back with the wonderful Ski Sunday (BBC2), in which the downhill racers curdle the blood with their speed and bravery. Like Britain’s Sole Representative, Konrad Bartelski, the man whom David calls The Man With the Union Jack On His Helmet, David has shown a marked improvement this year. Bartelski, when he stays upright, is going a lot faster and David has been largely successful in avoiding the doubles entendres, although be hit a patch of ice at Kitzbuhel. ‘Trying to squash it, trying to squeeze it,’ he shouted, ‘trying to get into that tuck.’ Britain’s Sole Representative, the man who had done so well only two races earlier, also had trouble at Kitzbuhel, largely, one gathered, because the hill was so steep. ‘It’s so steep there. His skis crossing at the front ... and at the back.’ And, it turned out, above his head.

Normally a Burt Lancaster film called Go Tell The Spartans (ITV) would not be a good bet, but in fact it was terrific.

[ ** Chronicle ]
The Observer, 24th January 1982