Essays: Horowitz in his heaven |
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Horowitz in his heaven

A TRIBUTE to Maurice Richardson appears elsewhere on this page, but let me briefly acknowledge his departure by saying that if writing about television every week is any kind of art, then Maurice invented it.

Maurice would have enjoyed last Sunday. The tube was bursting with good things. Even among these, Horowitz (BBC2) stood out. It was one of the supreme television occasions. The maestro was beamed live from Lincoln Centre as he dealt once again with one of his favourite numbers, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. Where we were it was late evening. Where Horowitz was it was late afternoon. Where Rachmaninov was it was presumably a sort of eternal twilight, but you could bet he was happy.

Horowitz has always gone on growing, which is a daunting fact when you consider how complete an artist he was to start with. In Horowitz the poetic flair of Cortot, the intellectual drive of Schnabel and the sensuality of Rubinstein are all combined into one style — the universal style. He sums it all up. Even a layman could tell that at 75 Horowitz is at the apex of his craft.

The visual rewards matched the sonic ones. Horowitz’s hands are tendrilled sea creatures. During a cross-hands passage in the first movement it seemed possible that they would become inextricably tangled up with each other. But the strength in their transparent lightness is astounding. At the start of the second movement, his hands drifted out of his lap and punched out the bass chords like steam-hammers. Meanwhile his face was transmitting nothing except serenity. There were no dramatics: only drama. The production, by NBC, was suitably detailed and tactful.

Like Melvyn Bragg, who secured the Horowitz White House concert for ‘The South Bank Show,’ Humphrey Burton should be commended for bringing us a great artistic event. ‘A moment of fantastic history ... an historic occasion ... the supernatural, the demonic ...’ Thus Humphrey burbled, and he was right every time. At the end of the performance the conductor, Zubin Mehta, looked at Horowitz as if Horowitz were God, which in a way he is.

There was a ferocious three-way clash between Wuthering Heights (BBC2), Lillie (LWT) and Robert Bolt’s fascinating wreck of a movie, Lady Caroline Lamb (BBC1). In the end I sacrificed ‘Wuthering Heights,’ easing my conscience with a promise to catch the next episode. Of the first episode I saw enough to wonder whether the policy of casting relative unknowns in the principal roles was going to pay off. Nevertheless, Heathcliff’s hair was very impressive. It was a struggle for his face to get through it. When his mouth emerged, it did an effective job of yelling passionately. ‘CATHARG!’ it yelled, meaning that it wanted to speak to Cathy. ‘OOARGH!’ it added.

The first episode of ‘Lillie’ was more sedate. In fact it verged on paralysis, mainly because someone had made the mistake of requiring Francesca Annis to incarnate Lillie Langtry not only at every stage of maturity, but during adolescence as well. Fabulous Frankie, as well as looking a treat, has a copious range of thespian skills, but metamorphosis is not among them. Capering around Jersey in an adolescent fashion, she did her best, but one was irresistibly reminded of that stage in Shirley Temple’s career when they strapped down her breasts and sat her on outsize chairs in a world populated by giant actors.

Frankie came out of the ordeal about as well as Janet Suzman did from the first episode of ‘Clayhanger’ — i.e. creditably, but with inhibited zing. Things should pick up tonight, when Lillie will be well embarked on her unhappy marriage to Langtry, the poor goof she will spend the rest of the series playing up on.

If ‘Lillie’ gets a lot better it might start being almost as good as ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’ — to which, I confess, my attention finally wandered. Appearing briefly as the Duke of Wellington, Olivier gives one of his most dazzling performances. ‘Lady Caroline, amn’t it?’ Lady Caroline herself is inevitably a pain in the tail, but the social details are conveyed with all the touch for nuance that the average life-at-the-top television series aspires to in vain.

First of all there was ‘The Brothers,’ on BBC1. Then ATV countered with The Foundation. Instead of waiting until they could resurrect ‘The Brothers,’ the Beeb has counter countered with Tycoon, which is just ‘The Foundation’ without the entertainment value. Diane Cilento copes nobly with the task of being a lady power figure, but there is not much point, since Lynette Davies, playing Davinia Prince in ‘The Foundation’ is already coping so nobly with the same task that there is no admiration left over.

Davinia is currently in deep shtuck. Once again she has taken bad advice, this time from Tom Pearson (Michael Craig), he of the white hair and black moustache. Davinia’s vowels give way under the tension. ‘If this works aout, it looks like ail owe you one too.’ But it does not work aout. She has sold her house to no purpose. It makes her angry. ‘I have myself to consider nah.’

In Albion in the Orient (BBC2) a British football club toured China. Winning every game, they were understandably blasé about Chinese culture. ‘When you seen one wall you seen ’em all, avenue?’ Their manager pointed out the importance of diplomacy, since the Chinese, in his view, were easily slighted. The same manager was also to he seen in action during the football matches, shouting ‘Kill! Kill!’ from the sidelines. To the uninstructed eye, the Chinese players looked worryingly good. A bit more practice at killing one another and they should soon be killing us.

About Must Wear Tights (Thames) there is nothing to say, except that it was not Gemma Craven’s fault. The worst musical ever made, it had only one virtue: it was a one-off. LingaLongaMax, made by the same company, is, however, a whole series. Television, like Holy Church, is for everyone. It is only right that if Horowitz is raising the Host at the altar then Max Bygraves should he squatting in the dark near the front door selling plastic effigies. But the effigies should at least have a sacred heart that lights up.

Fairies (BBC2) was a period piece about two young ladies not just pretending to see fairies, but securing photographs. Writing, casting, direction and design were all excellent. Something’s Wrong (BBC1), written and directed by Frederic Raphael, provided a useful insight into the mind of Frederic Raphael. It would appear that being him is no joke.

The Observer, 1st October 1978