Essays: The Grade Gospel |
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The Grade Gospel

THE Lord thy Grade hath done it again. After ‘Moses — the Lawgiver,’ who else but Jesus of Nazareth (ATV)? Ring out the Old Testament, ring in the New.

And once again the results are not all that dire. This time the show is going out in two whopping chunks, the first last Sunday and the second tonight. Judging by the first three-hour half, Lord Grade has successfully reasserted his determination to handle these Biblical matters with good taste. The director, Franco Zeffirelli, is in restrained form. There is no vulgarity. There is no sensationalism. In fact it gradually dawns on you that there is not much of anything, except good taste.

It would be straining at a gnat to laugh at the well-known thespian faces as they plug away at their starring roles, canter through as supporting players, or flare briefly on the screen in cameo appearances like those in ‘Around the World in Eighty Days.’ After all, somebody has to play the parts, and unknowns couldn’t manage. In Part One, Ralph Richardson was a suitably doddering Simeon who looked as if he might possibly drop the baby; Donald Pleasance, one of the Three Wise Men, was as wise as all get out; and Anne Bancroft realistically tarted herself up as the Magdalene.

Higher up the sanctity rankings, Michael York made a rugby-nosed firebrand out of John the Baptist. His teeth, like Burt Lancaster’s as Moses, were probably too good to suit the time — I don’t suppose there was much sugar around in those days, but there were no toothbrushes, either. Quibbles, these. You can’t seriously fault the playing.

Even among the Holy Family, the casting has been thoughtfully done. Olivia Hussey, who once made a good Juliet for Zeffirelli, doesn’t make a bad Mary, either. Of the 30-plus years she is supposed to age during Jesus’s lifetime, she manages about three, but the Mother of God doesn’t necessarily obey the same rules as other girls. The real trouble starts with Jesus Himself. Robert Powell plays Him with all the stops in. I have never seen an actor so heroically unforthcoming. In this fashion he goes a long way towards covering up the fact that nobody concerned with the show — whether Zeffirelli, the script-writers (Anthony Burgess once again heads the list) or Lord Grade on high — has made up his mind about what a Messiah actually is. Is it a man? Is it a bird?

Gothically concave of cheek, Powell’s Jesus gives fireside chats, like J. B. Priestley during WW II. Oodles of serenity, but not a hint of nimbus. When the disciples stare deep into his eyes the reaction-shots show them to be overwhelmed by something or other, but it can’t be charisma. More likely it is Positive Thinking. Nor are the miracles played up. On the contrary, they are played so far down they almost vanish. Nothing supernatural is allowed to obtrude. Even the Annunciating Angel is just a beam of light.

A very pretty beam of light. As so often happens with Zeffirelli, the design is the true hero. The exteriors, washed out like a tinted engraving, look eaten up by sunlight. The interiors echo Rembrandt’s idea of glimmers in the gloom: scenes of dissipation in Herod’s palace might have been hand-painted in Amsterdam, right down to the blobs of gold impasto. Zeffirelli can still handle crowds and costumes as surely as he ever did in his movies of ‘La Bohème’ and ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ while the same soft powdery atmosphere the characters breathe in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is breathed in this.

Dusty mist and misty dust — it’s the Zeffirelli Look. But the feeling of a revolution being worked in human affairs is lost among the cataracts of tact. Compare Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’ and you can see how Christ, without being made a shouting zealot, can nevertheless be shown to have come with a sword. Believers can reconcile His divinity with His humanity, and doubters can make a subject out of the difference. In this production there is neither belief nor doubt. As a consequence, only the rationalist element is transmitted with any real force. But there is enough of that to be going on with, and on the whole it can be said that this was a project well worth trying, especially when you consider how lousy those Hollywood Biblical epics used to be.

Still on the subject of saving the world, but shifting the temporal focus to the present day, BBC1 devoted most of an evening to The Writing on the Wall, which turned out to be yet another episode in a continuing saga: Lord Chalfont Warns the West. Although the impression remains that Lord Chalfont is a little man with a big issue, it must be said that he came out of this programme sounding more authoritative than you might have expected. In a similar show for Anglia last year he was to be seen in the company of some of Britain’s silliest right-wingers and to be heard propounding the necessity of giving up some of our freedoms in order to meet the Russian threat. Nor has he been slow to argue that in order to hold back the Communist tide we must learn to love the Shah.

Lord Chalfont might very well be right about Russian intentions, but he has a bad habit of overcooking his minatory tone. This time, however, he kept himself under tight rein. Even General Alexander Haig tried hard to sound normal. Speaking ‘in the context of the broad trends,’ the General didn’t want to paint too dark a picture of NATO’s weakness. ‘I reject the more extreme articulations,’ he announced. On the other hand he didn’t underestimate the threat.

Vladimir Dunaev of Russia rebutted Chalfont’s claim to have presented an ‘objective Western view,’ saying that a view had to be either Western or objective, but couldn’t be both. Russia, Dunaev argued, persuasively, had good historical reasons for pointing a lot of tanks at Germany: it was a defensive stance, not an aggressive one. Chalfont fought back with some strong evidence about Russia’s arms build-up. He was on weaker ground when stressing the menacing nature of Russia’s civil defence programme, but by and large he stayed cool.

Only once did the pot crack. Would a Communist government of Italy, he wondered, relinquish power if voted out? The implication being that a Communist Government ought not to be allowed in, even if elected. The train of thought will be familiar to students of Dr Kissinger — now, for a mercy, no longer in a position to run around destabilising Governments on our behalf.

Kissinger was still Secretary of State when he made his contribution to Weekend in Vermont (BBC2), a symposium hosted by Professor Galbraith, which went out last Saturday as a seal-setter to ‘The Age of Uncertainty.’ Of all the deep thinkers who had been assembled to discuss our future, Kissinger was easily the most charming. Everybody first-named everybody else. It was a very cosy scene. Shirley Williams emerged as the girl you would most like to be Prime Minister of Britain.

Jesus couldn’t do it, Lord Chalfont can’t do it, but Six Million Dollar Man (Thames) did it — he saved the world. Forn agents turned a carnival into a rabbit worn of electronic devices in order to sabotage the B1 bomber, but Six nixed them with his bionic strength.

The Observer, 10th April 1977

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]