Essays: Eating your interviewer |
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Eating your interviewer

THE reasons for deploring William F. Buckley are more prominent than the reasons for admiring him, but only just. By almost persuading me that the strong are quarrelling with manifest destiny if they pause to help the weak, Buckley is making me an even less generous man than I am already — an effect I despise him for, once I awake from the spell. I agree with him about Communism and the radical Left, but the rest of it is plausible moonshine. With this said, though, one is honour bound to pronounce him a consummate talking head.

Being interviewed on Line-up (BBC-2) by a well-prepared but understandably wary Michael Dean, Buckley proved, to the satisfaction of anybody still awake, that the most exciting action television can possibly offer is speech. He argued in fastidiously composed complex sentences, always willing to pause while selecting the right word. Before a question had finished being asked, Buckley had already chosen his analogies and numbered his points, while putting up a splendidly restrained show of sympathy for the mental disease Dean must have been suffering from to ask the question in the first place. When Dean made his one mistake — introducing a statistic about poverty in America — Buckley elegantly black-jacked him with a counter-statistic and ate the stunned corpse alive.

The camera sense was unbelievable: Buckley not only knew which camera was on him, he knew to the inch where he fitted in the frame. As the final roller was supered over a zoomed-out wide shot and the lighting went to silhouette, Buckley snuck a look at his wrist-watch. This gesture, with its air of planes to catch and time lavished recklessly on a tank-town talk show, was the final flourish of a master. One quails to think of how the local right-wingers will stack up after this. Let’s hope Peregrine was taking notes.

Taking an overall view of television drama (which, of course, one doesn’t do for a moment) I’ve always found that it’s series which interest most, one-shot original plays or mini-series next, and classic plays least. Criticism which expends a whole weekly column on the latest production of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ and resolutely ignores what goes on in ‘A Family at War’ or ‘Coronation Street’ seems to me the height of frivolity: especially when the critic, by the loving attention and addle-pated praise he squanders on a pedestrian realisation, demonstrates that most killing of all critical characteristics, seriousness without judgement. I still haven’t got over the fact that one of our more ponderously respectable reviewers greeted the recent ‘Duchess of Malfi’ as if it had been the famous 1945 George Rylands production instead of a piece of run-of-the-studio mediocrity which a few self-propelled performances only just managed to save from abject tedium. It makes you wonder on whose behalf he was reacting — it couldn’t, surely, have been his own.

These reflections were given focus last week by an excellently written and presented play called Anywhere but England (Thames), which treated the well-masticated theme of the British colonial spirit struggling to survive in the newly independent countries. So familiar was the material that I couldn’t be sure the programme wasn’t a repeat. And yet — well, look at the wealth of what was on offer. John Hale had carefully contrived to reveal character with every line, so that the array of acting talent was in complex interplay at all times: had they been in Osborne’s ‘West of Suez,’ for example, they would have spent much of the piece simply standing about.

Denholm Elliott has a way of crinkling the skin around his eyes that suggests acute cerebral seediness, the mental equivalent of underpants not changed for many moons. John le Mesurier, temporarily rescued from the feeble ‘A Class of His Own’ (Harlech) was a genteel wog-flogger with a senatorial contempt for the vandals closing in on his tax haven. To see these two superb actors working together was a treat. The whole beggars-on-horseback ambience was deftly captured, even though the exiguous budget showed up in sets and cycloramas. A little play, yet good of its kind. No one will mark it. The engineers might even wipe it. What will happen when our grandchildren ask us about the times we used to see Denholm Elliott, and we say that we were too busy writing down our impressions of the wonderful ‘Duchess of Malfi’?

On the strength of the thalidomide episode alone, I’d say that Weekend World (LWT) was very much worth doing, whether it’s franchise-bait or not. The difficulty, which we’re still working on at my place, is to get out of bed. Another new monster programme, Full House (BBC-2) has by now settled in, so one can legitimately state one’s opinion, which is that the producers have mistaken eclecticism for diversity and self-conscious mateyness for democratic ease. Joe Melia handles his task like a man wading in the Amazon, checking himself constantly for an intact skin and pursing his lips at every ripple. The audience, however, far from reminding you of piranha, recall 10 tons of iced halibut delivered a week late.

Who are they, and why are they there? On the first show, after an easy piece by David Hockney on the Caspar Friedrich exhibition, a man in the audience very sensibly said that this kind of pussy-footing wouldn’t do. Melia looked as if he had been shot in the back with a silenced pistol, but in fact this was the last sign of authentic revolt I’ve noticed. The short plays of E. A. Whitehead have been sub-Montheriant, who was in turn sub-interesting, and you’d have expected anyone who only came to the studio to hear Gladys Knight and the Pips to tear the place down with boredom. No chance. The air of stunned reverence remains unbroken, the questions tentative even when impertinent. Not that Gladys herself should have remained unquestioned. She’s just about the best thing left in the Motown stable, but already shows drastic signs of that talkative afflatus which ruined Diana Ross and turned Little Stevie Wonder into a super-bore. A Kris Kristofferson song which was already half-dead received the coup de grâce from over-selling.

Still, an arts show headlined by Gladys Knight can’t be all bad; the choreography of the Pips is a mind-bender, three perfectly synchronised, loose-limbed spades moving sharply enough to kick the brains out of a fly. I think Joe Melia should just bung the stuff on, say what he thinks, bung on some more and let the audience write in. This, of course, is part of a larger argument, about Access — an argument I plan to avoid adroitly for the next hundred years.

The Observer, 5th November 1972