Essays: A lesson in great acting |
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A lesson in great acting

SIX Million Dollar Man (Thames), the android with the mechanical dialogue, met another of his kind, called Seven Million Dollar Man. This made 13 million dollars’ worth of hardware in all.

On Panorama (BBC1), android President Ford added a new feature to his speaking style: illustrative hand signals, as otherwise exemplified by our own Bob McKenzie. If President Ford wants a global approach he draws a circle in the air with his finger. If he wants us to devote our full mental effort to a problem, he points to his head. The signal I’m waiting For is the one for catastrophe. With him in charge, it shouldn’t be long coming.

An unpretentious ‘Centre Play’ called The House on the Hill (BBC2) was written by Peter Ransley and starred Elisabeth Bergner as Ellen, a lady in distressed circumstances. As I never tire of saying, but as you perhaps tire of hearing, our multitude of gifted young actresses constitutes one of the best things about the arts in this country. But even talent needs lessons, and the best acting lesson of me week came from Miss Bergner. Mr Ransley’s idea was of a once-glamorous woman who had been right through the European experience (‘the wrong documents’ was her key phrase of complaint) and had ended up in uncomprehending London. Eviction from her ratty room would be the final blow, as her young friend Peter (Dennis Waterman) well understood. Ellen herself no longer understood much at all. She was aware of her condition without admitting it, and inadvertently did everything she could to ruin her cause.

All this was written down for Miss Bergner to illuminate, but what was remarkable was how completely she embodied the material. To a good role she brought an exceptional performance. Its crowning moment was her brilliant smile as the rent tribunal pronounced her death sentence. Not understanding what was being said, she assumed that things had gone well. The play closed with a psychiatrist intoning details of the shock treatment which finally wiped her out.

John Stonehouse, whose own grip on reality doesn’t seem too strong, was in the news night after night. On Sunday he talked about his ‘tremendous ordeal.’ On Tuesday he was talking about the world-shaking results which would ensue ‘if I can get the story down of my experience.’ He looks as sick as a dog to me, and I wonder if the news teams are helping anybody by relaying his delirium to the world. The Venturers (BBC1) was marginally better this week, with T. P. McKenna emoting manfully as a self-made tour operator who made the mistake of trying to outsmart Geoffrey Keen. The action took place over a meal in the bank’s boardroom. Oysters were tortured with tabasco before being executed and in general the air of affluence was byzantine.

Aladdin on Ice (BBC1), taped at the Empire Pool, Wembley, was good news on the whole. Princess Yasmin was skated by Patricia Pauley, who achieves a far more lyrical line than any of the amateurs currently contending the World Championship. Pekoe and So-shi were a pair of mind-boggling adagio skaters, Joop van der Sluys and Carie Richardson. Otherwise the choreography tended to the militaristic. But the decor and props were imaginative — the dragon would have pleased Wagner — and Anthony Holland’s costumes were wonderful. The ice panto is an art form of huge potential, but the kind of sophisticates likely to take it up are also the ones most likely to ruin it, so perhaps it had better stay merely popular. (Nightmare: an ice show with music by Richard Rodney Bennett and dialogue by Adrian Mitchell, directed by Lindsay Anderson.)

A strong week for Shaw. The Apple Cart (BBC1) was well designed and soundly enough played, and the creaky old Gabriel Pascal production of Pygmalion, screened by BBC1, was as absorbing as ever, mainly because Wendy Hiller’s performance is eternal. (As opposed to Audrey Hepburn’s, which was forgotten before it reached the screen.) Pascal and Shaw were a Pygmalion story in themselves, with Shaw as Galatea: Shaw never quite realised the extent to which Pascal was pulling the strings. It would make a good play.

Breath (BBC1), a ‘Play for Today’ by Elaine Feinstein, was very interesting. Angela Pleasence was Nell, an asthmatic sensitive, and Gareth Thomas was Rodney, her bull-headed accountant husband. ‘Promise not to tell me I’ve got the brain of a hen,’ Nell vainly pleaded. A creepy new housekeeper called Mrs Pritchett was a figure of menace. Or was it all in Nell’s mind? Not if Mrs Pritchett was actually doing what she was doing and saying what she was saying. Nell wanted Mrs Pritchett out of the picture, but nobody would co-operate — a bit of a mystery, that, since the lady was transparently a raving nutter. Miss Feinstein reminds me of the American writer Joan Didion, and Joan Didion reminds me of Miss Feinstein. Both have a fastidiously elegant approach to pain and a natural disinclination to concern themselves with anything else.

Man Alive (BBC2) found some intelligent people willing to talk about their divorces — a hard trick. The lawyers came out of it badly. World in Action (Granada) had been counting the extraordinary number of schools that burn down. The designers came out of it very badly. The Love School (BBC2), the story of pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, promises to be a stinker, but it would be unfair to judge it on the basis of its preliminary episode, which was mainly occupied with the standard bio-pic chore of getting the famous names acquainted with one another. ‘Call me Gabriel.’ (‘And we’ll get Benny to play the clarinet.’ ‘Benny who?’ ‘Benny Goodman.’)

The Observer, 26th January 1975