Essays: To have or have not |
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To have or have not

‘GET THE boys!’ cried Burt Lancaster, playing a medieval acrobatic archer in The Flame and the Arrow (BBC1). ‘I’ll meetcher at the tavern.’ One of his rustic subordinates promised to ‘work for the day when we can right all wrongs.’ In Rule Britannia (ATV), an analysis of contemporary Britain, James Bellini continues to work for the day when he can right all wrongs, but he has a long way to go. Taking the view that the social structure was not materially altered even by Cromwell, he is stuck for an answer to such questions as how the social structure nevertheless managed to produce such phenomena as nineteenth-century industrialism and, at a later stage, James Bellini.

The Shattered Dream (LWT), which ended this week, was, on the other hand, a first-rate series on the same subject. It got right down under what James Bellini assumes is the social structure and dug into the real social structure, the one where the haves are busy with something far more dangerous than protecting their gains from the have-nots. What the haves are doing, by and large, is teaching the have-nots all the wrong things. The revelations about the inadequacy of the educational system would have been devastating, instead of merely depressing, if it had not been for the occasional interview with such paragons as Mrs Chisholm, the enlightened headmistress of Holly Lodge girls’ school in Liverpool who offers her senior girls courses in electronics.

Industriousness is what will mend British industry if government allows it. Unfortunately the present Government has made it harder to start a small business than ever. If you’re on the dole you can’t participate in a co-operative even if you work for nothing. What this fine series unearthed, beyond the inevitable reluctance of the privileged to share their privileges, was a magnificent refusal at all levels to admit that business enterprise is what puts food on the table.

An unintentionally wonderful programme called A Town Like New Orleans (BBC2) showed what happens when people whose proper concern should be some form of fruitful labour start mucking about with art. Few real artists despise business — in fact the more original they are, the more they tend to respect the workaday world — but it is a hallmark of the dabbler that he prides himself in being set apart, and so it proved here. Leeds, it appears, is crawling with jazz and pop musicians who have managed to convince themselves that they are contributing to the biggest explosion in their respective art forms since King Oliver met Louis Armstrong or Phil Spector invented the wall of sound.

The musical evidence adduced to back up this contention sounded pretty feeble, but perhaps the television crew had called during a bad week. ‘Singing is one of the most important things in my life,’ said a lady in a sad brown hat, ‘it’s a very deep need in me ... I suppose I’ve never been lucky enough to have ... the breaks.’ A man with a beret, beard and spots played be-bop sax while one or two passers-by, stiff with cold and too many rehearsals for the camera, dropped pennies at his aching feet.

And that would have been the sum total of the action, if it had not been for a resident arts teacher endowed with a remarkable gift for improvising endless streams of free-form sociologese. ‘Plurality ... any viable activity as art ... ideologically valid intervention ... ideological intervention by a rock and roll band.’ One of his pupils showed signs of outsoaring his master. ‘We ’ave a lot of problems as a band ... we see ourselves more as a working unit who are trying to locate ourselves as a working unit of production ... criteria ... validate...’ It was the kind of talk which Duke Ellington used to say stank up the place. New Orleans had Storyville and the sound of Buddy Bolden’s cornet across the water. Leeds has ideological intervention in the back room of a pub. It follows with inexorable logic that Leeds is not a town like New Orleans.

Richard’s Things (Southern) had everything by way of production values, up to and including the star producer himself, Mark Shivas. Frederic Raphael wrote it. Liv Ullman was in it, playing the role of Kate. Her husband having been wiped out by a heart attack, Kate fell in love with his mistress, Josie, played by Amanda Redman and her very nice teeth. Josie (both breasts showing) lolled around on the lap of Kate (no breasts showing but face ecstatic) while the viewer, according to gender and/or proclivities, either marvelled at how tasteful it all was or gave thanks that so much crumpet had been assembled in the one place.

‘I don’t understand anything’ moaned Liv the next morning. High on the list of things she didn’t understand must have been how Josie’s make-up managed to stay intact after a night of Sapphic sensationalism. Such frivolous considerations were hard to avoid, since the characters never began to live or even differ from one another. Frederic Raphael is clever but his characters all sound like him. Even the man who was supposed to be the bore spoke epigrams. Liv, as usual, looked on the point of tears all the time — an unvarying expression hailed by the more gullible critics as expressive — which gave you some idea, but probably the wrong one, of why the deceased should have favoured Josie. A classily done piece of nearly nothing.

At the moment the channels are locked in a deadly competition to see who can screen the worst stretch of imported American trash. Flamingo Road (BBC1) is a chunk of junk aimed at the ‘Dallas’ audience. ‘Ah want it ol,’ says a Playboy gatefold called Constance, ‘and ah want it nao.’ The town’s straight-arrow hero and future State senator, an idiot called Fielding, does his best to evade Constance’s warm clutches, but he is battered into submission by the Homeric similes of ruthless old Titus. ‘Things don’t just run,’ opines Titus. ‘Little wheels push big wheels. Big wheels push bigger wheels. Sooner or later those wheels need oil. So they don’t squeak...’ Meanwhile the beautiful Lane Ballou, languishing for love of the zero hero, sings plaintively in the cat-house. ‘I know I shouldn’t be acting like this,’ says Momma, taking the words out of your mouth.

Nothing should have been able to counter that, but ITV fought back with a mini-series called Condominium: When the Hurricane Struck. Full of bad actors wearing wigs, the condo was totalled by a her-cane, but not before it had spent a lot of time being threatened by stock shots of big waves while the inhabitants held meetings. You prayed for the her-cane to get there early and shut everybody up, but it insisted on travelling in a circle, as her-canes will. Finally the whole deal was underwater. ‘Towering Inferno’ had met ‘The Poseidon Adventure.’ Actors who had spent their whole lives on the feature list held on to their hair transplants and shouted the line that had been haunting them in their sleep for years: ‘We’ll never make it!’

The Observer, 23rd August 1981
[ An excerpt from this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]