Essays: In case you haven't heard |
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In case you haven’t heard

GET your ‘Akenfield’ T-shirts! It was in just such an atmosphere of rectitude that Peter Hall’s film Akenfield (LWT) stole on to the screen, unremarked by everybody except the entire population of the British Isles.

Hall’s publicity machine mounted a week-long, all-media saturation campaign that left even the most deeply dug-in viewer gibbering with shock. It went on and on like the bombardment of Saipan. Hall himself was personally in evidence to a lavish extent: on Aquarius (LWT) he masterfully maintained his aplomb while the adoring Humphrey Burton conducted an oratorio on the subject of his abilities, with particular reference to ‘Akenfield.’ The TV Times was also full of ‘Akenfield.’ At market rates, the whole budget for the film would have bought about one per cent of its publicity. You have to hand it to Hall. When he does something on a shoe-string, the world blasts a Transamazonica to his door. The guy’s amazing.

The least neglected minor classic in cinematic history turned out to be a reasonably good job. The script’s view of rural realities in Suffolk over the last two generations was intended to be ciear-eyed and in a large part succeeded in being so. The people of the land saw themselves as prisoners and Hall, with the aid of Ronald Blythe’s original text, did his best to look through their eyes. Outsiders might see the point and poetry of working the soil, but the labourers have never found it easy to do so, neither in the past when they were worked to death, nor now, when the means to exist have been provided but the last vestiges of the old folk-ways are being wiped out. Garrow Shand — an amateur actor like almost everyone in the cast — embodied the young man whose family memories were explored in the successful search for a plot-line. Hall’s direction of the playing was excellent.

Aesthetically, however, the real story of the film lay in the tension between Hall’s disenchanted, Hardyesque aims and his irrepressible urge to prettify whatever his theatrical gaze alights on. The cosmetic photography was mistier than Claude Lelouch trapped in a sauna — you would have to go back to Agnes Varda in her ‘Le Bonheur’ period to see anything quite so self-consciously vaporous. In colour the film looked like Elvira Madigan’s boudoir, and in black and white like a glass of chalky water. The beauty was in the lens more than in the way of life, which left the question of how much beauty there is in the way of life still open. Nevertheless ‘Akenfield’ was a worthy effort.

A year ago I thought Frank Sinatra’s voice was finally in ruins, but in The Main Event (ITV), a tape of his recent concert at Madison Square Garden, the notes had come back. Since he can’t phrase without them, this was a relief, and since it remains true that no one else can phrase like him, the show was an object lesson, although it contained few new songs. Years of sycophancy take their toll, however. It was sad to hear him say: ‘Then they called me Ol’ Blue-Eyes.’ (Nobody ever called him Ol’ Blue-Eyes: the tag was a PR gimmick, a logo for his come-back, and the stink of adman’s sweat is all over it.) But he sang ‘Angel Eyes’ in a way that reminded you of what popular music is for. As Sammy Cahn explained to Parkinson (BBC1), it’s mainly a way of speaking. The music and the words don’t just meet at a point, they form an edge.

One has tried to give Churchill’s People (BBC1) a chance, on the grounds that cheapo-cheapo telly will soon be the only kind there is, once the new austerity really starts to bite. Limitations will probably be liberating in the long run: Trevor Nunn’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ for example, was a trail-blazing production because it suggested lavishness through economy, whereas most attempts at television spectacle suggest economy through lavishness. ‘Churchill’s People,’ alas, suggests little beyond an outbreak of insanity at executive level. Somebody on the top floor has gone berserk.

Last week’s episode, ‘The Saxon’s Dusk,’ starred John Wood as Edward the Confessor. Wood is one of the best, most treasurable actors we possess — a high stylist. Turn an actor like him, when you can find one, loose on good material, when you can find that, and lyricism will ensue. Give him rubbish to act and he will destroy himself like a Bugatti lubricated with hair-oil.

The script being almost entirely exposition, the characters were mainly engaged in telling one another what they knew already. Since Edward was the centre of the action, he was occupied full time not only with telling people what they knew, but with being told what he knew in return. A certain air of boredom was therefore legitimate, which Wood amply conveyed. I myself had never heard dialogue like it, but Edward made it clear that he had been hearing it for years.

‘He’s making Robert of Whatnot Bishop of London, did you know?’ ‘A Frenchman to be Bishop of London?’ ‘He’s trying to make us a French colony.’ ‘But if I leave my nephew as my heir...’ ‘Sire, Bishop Beefbroth has come back: the news is good from Rome.’ ‘Praise be.’ ‘The French bishop is to be disepiscopated immediately.’ ‘That is good, good.’ ‘On one condition.’ ‘What condition, pray?’ ‘News from Dover, Sire!’ ‘Dover shall pay dear for this!’ ‘Your uncle Toxic, Queen of the Welsh, proclaims the Bastard heir!’ ‘This is the last straw. Where do you stand, Bostic?’ ‘Your half-brother Norman the Exhibitionist’s son Edward...’

And so on, world without end. Straining to convey information, the writing reveals nothing about the past of the English people, but much about the present state of the English language. ‘While we wait here waiting for the Assembly to assemble...’ one poor sod found himself saying, and straight away his silly hat looked even sillier, since how can an actor go back through time if given lines mired so inextricably in the present? It was The Turkey in Winter. A two-line exchange of dialogue between a pair of shaggy nobles said it all. ‘Why do you not give it up?’ ‘Because I need the money.’

The Observer, 2nd February 1975

[ An edited excerpt from this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]