Essays: Horsiness and homage |
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Horsiness and homage

THE QUEEN, having danced with President Ford and come through with no bones broken, moved on to Montreal. The Queen’s Garden (BBC1) showed that things have not been allowed to run to rack and ruin in her absence.

Just because hers is a royal garden doesn’t mean that there are no spiders. The courtship of two royal spiders was shown, proving that behind Buckingham Palace nature goes on in all its variety. In a way, that’s the triumph of the British monarchy — the way it encompasses the perfectly ordinary. For instance, there was Princess Anne off to Montreal. The BBC Nine O’Clock News explained that the Princess was a ‘perfectly ordinary team member.’ This must have meant that Mark Phillips was even more ordinary than the Princess, since he was only a reserve. Certainly they were both wearing terrifically ordinary hats.

Only in Britain could an Olympic team be burdened with a hat specifically designed to lower morale. As the Princess climbed the ordinary stairs into the ordinary tourist-class cabin for her ordinary flight to Montreal, it was hard not to be depressed by how really tremendously ordinary her hat looked. This fact was made doubly piquant by the consideration that the equestrian events are a department of the Games in which Britain might just possibly attain results rather more extraordinary than ordinary, Britain being such an extraordinarily horsy nation.

The horsiness of the BBC was once again manifested by its heavy coverage of The Royal International Horse Show. (A sure-fire title in the Beeb’s eyes, containing as it does the two key words ‘Royal’ and ‘horse.’) Dorian Williams has got a new word going: ‘inviting.’ A fence is described as ‘inviting,’ as in ‘this inviting fence.’ Outstandingly inviting fences are described as having an ‘inviting take-orf.’

The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery (BBC2) was an ‘affectionate tribute’ to Ogden Nash. ‘Affectionate tribute’ is a deadly term, with a built-in coy wink. Affectionate tributes invariably leave you wanting to hear less of the person they are being affectionate about. This one was no exception to the rule. Some worthy thespians — Prunella Scales, Clive Swift and Dinsdale Landen — were led by Robert Robinson in a concerted attempt to transmit Nash’s flavour by reciting his verses. Unfortunately his verses are amusing only on the page. The recitals were intercalated with filmed affectionate tributes from Nash’s friends and relations. The programme tried hard but Nash came out of it sounding only mildly inventive.

Lord Clark’s series on Rembrandt (BBC1) is excellent. More than an affectionate tribute, it is a homage to the whole man. Rembrandt was always one of Clark’s best subjects anyway, since Clark is a master at tracing the synthesis of tradition and inspiration as it continues throughout the history of painting, and Rembrandt of all great painters was the one most inspired by tradition.

The latest episode of the series dealt with the period of Rembrandt’s commercial success, when for 20 years he was never without a portrait commission. The largest, if not the greatest, product of this phase was the so-called ‘Night Watch,’ whose scale Clark conveyed dramatically by suddenly walking in front of it. Other televisual effects were less attention-getting but very satisfying — especially the way the etchings showed up on screen. Clark analysed the separation and connection between Rembrandt’s life and work with an unfailingly sure hand. I shall watch the next, last episode and be keen to see the whole thing repeated. There is always some critical move afoot to underrate Clark, usually on the drivelling assumption that he is a well-connected dilettante skating over the surface of a subject whose true depths can be probed only by the forceful minds of such men of the people as John Berger. But really it’s Clark who is serious about art, since he never thinks of it as being simpler than it is.

ITV’s new monstro sudser Rich Man, Poor Man, based on the novel of the same name by Irwin Shaw, has been imported from America with the obvious intention of stealing back some ratings from the BBC’s Olympics coverage. The intention will undoubtedly be fulfilled, since the story, once you have tuned into it, is impossible to tune out of.

The first episode was set in 1945. Two brothers called Rudy and Tom Jordache are growing up in a small town. Their father, Axel, is a baker — a poor German immigrant with an overbearing nature, a frigid wife and a heavy accent. ‘Waise a hend to me I’ll bweak your urum,’ he tells Tom.

For Tom is the bad boy and Rudy is the good boy. Like every other component of the story, this central relationship has been tried and tested through generations of best-selling American novels and plays. Respectively cursed and blessed, Cain and Abel have cropped up in novels by John O’Hara and John Steinbeck. In ‘Picnic’ William Inge varied the theme by making the brothers unrelated to each other, but it was still unmistakably the standard plot.

Julie Prescott, the other main plot element, is the girl hungry for life. Straight out of Peyton Place, she goes to bed with Teddy Boylan, the wealthy alcoholic playboy who is straight out of... But everything in the format is straight out of something, except for the dialogue, which is straight out of nowhere. It’s fatuous to spend so much money on authentic period detail and then dissipate the effect by having Julie say ‘No way,’ a locution which didn’t come in until at least 20 years later.

A far more effective glimpse of the past was provided by a one-off, made-for-telly movie called Last Hours Before Morning (BBC1). Another American import, it was cast with has-beens and unknowns and enshrined one Bud Delaney, a Philip Marlowe-style ex-cop working as a house-dick. The actors all had names like Kaz Garas and Tony Ganz and had their hair cut short at the back and sides. The classy dames matched Marlowe’s idea of the high life. (Marlowe, Chandler revealed with no apparent irony, thought he was dressed up when he wore socks with little clocks on them.) All the props looked well worn. The finished product showed you how something can be made out of nothing. How nothing can be made out of nothing is shown by Bert D’Angelo (BBC1).

The Observer, 18th July 1976