Essays: Lad from Stratford |
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Lad from Stratford

TO speed the few remaining hours between World Cup football matches, there were always the soap operas. The most enjoyable of these was John Mortimer’s Will Shakespeare (ATV), which to judge by its first episode should generate a mountain of rich, Jacobethan suds.

Tim Curry, of Rocky Horror and Rock Follies fame, plays Will, a young lad fresh down from Stratford and looking for a break in the West End. When not holding horses, he sleeps in the straw. He never sleeps on the straw, but always in it, so that be can surface puffing and blowing, while picking bits of it out of his ears. From the window of yon adjacent theatre waft the tones of Burbage rehearsing. Burbage is always addressed as ‘Dick Burbage’ in case we get him mixed up with some other Burbage. ‘Will Master Marlowe never finish our new play?’

Master Marlowe (Ian McShane) will never finish the new play because he is (a) avid for real experience, and (b) doomed. Rumbustious, passionate and queer, he consorts with noblemen. Young Shakespeare gazes at him with awe and envy, as a young denizen of one of today’s provincial theatre workshops might dream of being Pinter or Stoppard. ‘Wouldst be a player?’ someone asks the musing Will. Aye. Would.

While Marlowe is downstairs getting stabbed, Will finishes ‘Henry VI.’ Success. Already you can see why everybody loves him. It is because he loves life. He is Rumpole of the Globe. There is nothing subtle about John Mortimer’s writing. Peter Wood directed the first episode with his usual deft hand, but could hardly disguise the script’s galumphing jollity. I was glad of this, because when attempting the impossible it is better to be naïve than sophisticated.

The Disney biopic about Beethoven is supposed to be awful because Beethoven gets the idea for the opening motif of the Fifth Symphony from the way the landlord knocks on the door when demanding rent. Actually it is a very good biopic, saying all the essential things about Beethoven’s personality, which under the complications was really very simple. The same applies to Shakespeare. Genius is always elementary. One of the reasons why Anthony Burgess’s ‘Nothing Like the Sun’ is so good is that it makes Shakespeare unusual in nothing except creative energy. Lower down the scale, ‘Will Shakespeare’ makes good soap opera for the same reason. You can identify with the hero.

There is a difference, of course, between innocence and crassness. Despite everything he has learned about life, John Mortimer remains innocent. The perpetrators of Wheels (ITV) are merely crass. The wife (Lee Remick) of the Man Wedded to the Automobile Company (Rock Hudson), having run away with a young racing driver, looks on in horror while he burns to death. What else is there to do except go back to her husband and turn into a klepto juice-head? This is bad news for Rock, who for reasons of compassion must perforce give up his mistress, a Southern belle media queen who says ‘Bah!’ to mean ‘goodbye.’ But nothing can stop his wife’s decline. ‘I don’t need help! I need passion! Or even brutality! But not ... kindness!’

Rock’s son Kirk hits the sack with the mistress. Agitators foment trouble at the plant. A Ralph Nader type attacks the company’s policies. Somehow Rock holds it all together. How could he do otherwise? He did it in ‘Ice Station Zebra.’ He did it in ‘Giant.’ He has been doing it since ‘Magnificent Obsession.’ In this kind of soap opera our memory of the actor’s past provides the substance of the character he is playing.

In An Englishman’s Castle (BBC2), a three-part play by Philip Mackie, Kenneth More impersonates the writer of a hit soap opera watched by everyone in Britain. The twist is that Britain is a German client State. The Nazis won the war. The hero gave up the fight after they won and settled down to live and let live. Casting Kenneth More in the role reassures you that he must have fought bravely at the time. This effect is gained, not by anything Kenneth More did personally, but because he has a long cinematic history behind him of being a brave first officer on the ‘Titanic’ and a dauntless, legless pilot in the Battle Of Britain.

When you think about it, ‘An Englishman’s Castle’ is one soap opera inside another, like a nest of Chinese soap boxes. The soap opera within the soap opera is supposed to be persuading the watching Britons that they were right to give up. But the play itself is persuading us of something too. It is persuading us that the British might have gone under quietly if the Germans had made the pill sweet enough to swallow.

The plot itself is not very well worked out, although it has its attractions. Kenneth More mainly just pulls a long face, but Anthony Bate (every casting director’s favourite double agent) has a good time being the smoothly ruthless Controller. There is a beautiful young actress (Isla Blair) who seduces the hero without removing her earrings and then reveals herself to be a freedom fighter. Gradually the easy-going hero turns against the regime. In the last episode, to be screened tomorrow, we will probably see him lurching into action on his tin legs, or at any rate standing to attention at 45 degrees while the ship goes down.

If Philip Mackie had set out to extrapolate in detail what a totalitarian Britain would be like, he would probably have found himself more reluctant to advance the idea even as a fantasy. What he is really talking about is Britain’s mood now, not then. Then, by all evidence, the Germans would have had a hell of a time subduing Britain. Apart from a few fascists, the only British political group likely to help Hitler would have been the Communist Party.

The author is on stronger ground when he shows the Controller censoring the hero’s script and calling the interference an Editorial Decision. The point gained sharpness in a week when the IBA once again made a fool of itself over Ireland. But it is one thing to portray modern-day television executives being as pusillanimous as they sometimes are. It is another thing to suggest the same sort of man would take orders from the Germans. It would have to be a different sort of man. Can you imagine, say, Sir Huw Wheldon taking orders from Berlin? Not even if they seared his eyebrows with hot tongs.

On two separate editions of Tonight (BBC1), Joyce McKinney was interviewed ‘somewhere in the United States.’ She stood amply revealed as a prattling ninny. Plainly she is quite harmless. Public money should never have been spent on bringing her to trial. One wonders, in that case, whether it was wise to spend public money tracking her down and getting her to talk. ‘When I was a starving young actress in California ... sleazy agent ... strange modelling-type situation ... some gentleman had requested photographs in a wrestling pose.’

With lip-gloss flashing around a smile that filled the lower half of her face like a crescent moon in a goldfish bowl, she raved on about the hapless Kirk. ‘Deep inside me I always felt I would meet a very special, spiritual gah.’ Sexual thairpy helped them both. What Kirk needed was bondage. ‘Wow! That thairpist was right.’ If Joyce and Kirk had done anything wrong, the punishment would be obvious: leave them together. In the immortal words of Gore Vidal, the rocks in his head fit the holes in hers.

The Observer, 18th June 1978