Essays: Playing the language game |
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Playing the language game

‘I DID NOT succeed to watch the television,’ explained the French student in the first episode of Michael Frayn’s Making Faces (BBC2). ‘The last weekend I did not succeed to do nothing.’

‘Anything’ said his English language teacher, Eleanor Bron. ‘No,’ he insisted. ‘Anything is not what I did not. Nothing is what I did not.’ Such elementary confusion at the language barrier amounts to a holiday for Frayn’s characters, whose most anxiety-ridden dealings with English grammar and syntax take place within their own consciousness: it is when talking to themselves that they teeter at the cliff of unmeaning.

‘It’s not the effect that you have on me that worries me,’ Bron explains to her boyfriend, who might as well not be there, ‘it’s the effect that I have on you. Or rather, it’s the effect that the effect I have on you has on me.’ (I think I noted that down correctly.) Frayn is deeply and continuously concerned with Wittgenstein’s philosophy, especially in its later phases, when the subject became language games, leading to brain-boggling speculations about the prospect of a game without rules.

No great joker himself, Wittgenstein had an unfortunate effect on his sober-sided epigoni, whose commentaries on his work tend to sound as if Eleanor Bron dictated them under the hairdryer. One recalls that G. E. M. Anscombe, in her introduction to one of the master’s posthumous volumes, asks why, if it is informative to point out that the morning star is the same as the evening star, is it uninformative to point out that the evening star is the same as the evening star. Just such questions preoccupy the Frayn/Bron characters as their super-civilised minds slither over the brink of tears into the abyss.

Frayn’s ideal aim in the drama has always been to load its rifts with the same ore that jammed every cranny of the novel ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ and the columns collected in ‘The Book of Fub,’ ‘At Bay in Gear Street’ and ‘The Day of the Dog.’ In his latest play for the theatre, ‘Alphabetical Order,’ he took a large step towards attaining this end, but at the last I thought he had not quite done his faculty of invention justice — from Frayn one wants wild subtlety. After two episodes, ‘Making Faces’ shows abundant signs of that, without endangering Frayn’s determined repudiation of any atavistic retreat to the status of what he once called Jokey Man. (Jokey Man could have little to say about F. R. Leavis, the subject of the second episode, and one which it needs a sense of seriousness to take humorously.) Frayn has the mature humorist’s horror of gags to no purpose. It is not a case of the clown wanting to play Hamlet, since Frayn was never a clown. The desire is to carry the comic vision through to its consequences, following E. M. Forster’s dictum that art must be pursued to extremes.

John Cleese, who was and is a clown, might seem an unlikely figure to be afflicted with the same wish, but he is. He also shares Frayn’s obsession with semantic fatigue, a fact lavishly attested to by his new series Fawlty Towers (BBC2), whose second episode — I did not succeed to watch the first — several times had me retching with laughter. There is a Spanish waiter perpetually on hand for the specific purpose of failing to understand what Cleese is talking about. ‘Cuando nosotros somos away ... away. What’s “away” in Spanish?’ Cleese asks the Spaniard, on that fierce note of hatred which in his case invariably precedes a paroxysm of violence — a fugue of aggro that devastates his immediate environment simply by the intensity with which it turns in upon itself, like an atomic pile in the throes of a melt-down. In this condition he sinks floorwards, knees together, feet a fathom apart, screaming through his ears while his clenched teeth spit chips of enamel, one fist smashing remorselessly into his own ribs while bloody fingernails appear through the knuckles of the other.

The common reader would be justified in finding the Radio Times article on the Cambridge of Frayn and Bron (written by Claire Tomalin, herself a famous alumna) kind of cosy. When you consider that Cleese went to the same place, I might be appearing to thicken the miasma of mutual admiration by suggesting that these enterprising talents are linked by the influence of the dear Varsity’s salient modern thinker. No such intention: the truth is more mundane. The thing that joined them all up was the Footlights Dramatic Society — an institution which needs demystifying, since even in its various heydays it was never more than a place for histrionic neurotics to seek one another out. But since a certain percentage of them were intelligent histrionic neurotics, and since a certain percentage of those were talented intelligent histrionic neurotics, the effects have sometimes been far-reaching, especially when initial success in revue has faced the multi-qualified graduate with the problems of choosing what to do next.

Jonathan Miller, as seen on an unusually interesting Parkinson (BBC1), was the ex-Cambridge revue-star to the life and in excelsis. Telling the story of how his stutter made introducing ‘Monitor’ an assault-course over nets and ponds of consonants, Miller couldn’t help being wonderfully funny. Parky was perfectly right to ask him why he had given up making people laugh. And Miller was no doubt right in his turn to reply that the rigmarole of preparing to make people laugh ended by boring him.

Miller’s co-interviewee was the admirable Lee Remick, who spoke concisely about the importance of the word ‘No’ in a performer’s career. She is an instructive example of how intelligence in an actress can be penalised and yet survive, as opposed to the more numerous examples of the lack of it being rewarded and yet destroyed.

BBC2’s new arts-fest Arena began absorbingly with Kenneth Tynan asking Lord Olivier about Lilian Baylis. ‘She is sometimes accused of being rude, mean, conceited. Did you find that?’ ‘Well... yes.’ On the Book Programme (BBC2) friends of Evelyn Waugh gathered at the Ritz to tell tales reinforcing his super-shit image. ‘If he wanted to bully a few people it didn’t bother me’, said Ian Fleming’s widow, setting us straight. Francesca Annis is OUT OF SIGHT as Madame Bovary (BBC2).

Ben Hall (BBC1) came to an end. Flattish in dialogue, it had the clearest-cut characters and best-filmed action of any series in years — a truly constructive piece of myth-fulfilment. Girl in a Broken Mirror (Thames) was about a schoolgirl ballerina starring in a ballet by Sir Arthur Bliss. The ballet was zilch, but the ballerina did wonders for your Humbert complex.

The Observer, 5th October 1975

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]