Essays: When life begins at fifty |
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When life begins at fifty

WITH Kisses at Fifty (BBC-1) Colin Welland last week turned in a sensitively instinctual piece of writing with few hints of calculation — an anonymous effort in the best sense. Harry (Bill Maynard) turned 50 and left wife, kids and grandchildren behind in the house, proceeding to the local in order to down pints with his mates, of whom George (John Comer) was the boon companion. ‘A birthday and a half, this: no danger,’ Harry announced, and was invited to kiss the new barmaid, Audrey — a pretty lady, much his junior, played by Marjorie Yates. The moment of truth, and from that point the action rolled inexorably: these lovers fled away. They were Anna Karenina and Vronsky; they were D. H. Lawrence and Frieda; or, to put it another way, they were an averagely attractive barmaid with a nice bottom and a semi-articulate furnace-man who were game enough to meet the demands of their mutual passion and throw off the blankets of dead comfort lying across their lives.

In sharp contrast to the anodyne episodes of Love Story (ATV), there were no level-headed reconciliations at the end. Harry returned for his daughter’s wedding and joined in the group photograph, but soon went back to Audrey. A decrepit female in the boozer had already said it all: ‘I hope they bugger off, the pair of them. I only wish my arse were bonny again. I’d be off like a dose of salts.’ Pleading nerves, the abandoned wife, Rene (played ably by Rosemarie Dunham in the range between brave wetness and tearful inadequacy), went on the Assistance, thereby further establishing her groan-provoking pathos.

‘You pulled a bloody great pillow off my face,’ Audrey told Harry in their ghastly bed-sit: ‘I took three gulps and shouted for joy.’ There was more in the same vein. ‘We must be barmy. A month we’ve known each other. Four weeks. And we’ve chucked them all in after a month.’ ‘Aye,’ grunted the reflective Harry. ‘But we’ve been waiting for years.’ Eternity was in their lips and eyes, bliss in their brows bent. How could Rene compete with this?

Wherein lay the artifice, or lack of it. The play was a bit short on a sense of its own past. It was only too believable that Harry hadn’t really fancied Rene in 20 years, and that the unquestioned duty of bringing up the kids had turned her into an automaton. You could even imagine her when young — less spirited than her daughters and believing implicitly in the married dream. What was hard to imagine was she and Harry being young together. Was there no hint then of the originality that determined his conduct now? Wouldn’t Rene’s memories have been something better than merely conventional? Welland was dealing from a stacked deck.

It was quite possible to imagine Rene as far more interesting and Harry still running off, although Harry would scarcely have looked so heroic. And as with the past, so with the future — which Welland was under no obligation to explore, but which nevertheless threw down a chilling shadow. Harry’s prospects were to stack boxes in a factory all day and in the evenings hang around in a cocktail bar watching Audrey mix drinks for the big spenders. Leaving bed aside, this didn’t necessarily seem a better fate than sweating it out with Rene, even if it meant leaving her every night to fuss around a sofa-load of box-watching offspring while he shot off to the pub to quaff a jar with the faithful George.

Unsentimentality can have a sentimentality all its own, and the soft sell here lay in the assumption that packing everything in and clearing off is brave because social pressure is all against it. This may well be so, but can’t be an assumption — not in art, which can put up with no such thing. Still, a serious play, and finely executed. There was fluent direction by Michael Apted (back from the movies as if he’d never been away) and some interesting acting, especially from Harry’s spitfire of an elder daughter, Sandra — played by Lori Wells with a caterwauling nervous tension which lent force to the casually announced prediction that she’d be following Harry’s road within 10 years.

Frankie Howerd’s Whoops Baghdad (BBC-1) bids fair to be a faster and funnier version of ‘Up Pompeii.’ As usual Frankie is the local lurk-man and free-lance interlocutor, surrounded by a BBC canteen’s worth of stock characters and a platoon of beauty queens with their cakes hanging out. The show might just as well be called ‘Stone Me Beirut’ or ‘I Should Coco Teheran,’ since it is nothing but an excuse to place our supreme conqueror of material in a position where he can dominate three cameras a: once. ‘And over there’s the Street of the Hundred Virgins,’ he avers. Scream off. ‘I beg your pardon, 99.’ The gag is a big fat zero, but Frankie has got on top of it by exploring his own ear for wax.

Camp inward-directed kisses follow the punch-lines of terrible jokes, thereby disclaiming responsibility for the script: fake camp, because Frankie is the essence of butch. A suspicion of queenliness and the whole deal would collapse in ruins — poncing about must be a matter of desperate necessity, not choice. When he shouts ‘Not a titter’ you know things are going well, and when things are really cooking he gets off on a frantic improvised run from one double entendre to another that is really the last word in professional cool. ‘Boys are the ones with long burnouses,’ he explains to Hilary Pritchard, ‘which they hang, which they put, which they er, and then they ah...’ His speeding hands describe trays, shelves, hooks and racks. When a beggar threatens to steal a scene, Frankie is indulgent. ‘Hasn’t he got a sense of humour? G E T  O F F.’ The camera zooms in tight as he sneaks a searing glance to either side, looking for the producer. Absolute magic. He is the apex.

The Observer, 28th January 1973