Essays: Lashings of style |
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Lashings of style

NOW THAT the incoming Tory Government has made greed patriotic, there is no use pretending that we aren’t going to have a much easier time of it. Except, of course, for those of us who are going to have a much harder time of it.

But in one thing we are all united. We are all doomed to cope with five years of Mrs Thatcher’s liturgical tones. She started quoting St Francis within minutes of becoming elected, and scarcely an hour had gone by before she was sounding like the book of Revelation read out over a railway station public address system by a headmistress of a certain age wearing calico knickers. By dawn of the next day she was doing a fair imitation of the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps she is just nerving herself up for the miracles she will have to perform with the loaves and fishes.

Somewhere in one of the better decorated of the lower regions, Noël Coward is stretched out on a chaise-longue. Surrounded by onyx clocks, tall drinks and signed photographs of Gertrude Lawrence, he is looking at a television set in a satinwood cabinet. Design for Living (BBC1) has barely begun. Suddenly there is a snapping sound. Coward has just bitten through the stem of his ebony cigarette holder. What the hell have they done to his play?

A desperately nervous piece about three desperately clever people in love, it is not much of a play, principally because it is desperately short of good lines. But given lashings of style it could still be brought off. Unfortunately in this production most of the style was confined to the costumes, decor and props. Pretty clothes were hung on Rula Lenska, who played Gilda. Elegant tail coats swerved over the taut rear ends of the two young actors who played Gilda’s lovers. Art Deco objets d’art stood in serried ranks on the mantelpieces and coffee tables, as if to illustrate a long article by Bevis Hillier. On sound, Marlene Dietrich was follink in luff again.

But nobody in the show except Dandy Nichols, who was pretending to be the maid, had any idea of how to underplay a scene. They all shouted their heads off while offering one another cigarettes from cigarette tins which you could tell were the genuine contemporary article from how scratched and battered they were. The implication was that fashionable people in the thirties went about offering one another cigarettes from scratched and battered cigarette tins, while bellowing lines like ‘Whom do you love best?’

All three principal players held their cigarettes from underneath, like Russian spies. I suppose that there are photographs of Noël Coward doing this which could be advanced in favour of the argument that in a Noël Coward play there is really no other way to hold a cigarette. There are also plenty of gramophone records which could be adduced as evidence that Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence over enunciated at all times. But they were in a theatre — or if they were not in a theatre were in a recording studio staffed by engineers too shy to tell them that they were not in a theatre. On television in 1979 it is not necessary to yell. There is nothing to be gained by it except strained vocal cords.

Most theatre is tripe now, and most theatre was tripe then. Distance lends enchantment, but the likelihood is that in the original production of ‘Design for Living’ Coward and the Lunts were unbelievable and arch with it. It can be taken for granted that the average standard of acting which we see on television today is far better than the average standard of acting which prevailed in the theatre before the war. It is therefore doubly annoying to see actors on television behaving as if they were mixed up in a piece of bad theatre.

At one point, when Miss Lenska and her two lovers were screaming at one another particularly loudly while lighting half a dozen cigarettes each, I switched over to the film Man without a Star on BBC2 and found Kirk Douglas looking subtle by comparison. Since Kirk Douglas could not hum a lullaby to a sleeping child without popping his eyes, gritting his teeth and focusing his dimple, it will be appreciated that the people from whom I was experiencing him as a relief must have been a long way over the top.

Far be it from me to intrude on Philip French’s territory, but there are occasions when the films shown on television are too important to be ignored. Attila the Hun (ITV) is an example. Some experts place it among the All-time Bottom Ten, along with ‘Zarak’, ‘Written on the Wind’ and ‘The Swarm’. For admirers of Anthony Quinn, this is perhaps the key film in his oeuvre. In ‘Zorba the Greek’ he is Zorba the Greek, in ‘Lust for Life’ he is Zorba the Frog, but in ‘Attila the Hun’ he is Zorba the Hun.

The Roman empire is in decline. Attila is a rough diamond but he is imbued with energy. ‘Lissename allayou,’ he tells the Huns. ‘This is an arpatoonity to carnker Rome!’ Sophia Loren, playing a decadent Roman aristo, goes for him. He is her bit of rough. More macho than Attila they don’t come. Attired in top-knot, ear-rings, green tights, gold-studded jock-strap and après-ski boots, he is one stunning hunk of Hun. Sophia’s decadence is chiefly signified by the kind of décolletage that leaves even an experienced rapist like Attila shifting his feet awkwardly. She is all chiffon and angel food. He is all studs, spikes and greased thongs. Mad about each other, they advance on Rome, while kissing. It is not easy, especially on horseback.

It looks like curtains for the cradle of civilisation. But with the city walls in sight, Attila and his ravening horde are met by several hundred extras robed in white. The air is filled with celestial music, odd to the Hunnish ear. ‘Strange sound. Sort of chanting.’ The Christians — for these are indeed they — kneel and bid Attila wreak what wreck he reckons appropriate. Attila draws his extremely butch-looking sword and flourishes it aloft. But the word that springs to his cruel lips is: ‘Back!’ And back the Huns go to Huntingdon, or wherever it is they live, while a cross of light appears in the sky and Sophia elopes with Carlo Ponti.

A Fire in the Sky (ITV) was one of those made-for-TV movies, imported from America, which are even worse than bad real movies, since as well as lacking everything else they lack stars too. Would a comet wipe out Phoenix, Arizona? ‘Check with the computer room! Get its background and orbit calculations, fast!’ There was also plenty of ‘I want’ dialogue, always a sign that hack writers are in charge of the script. ‘I want a complete spectrophotometer scan!’ Three hours of that and you long for Anthony Quinn.

The Observer, 13th May 1979

[ An incomplete version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]