Essays: Heroes and hardware |
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Heroes and hardware

THE Colditz series (BBC-1) was heralded, trailed, presaged and puffed with a beavering enthusiasm that aroused in the prospective viewer, or rather non-viewer, the direst twinges of pre-emptive boredom. Judging from the cast-list, we were about to be regaled with the standard stiff-upper-head British escape movie eked out with the usual finance-inspired American additives, Robert Wagner approaching Colditz over the same route by which Steve McQueen got to Stalag Luft III and William Holden reached the River Kwai — through the bank. When the adviser on the series turned out to he P. R. Reid, its fate was sealed. Stand by for 'The Colditz Story' all over again, at 20 times the length.

Such, at any rate, was the non-receptive mood among critics when the first episode of 'Colditz' was finally cranked to the right height by the publicity machine and rolled out of the slot. in fact, some of my colleagues plainly had a response ready before the stimulus arrived — one of them started attacking the episode for not being realistic, when it should immediately have been plain that the series was about to double-cross our expectations by being more realistic than any POW movie yet made.

After two episodes we're still In the prison camps that the characters have to escape from before they get recaptured and sent to Colditz, so we haven't even seen the castle. But the determination to deal in the realities of the matter is unmistakeable, and very commendable. Quite apart from witlessly unfaithful entertainments like 'Stalag 17', even the most thoughtful of the escape movies found it tactically unwise to mention that their scarpering heroes had malnutrition to fight as well as everything else, and so had to do what they did on impoverished reserves of energy. This series has remembered to leave that fact in, paying as much care to the human side of authenticity as to the hardware — which looks correct down to every last machine-pistol and Mercedes diesel.

David McCallum, in the second episode, came back from about a decade in the frightful 'Man from Uncle' as if he'd never been away, giving a convincing portrait of a hard case going wire-happy from his first minute in the cage. If the series clears its tallest hurdle — the advent of Robert Wagner — without smashing both ankles and the bridge of its nose, it will be on its way to an unexpected and highly interesting success. Already one watches in the constant hope that the writers will seize the opportunities offered by the abundance of psychological material and do something really memorable, beyond the solid competence that only the most incorrigible of us expected in the first place.

After the small but acute pinnacle of un-enjoyment scaled while watching 'Peer Gynt' some weeks back, it was gratifying to be called back to Messina — the eternal land of television drama, where the lavish costumes of all the ages mingle in profusion before stage-braced flats and men poking at the barn-doors of 3K lamps with long poles — to be presented with Janet Suzman's penetrating impersonation of Hedda Gabler (BBC-2), which saved the year for Ibsen. The show was directed by Waris Hussein, and once again it was marvellous to see how directing a few films loosens and expands a man's technique with TV cameras.

Miss Suzman went weird with a nasty niceness which had the viewer off-balance from an early stage, wondering when her destructive irrationality would break out next — she was a ticking parcel of potential energy, quite fascinating. It was a good move to have Hedda smoking cigarettes as though she'd been practising every day since the first carton of them arrived in that part of Norway the year before, flicking a butt after the departing Judge Brack (well played by Brendan Barry) in a way that settled his hash. As Mrs Elvsted, the always-interesting Jane Asher was putty in Hedda's hands, and in general Miss Suzman carried on like the toughest man in the district, which is just how things should go, although this didn't mean that the men were negligible. Ian McKellen did his best to be boring as Tesman, only occasionally lapsing into that trick of suddenly rocking from his back foot to his front foot and back again, which is suitable to young kings and recruiting officers but looks over-vital in a careerist pedant who's supposed to be playing a key role in driving Hedda to lethal excess. As Løvborg, Tom Bell was just right, and taken all round it's been good in this last week to see such an important talent back in frequent action.

Man Alive (BBC-2) did a resolutely un-probing probe of the modelling business that was saved from being a waste of time by the inadvertent glimpses into the pit of vacuity and despair which came as a bonus along with the inarticulate interviews granted by half a dozen aspirants. Sharon, only 13½, is determined to be a model one day, and seems convinced that models lead a busy social life, presumably with lots of cake and different coloured drinks to drink. The day must come when she is paraded before the eagle eyes of the Lucy Clayton agency's top man, who may well inform her that she has problem shoulders.

It was at this point that the programme revealed itself to have a problem brain, since it forgot to ask which agencies accepted for training only sure winners and which were not averse to picking up the odd fee from kids who didn't have a snowball's chance in hell. A rapid tour of the financial structure would have been a big help, but we had to rest content with some éerité footage of our hopeful snowballs being translated into miracles of beauty and poise. One girl's rat's-nest hairstyle was turned into a pointed ant-hill, so that what she'd lost in straight frumpishness she instantly made up for in shrieking pretension. As metallically groomed instructresses imparted the secrets of how to walk without swinging your right foot forward with your right leg the viewer began wondering about this aphasic fandango's psychic outcome.

One terrified girl who was terrified of being condemned to the life of a supermarket cashier started off the course as a terrified trainee and came out at the end still terrified, with the fringe benefit of having failed the course. Another one, who passed, now models all day for 16 quid a week in a store, as well as watering the plants and working the switchboard. She wants to get out and be a nurse, before they make her re-paint the building and install the air-conditioning. Tania Mallett was on hand, to tell us that success was nearly as tough as failure. Rubbing the point home, somebody started painting her green. On Full House (BBC-2) a man described as an artist took a bath in a tub of guts. The Visigoths are at the gates.

The Observer, 29th October 1972