Essays: Wilde and Whistler Show |
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Wilde and Whistler Show

A SET of production values in search of a script, Lillie (LWT) has a definite appeal for the eye, but goes through the mind like a stream of neutrinos.

So great is the beauty and powerful the talent of Francesca Annis that she almost contrives to distract you from the inanity of the lines she has been given to speak. But always when she is not on the screen, and often enough when she is, you realise that the story being told is not worth telling. On this evidence, Lillie Langtry was no more interesting than any other social-climbing glamour-puss.

In reality, the Jersey Lily was one of those rare women who help to forge the shaky but enduring alliance between high society and the upper reaches of Bohemia — an uneasy symbiosis which is traditionally known under the collective title of the beau monde. She fascinated not only the nobs, who are always easily fascinated, but the artists, who in many cases can be fascinated only against their will. She seems to have been a kind of walking poem. That the Prince of Wales went to bed with her means nothing at all: who cares about him? But that she appealed to the imaginations of men like Wilde and Whistler is a fact not without significance, and the proper mainspring of any story about her life.

Wilde and Whistler are in the script all right. Indeed they are rarely out of it. As they arrive, people cry ‘It’s Wilde and Whistler!’ On they rush like Morecambe and Wise, except that their material is not as good. They are more like Little and Large. The author of the script, David Butler, either has no idea of what the two great wits of their age might have sounded like, or else lacks the wherewithal to evoke it. Instead, Whistler whoofles and Wilde wilts.

Whistler is played as a worldly-wise, twinkling buffer all overcome with fond understanding of Lillie’s dilemmas. He is always being wonderful. Wilde is played as a swoopy aesthete. The steel of his repartee is quite missing: everything he says is as soft as his wrist. He is always being even more wonderful than Whistler. Wilde calls Lillie ‘Divinity’ and goes dewy-eyed with thwarted longing.

Whistler, Wilde and their smart friends have conversations about Lillie while she is off in Rotten Row vamping the quality. These discussions are liberally punctuated with the Period Laugh, which has not been heard on such a scale since ‘Napoleon in Love’ some years back. The Period Laugh is the laugh that starts with N. ‘She is ... changing.’ ‘Nhah-hah-hah-hah!’ ‘In that way the Sphinx keeps her secrets.’ ‘Nhergh-hergh-hergh-hergh!’ ‘I’m not surpri-hi-hi-hised.’ ‘Nho-ho-ho-ho.’ At the end of these exchanges, people say ‘I’ll see myself out,’ which indicates, for the Victorian era, a strange shortage of butlers.

But even the largest budget is not limitless. The big ball-scenes probably ate up most of the money. During these, Lillie has been introduced to progressively grander grandees. At the climactic moment of each episode, she has sunk to one knee and risen saying ‘Your Grace’ or ‘Your Highness,’ filling the screen with an enigmatic half-smile as the titles roll.

Now at last she has met the Prince of Wales. ‘We have been fools,’ he murmurs through his beard, ‘to have waited so long.’ But the possibility that she might have gone on waiting longer, or even indefinitely, is not even considered. The script seems to regard her affair with the Prince as inevitable. There is nothing to distinguish Lillie’s values from those of her status-mad maid. ‘Next to ’eem, all zee arzers are nussing.’

This Lillie Langtry is a power-groupie. Such women can still be found today. Their chief ambition in life is to sit next to Henry Kissinger. Perhaps the real Lillie Langtry was like that too. But even if she was, she aroused in some very talented people that peculiar sense, half exaltation and half heart-break, which comes from knowing a woman so beautiful that she is like a work of art. If anybody could impersonate such a woman, Francesca Annis could, but not even she can do it without lines.

World About Us (BBC2) screened its second programme about independence for Papua. It was not as much fun as the first, but possibly more indicative. The Australian Government having gone away, it was now time for the Papuans to hold an election. Potential campaign assistants were instructed in the use of the loud-hailer. ‘This fella, volume control. Spose you like plenty noise, he come up loud.’

By the end of the programme one felt that one’s pidgin was coming along well. ‘Nevertheless, I am asking each one of you’ comes out as, ‘All the same me askin’ you one-one man.’ It sounds clear, neat and rhythmical: a hard language to lie in. The Papuans seem to be natural politicians, which fact will presumably entail all the usual skulduggery. But if they start trying to fool one another, at least they’ll sound good doing it. That they look good goes without saying.

Pretty bodies were omnipresent in an Omnibus (BBC1) about Gauguin. It would appear that ‘Omnibus’ has undergone a process akin to being born again. The phoenix is back from the ashes. Since the ashes had been dispersed on the four winds, this is quite a feat. The first programme in the current series dealt with the pop music business. I didn’t have room to review it at the time, but should say fleetingly now that it was an excellent job, true to the sordid reality and agog with the vital urge that makes pop worthwhile despite all.

The Gauguin programme was similarly dedicated, although I must admit that after a while I turned off the sound. which seemed bent on telling me that there was a discrepancy between the reality the artist inhabited and the paradise he conjured up. That sort of thing is never news. But Gauguin’s canvases are revelations always. Here was a chance to see what was missing from Lust for Life (BBC1), one of the best-looking bad movies ever made. The film teems with Van Gogh’s pictures but Gauguin is mainly represented by nothing except the scowls and grunts of Anthony Quinn, doing his Irrepressible Animal Magnetism number Zorba the Frog.

Panorama (BBC1) was being scarey again, this time about killer satellites, electron beam devices and the hideous prospect of a planet in flames. With Tom Mangold providing the doomy voice-overs, models of laser-toting baddie satellites crept menacingly through space. Bloop bleep. Tweet. Bonk. Sinisterly they drew a bead on goodie satellites who asked nothing except to be left alone to get on with being indispensible to global communications, etc. Lasers flashed. Fzzzt! Bazoom!

Crudely but energetically acted, Tom Clarke’s Victims of Apartheid (BBC1) was an extraordinary cocktail of humour and fright. Brave black victims of South African torture were shown to he leading farcical lives in London. The fecklessness of the present was not shirked. Nor was the agony of the past.

The Observer, 29th October 1978

[ An excerpt from this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]