Essays: Happiness is Flynn-shaped |
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Happiness is Flynn-shaped

‘DOUBLE negatives! Split infinitives!’ yells the hero’s doomed brother as the two men haggle over the wording of a revolutionary manifesto: ‘You prattle about punctuation when Paris is in agony!’ The film was the dearly beloved Scaramouche (BBC1), a rancid, dyed-in-the-wig old sword-opera dredging itself out of the vaults to remind us of just how fabulously silly the movies used to be.

Dialogue like the above — and the dialogue of ‘Scaramouche’ consists at no point of any other kind — acts on this viewer like a magic biscuit, transporting his ravished consciousness entirely into past time. Details of that Edenic elsewhen are teeming, synchronic, yet never blurred. Errol Flynn strides the parade ground, the poop-deck or the forest glade, with long thighs, longer boots and an extremely short jerkin. He claps peepers for the first time on the heroine. Baboom! For Robin Hood / the Sea Hawk / Captain Blood, the sweet days as a buccaneer are numbered. But first, a showdown with the Sheriff of Nottingham / Prince John / Don Sanchez Ostinato Guzman Pianola de Mendoza y Paella. Linked by the flickering traces of their deadly weapons, the shadows of Robin Hawk and Sheriff Sanchez slug it out against the firelit castle wall. Finally the heavy gets a foil through the basket, glazes and dives.

Always the hero was twice loved, first by a buxom commoner and second by an icy-looking aristocrat. The plot allowed him to ditch the broad in the last reel and plight his eternal troth to the dame with class. It all added up. Lost among the ratty plush in the packed stalls, I used to apply peanut brittle to my loose fillings and be wafted unresisting on the billow of a dream. Happiness.

Yes, happiness, you hear! Happiness, happiness! But then all this other stuff — reality, for example — came and screwed it. There was a long day’s dying, and now, unparadised, we all look at one another with haunted eyes. The fallen ones. Yet for a lucky few this cruel fate seems never to have occurred. Some of them were in a weird programme called Happy being Happy (ATV), produced by Derek Hart and directed by Lord Snowdon.

Daring the penalties of being positive, Hart and Snowdon went in search of people willing to call themselves happy. The ancients, as I remember, had difficulty defining happiness, although it was generally accepted in the Platonic dialogues that it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. For our merry pair of programme makers, no problem of definition seemed to exist, and they just went off and shot a mile of film around anybody who claimed to he content with his lot. As it quickly turned out, this was practically a guarantee of securing a gallery of self-portraits emitting various intensities of purring insularity, not to say purblind self-satisfaction.

Admittedly, some of the participants were hard to quarrel with. There was a jeweller who just liked making jewellery better than doing anything else. It was eventually revealed, though, that he had never done anything else, which raised the question of whether the ability to enjoy the world on a continuous basis might not perhaps depend on a capacity to shut most of it out. Recently a pretty girl had kissed him: the first kiss in 20 years. This gigantic event he was still pondering.

Others were less tentative and a lot harder to like. Two rich young men were shown in the gruesome throes of getting richer. They worked hard at bollocking minions down the phone before zooming off in helicopters to play hard at their up-country shack, which looked to be not much smaller than Blenheim. ‘If you’re lucky enough to start off with financial assets...’ mused the fat one, and went on to explain the necessity of continuing to acquire them. Meanwhile, the thin one roared back and forth in an old monoposto racing car. Money, said the fat one, isn’t everything. It certainly isn’t, especially when you’re lucky enough to start off with financial assets.

Further off still in the green hinterland lived a lady so content with being a homemaker she needed only the support of a passing formation of cherubim to attain a pink-clouded apotheosis before your eyes. She could contemplate no better condition than to be the little woman poised beside the cottage door ready to divest Errol of his armour upon his clanking return from the lists. ‘I’d never beat a man at tennis or anything,’ she assured us breathily. ‘I’d lose on purpose.’ To lose against me she’d need diving boots and a racket with no strings, but let that pass. There was more. ‘I wonder,’ she wondered, ‘if other people get this terrific kick, to come home?' Unless they live in an ivy-covered and lawn-surrounded Shangri-La of a splendour comparable to hers, it’s unlikely. The financial assets were provided by her husband Guy, strenuously billed as The Breadwinner. ‘Last Valentine’s day,’ she tweeted, ‘Guy gave me an MGB.’ It’s the little things that count.

A distasteful programme (and this one was delicately put together) can be valuable if it re-defines for you what you have always been against, but have allowed to slip from clarity in the mind’s eye. The world is a terrible place and anyone who can’t grasp that fact is not to be trusted. Here, for the most part, were a row of people who had drawn a line separating themselves from the world. They prattle about punctuation when Paris is in agony. And true as it may be that we cannot do much more than they do about the way things are, at least we can pay the legions of anonymous dead the compliment of declining to insult them with the pretence that our satisfactions are anything more exalted than luck.

To rub this point home came a ‘World in Action’ special on The Year of the Torturer (Granada), a round-up of the team’s investigations of the subject during 1973. Here, with electrodes and white-hot pincers, was reality’s message to the homebody in the ivy-covered cottage. The research, as always, was adventurous. The voice-over, as often, planted contentious statements as if they were holy writ. ‘It’s clear,’ somebody said, ‘that there’s more torture in the world than there used to be.’ It isn’t clear at all, no reputable historian having yet been able to discover a period in which torture chambers were not working at full blast and on an international scale. The only real difference between then and now, it seems to me, is that whereas Philip II drowned heretics in dark cellars, Lew Grade tries to make us watch Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ATV). This week Tom Jones was on. He can tie his eyebrows together by crinkling his forehead and make his adam’s apple go up and down by waggling his bum. Fantastic.

The Observer, 16th December 1973