Essays: Nicola Karenina |
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Nicola Karenina

BEFORE the first episode of Anna Karenina (BBC2) had even reached the screen, some showbiz reporter had coaxed Nicola Paget into declaring that if she did not succeed in the title role then she would miss her chance of stardom. A statement neither wise nor, necessarily, true.

She is not the Anna of my dreams, but might well be the Anna of someone else’s, and anyway she has been much loved in other roles, and will certainly be much loved in other roles to come. But as far as I can tell through my own prejudices, Anna Karenina is meant to be statuesque. Even if Tolstoy had said she was a midget, she would loom large in the mind’s eye — not just because Garbo, a previous exponent of the part, was tall and commanding, but because Anna must be more imposing than vulnerable, or else her fall will count for less.

Nicola Paget is petite — scarcely big enough to support the weight of her eyes — and vulnerable. She answers Tolstoy’s description in having beautiful features suffused with the joy of life, but in general her compact physical layout begs for protection, which in this case is not quite the first emotion she should arouse. Anna Karenina can look after herself.

Until, of course, she meets Vronsky. Stuart Wilson looks and sounds too good to be true, and is therefore well cast, since Vronsky starts off by being Tolstoy’s dream man — i.e., the man he longed to be when, as an adolescent, he stared into the mirror and raged at his nose for being the wrong shape. Mr Wilson’s test will come later, when he is obliged to bring out the central emptiness of Vronsky’s personality. Vronsky has to diminish in stature while Levin increases.

Levin and Kitty have both started well enough. Levin is a difficult role because he, like Vronsky, is yet another, but this time less immediately attractive, version of the man Tolstoy wanted to be — shy, unworldly, wedded to the land. Tolstoy’s characteristics and wishes are distributed even-handedly between the two main male characters. The whole book has an air of calculation. Compared with ‘War and Peace,’ it is a moralising work, bringing retribution to the sinful and bliss to the virtuous: great as it is, we hesitate before we praise it.

But Donald Wilson, the adapter-producer of this series, is not a man for doubts. Showbiz reporters have been told that be doesn’t give a damn what literary critics think. The assumption that literary criticism deals only with literature is revealing. What it reveals is a certain coarseness, which in several respects his production amply embodies.

The script is an efficient enough job of scissors, paste and scribble. But when it gets to the screen, points are hammered. Vronsky and Anna, seeing each other for the first time, turn and stare lingeringly into each other’s faces — a full-scale coup de foudre. Tolstoy says that Anna turns her eyes away at once. Which, of course, she would do: a woman of her position wouldn’t have been caught dead staring at Christ himself.

‘Country Matters’ convinced telly executives that H. E. Bates was a goldmine of adaptable plots. Julian Bond’s adaptation of Love for Lydia (LWT) has proved to be a series of some interest. There was much hoopla in the TV Times about the expense which had not been spared on turning summer landscapes into winter ones by covering them with salt, etc., and indeed the general production values are of a high order, with rock-solid set-dressing and a sensitive choice of costumes and properties.

For the first couple of episodes I thought that the spiritual values might be lagging fatally behind the material ones, but by now it is clear that the show simply made a quiet start. The acting is excellent. Mel Martin’s Lydia is entirely credible as a young beauty so alive that all the bright young men fall in love with her at once.

Lydia yielded up her virginity to young Richardson. I’m bound to say that Richardson, who was simultaneously yielding up his virginity to Lydia, coped nobly. For a first time out it was a stunningly competent performance. But that was the only false note. Apart from an intermittent lack of pace which inspires the viewer with an urge either to dwell inordinately on Mel Martin’s spellbinding looks or else to go and make tea, the narrative is unfaltering. Production and direction, both by Tony Wharmby, are fully equal to Bates’s sexy glow.

The Muppets talked to Russell Harty (LWT). Jim Henson and Frank Oz were their human representatives. Upstaged by Muppets who kept forgetting his name, Harty lost control of the English language. ‘How much liberated are you into lunacy? You know what I mean by that?’ Henson and Oz very nicely pretended that they did know what he meant by that. But there were limits to tolerance. ‘What kind of discussion are we having now?’ asked Harty. ‘Dull.’

To jazz things up, Muppets kept thrusting themselves into frame. Their double takes and slow burns to camera reveal a marvellous sense, on the part of their operators, of how doing almost nothing can do everything. I still can’t work out how Miss Piggy manages to look so outraged. Apparently she is to star in future Muppet productions with titles like ‘Pigs in Space’ and ‘Swine Trek.’ This was a good show — almost as good as ‘The Muppet Show’ itself. Harty ought not to be underrated. He lets his guests take over if they have a mind to. If they haven’t a mind to there isn’t much he can do about it, but that’s as much their fault as his.

On The Barry Humphries Show (BBC2) Edna Everage was on wild form. Her friend Madge Allsop was present. ‘It’s hard to believe this, possum,’ whispered Edna, to Katie Boyle, ‘but that woman is our age and look at her.’ Strange locutions fully intelligible only to a compatriot d’un certain age bubbled from Edna’s glistening lips. ‘Remember you’re out!’

The Observer, 2nd October 1977