Essays: The sorry Serpent |
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The sorry Serpent

A GENTLEMAN who appends to his signature the information that he is a (BA Hons) writes from the Department of Literature of the University of Essex to assure me that I have been unfair in casting aspersions on The Serpent Son (BBC2), which is ‘an attempt ... to explore the use of TV as an experimental media in its own right.’

How my correspondent got to be a (BA Hons) without discovering that the word ‘media’ should be used only in the plural is a subject I have no room to go into. Much more important is the question of why Frederic Raphael And Kenneth McLeish should have set themselves up as translators of the classical masterpieces, when in fact their touch with the ancient languages is no better than that manifested by a certain (BA Hons) from the University of Essex.

I don’t say that Messrs Raphael and McLeish are ignorant. Between them they have all the qualifications. All except one. They translate distinguished Latin and Greek into undistinguished English. It is not a question of learning, which they have in abundance — certainly far beyond my own smatterings. It is a matter of tact. They are full of theories about how a translation should sound to a modern ear, but have no thought for the way the original already sounds in the ear of eternity.

Their recently published translation of Catullus man-ages to leave out his lyricism. But unless the BBC makes a series about Catullus, that fact will not he of much moment to the television audience. More seriously, their translation of Aeschylus manages to leave our his rhythm. The rhythm of Greek poetry is one of the most important things about it. You can beat out Greek metres on a snare drum.

Infallibly Messrs Raphael and McLeish turn lines of poetry into chopped-up prose. Since the lines don’t sustain themselves, the actors rant to make up the deficiency. That is why ‘The Serpent Son’ sounds so unimpressive. Noisy, but unimpressive. It is not just because Humphrey Searle writes music that sounds like the theme from ‘Star Wars’ played backwards through a washing machine.

In his translation of ‘Agamemnon,’ Louis MacNeice — who had the talent as well as the erudition — probably came as close as possible to the way Greek tragedy should sound today. How Greek tragedy should look today is a moot point, but it is safe to assert that it should not look like an all-night disco in a junkyard. Like the BBC production of Verdi’s ‘Macbeth,’ ‘The Serpent Son’ is an example of design strangling in eclecticism. It is all echoes and no impulse. Whatever the past was like, it was not a conglomeration of styles.

Within living memory Sophocles’s ‘Elektra’ has been produced on television to powerful effect. It will be remembered that Eileen Atkins brought heroic stature to the part. She had strong lines to speak. The killings took place off stage, where they belong. There was no futzing around with fancy frames and wipes. The costumes and decor were simple but convincing. It was, to borrow the words of my correspondent (BA Hons), ‘that rare phenomena, a television programme worth watching.’

Whatever ‘an experimental media in its own right’ might happen to be, television is not it. Television is just television. It does not exist in order to be experimented with. All you can do with it is use it — or in some cases abuse it. David Frost abused it with his latest programme. Called David Frost’s Global Village (Yorkshire), the show was even more ridiculous than its title.

The subject was Rhodesia. Frost was in the Leeds studio along with Sir Harold Wilson, hero of the Tiger and the Fearless. Ian Smith was in Salisbury, but thanks to the wonders of modern electronics his face and voice were able to turn up in Leeds. Similar miracles enabled Joshua Nkomo to tune in from Lusaka. Andrew Young came beaming in from New York. Posing cross-legged and pointing at giant screens, Frost called spirits from the vasty deep. ‘It’s all up to God, the satellites and those little birds in the sky up there,’ he announced, showing that command of language which has made him what he is today.

Unfortunately the main actors had nothing to say to each other. All they did was restate the positions to which they have been separately adhering during the normal course of diplomacy. It was extremely unlikely that they would do anything else. The reason they were participating was to publicise their views, not to discuss them.

Sir Harold Wilson would have been a pompous embarrassment even if he had not got Mr Nkomo’s name wrong. But we have grown used to Sir Harold’s fitful preening. Frost himself, however, reached such new heights of hubris that you began to wonder why Zeus, or anyway the IBA, did not send a lightning-bolt to shut him up.

Perhaps disappointment was to blame. Clearly Frost had set out in the hope that peace for Rhodesia could be achieved in Leeds. When it became evident that this would not happen, he lost his judgment. Joshua Nkomo said that he wished Dr Owen was present. Frost said ‘he’s out looking for a policy.’ Thus was insult added to injury. The Foreign Secretary is not obliged to attend on David Frost, who has nothing to back up his opinion in this or any other serious matter except a few tatty manila folders.

My big mistake of 1978 was to welcome Omnibus (BBC1) back from the dead. In fact it has buried itself deeper than ever. But Arena (BBC2) has been doing some good things. Their latest programme, directed by Nigel Finch, very funnily summarised the genesis and career of a single song, ‘My Way.’ Paul Anka told us how he was struck with the inspiration for writing it. Writing it consisted of taking the tune, which had already been composed by someone else, and fitting words to it which Frank Sinatra might conceivably want to sing. Since the words dealt with the heroic determination, sufferings and self-possession of the singer, it was not surprising that Sinatra decided to give them the benefit of his vocal skill.

So, in rapid succession, did everybody else. There were clips of Vera Lynn, Elvis Presley, Danny La Rue, Dorothy Squires and Kathy Kirby all giving the big ballad the full works. The song brings out the ham in everybody, but beside Shirley Bassey the rest of them are shrinking violets. Looking as proud as if she had just invented the jet engine, she howled the climactic stanza from a mouth which had wandered under her left ear. She was even funnier than Lord George-Brown, who explained why the song so exactly reflects his own unique gifts of independence and courage. She was even funnier than St Paul’s choir, who sing it God’s way.

The Observer, 18th March 1979