Essays: Womb with a view |
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Womb with a view

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH narrated An Everyday Miracle (BBC2), featuring a baby in the womb. A very small cameraman climbed into the womb along with the baby and watched it grow. Attenborough was so stunned with the resulting visuals that one of his participles prolapsed. ‘When bathed in this fluid, we can see that the tube ends in a mass of delicate folds.’

An ultrasound scan showed the foetus sitting upright in there like a little van-driver. Eventually it turned over like an astronaut and positioned its head against the escape hatch. Perhaps it was tired of having its picture taken. If so, it was heading in the wrong direction, because its father was waiting outside with a stills camera.

Both mother and father seemed extremely nice, but you couldn’t help wondering if their concept of private life was not perhaps a trifle attenuated. Lying in his crib, the baby was photographed every few seconds, a process which will presumably continue until adulthood, when the recipient of all this attention might have opinions of his own about the desirability of having his life turned into an archive.

Back came Ski Sunday (BBC2) bringing David Vine with it. ‘Just watch the way this man has the rhythm through the gates ... ooh and he’s gone! Stenmark has gone!’ By now even David must be falling prey to the suspicion that he has the evil eye. All he has to do is start praising a skier for his rhythm and you know the stretcher-bearers are already moving in.

I missed ‘Ski Sunday’ in Australia, where the cricket commentators are mainly ex-cricketers who know all about cricket. The commentary thus blends into the action, instead of setting up a fruitful tension with it.

A live broadcast from Covent Garden, The Tales of Hoffmann (BBC2), starred Placido Domingo, who was in radiant voice. He was also in radiant trousers, thereby conforming to the tradition by which Hoffmann adopts shining threads in order to signify that he is acting out his dreams. The crotch looked a bit low-slung, but that might have been Placido, who, although very tall, is longer in the body than in the leg. But I carp. He’s got the lot: the pipes, the looks and the energy. Production was by John Schlesinger, who has been this way before, having played various small roles in the Powell-Pressburger ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ movie of 1951.

Schlesinger searched for a style to suit the work and ended up with a muted version of the same style everybody else finds — confectionery. Doubtless it would have all looked more ebullient if one had actually been there. The television camera script tended to pick the décor apart. The Venice act looked a pretty sedate kind of orgy, with the possible exception of what a faun was getting up to with one of the female extras. 

But the foreground faded into the background when Agnes Baltsa came on as the courtesan Giulietta. One of those marvellous new lady singers who look the part as well as sound it, she glided around in a believably seductive manner preparatory to nerving Hoffmann up for a duet. Tilting her fair visage towards Placido’s bovine orbs, Agnes gave him phrase for phrase. For once Offenbach trembled on the brink of seriousness. It was an uncanny long-distance forecast of one of those great Richard Strauss duets, like the one in the last pages of ‘Ariadne auf Naxos.’ Sometimes you get an awful lot for your licence fee.

Another rich brew was All’s Well that Ends Well (BBC2), directed by Elijah Moshinsky under the aegis of Jonathan Miller, whose aegis looks like being just the aegis this series needs. Moshinsky echoed his mentor in making the production look like a suite of rooms in an art gallery. Miller’s ‘Lear’ was full of French paintings. Moshinsky’s ‘All’s Well’ was full of Dutch ones. You could have fun sorting out the Vermeers from the de Hoochs. The appropriateness of this to the play’s French setting was not entirely clear, but at least a certain visual unity had been provided, and anyway how far is Holland from France? A couple of hours by fast coach.

Sitting at the virginals as if posing for the master of Delft, Angela Down, playing Helena, looked as pretty as — well, as a picture, really. Most of her hair was up, with a few wisps left drifting so that the soft golden light could shine through them. Skin like amber, eyes like liquid silver: the lighting was a treat. Doubtless feeling pampered by the care that was being taken, Angela played a blinder. You couldn’t ask to hear the words better spoken. Bertram (Ian Charleson) was definitely a fool to spurn her, there could be no doubt about that. What did the twit think he was up to?

On came Parolles with the sub-plot. Played by Peter Jeffrey as an Osric with bells on, he too spoke beautifully. So did Celia Johnson and Michael Hordern as the Countess and Lafeu respectively. Only Donald Sinden bunged on the fruity voice, but since he was the king, and the king was dying of a fistula, perhaps this was forgivable. Angela cured him and got Bertram. She also got a passionate kiss from the king, which was not in the script.

It is a tough script to speak, since the verse, which hovers on the verge of Shakespeare’s later manner, has all of its knottily unified imagery with little of the vividness. ‘There can be no kernel in this light nut,’ says Lafeu of Parolles, ‘The soul of this man is his clothes.’ But not much is as quotable as that. The lines have to be played accurately for small returns. They were, and the piece succeeded, except for that kiss, which made the heroine frivolous. She isn’t: that’s the point.

The History Man (BBC2) got off to a suitably repellent start, with Malcolm Bradbury’s arch academic villain arriving at centre stage like a rat out of a trap. As Howard Kirk, Anthony Sher has found a way of making the word ‘sociology’ into a visual experience. His moustache and sideburns preach well-barbered rebellion. His woolly tank-top worn with nothing underneath proves that he is a man with his armpits bared to experience. He chews gum, talks tripe, and goes through every available female student and faculty wife within the blast-area of his personality.

The university lucky enough to have Kirk as its chief adornment is one of those pre-stressed concrete jobs characterised by Bradbury in an earlier play as having been designed by Piet van der Krank. I laughed aloud at that joke and laughed aloud again several times here. The party thrown by Kirk and his desperately understanding wife was accurate in all respects, right down to the man vomiting resignedly into the kitchen sink. The director, Robert Knights, gave the bacchanal an authentic air of doom.

It is perhaps a little unfair on sociologists that their profession has been all but totally discredited by the advent of Kirk. In fact most faculties in whatever university feature at least one operator just like him. The price of academic freedom is that behaviour which wouldn’t be tolerated for a week in any other profession is not just winked at, but actually rewarded.

Don’t miss Triangle (BBC1), a thrilling new series about ‘life on an international passenger ferry.’ The international passenger ferry goes from Folkestone to Amsterdam. Kate O’Mara is the mystery presence on board. Sunbaking on the quarter-deck, she threatens the equilibrium of the crew. They are unused to seeing scantily clad women lying down on a cold steel deck while being lashed by a freezing wind. Look forward to innumerable future episodes of a series that does for international passenger ferries what ‘Sink the Bismarck!’ did for the Bismarck.

The Observer, 11th January 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]