Essays: Lobbing match over a cat's cradle |
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Lobbing match over a cat’s-cradle

ON Something to Say (Thames) Sir Isaiah Berlin and Professor Stuart Hampshire played amiable badminton across a net formed by the increasingly elaborate, cat’s-cradle hand-signals of Bryan Magee, who after several months of sitting between contestants lobbing abstract concepts at each other has by now developed a precise explanatory semaphore: that gesture where the stiffened left hand brushes crumbs off the knuckles of the loosely poised right, for instance, means the tendency of class-systems to crumple under the pressure of industrialism and reform with a new set of interior stresses.

Professor Hampshire and Sir Isaiah had plainly been through all this before — presumably in Oxford, where they have a college each. But they didn’t mind cantering through it again for our benefit, eschewing too many casual mentions of Treitschke or Max Weber and simply bearing down hard on the subject, which was nationalism.

Sir Isaiah’s closing point was that understanding it probably wouldn’t be much help in controlling it. This position, with its corollary that knowledge should be pursued for its own sake and not for its putative social efficacy, strikes me as tough and sane — or perhaps one is merely feeling particularly helpless this week, waiting for a thalidomide child to receive a letter bomb. The logic of terrorism demands a soft target.

The second programme in BBC-1’s series on The Commanders dealt with ‘Bomber’ Harris, who also knew something about soft targets. Like the Rommel programme, this one was lamentably tardy in getting down to bedrock, spending most of its time being fascinated with its own film footage — some of which was new, most of which was horrifying, and all of which raised questions which should have been central to the programme’s structure rather than incidental. Harris’s professed aim of inflicting unacceptable material damage on German industrial cities was gone into, but the problem of how this aim could be squared with the eventual destruction of Dresden was not.

There was a throwaway line about Dresden lying behind the Germans as they faced the advancing Russians. If this was a rehash of the hoary old face-saver about Dresden being a potential centre of resistance, then it was an effrontery. Dresden was the logical culmination of the bombing policy which started at Cologne, and that policy was terror — even if Goebbels said it was. The Nazis were barbarians and had to be put down with dreadful means; in the end our cruelty was right because theirs was wrong. But this ought to be the nub of the matter, and not an a priori assumption. This series, naught but the distant rumble of a Second World War juggernaut e’en now powering towards our screens, bodes as I plead — ill.

Pity and terror? The Greeks had a purge for it. The Cedric Messina production of King Oedipus (BBC-2) had a greater coherence of interpretation than most productions emanating from that source and held the eye and mind throughout, although it lost the imagination somewhere about halfway through. The setting was the modern Middle East, with the Theban power-structure sitting about in uniforms of British descent while a constantly running buzz-track of agitated shuffling, random shots, Casbah mutterings and low-flying jet planes conveyed the impression of a fluid political situation in the environs.

Laying the triple-whammy on himself, Ian Holm as Oedipus signed off with ‘er, the gods curse all who disobey this charge’ in the same way that a tired businessman remains yours sincerely. Alan Webb as Teiresias surged on in a wheel-chair, simultaneously recalling Dr Strangelove and the Mercury Theatre production of ‘King Lear’ — trace any theatrical updating back far enough and you always seem to get to Orson Welles. Oedipus telegraphed his imminent disintegration with a virtuoso neurotic quiver when Jocasta, trying to put him at his ease, said that Laius was killed at the place where three roads meet. Jocasta was Sheila Allen, which is another way of saying superb.

Why, then, with all this talent going for it — including a knock-out lighting design that covered the decor with spiced doom — did the production have so little real sting? The answer, I think, is that there is not much point in trying to supply a binding image to a play whose author was so intent on leaving imagery out. It’s difficult to think of Sophocles looking with favour on any attempt to pin his universalised theme to mere political instability. As for the discotheque scene that degenerated into a gang bang, and Oedipus’s People high-stepping through the streets — look, knickers only sounds like a Greek word.

A new David Mercer play called The Bankrupt (BBC-1) continued BBC-1’s recently established tradition of putting on plays about bankrupts. This one had the prestige of Mercer’s name, and was a tiresome demonstration of the law that he, like John Hopkins, is likely to eke out a half-imagined idea by double-crossing his own talent and piling on precisely the undergrad-type tricksiness his sense of realism exists to discredit. Joss Ackland, a useful heavy with a seldom-explored second line in sensitive nutters, played a washed-up executive whose father didn’t understand him. ‘Ah never could make thee out,’ said dad, conveying this incomprehension: ‘Thah talks gibberish, lad.’

Subject to a recurring dream in which key figures, including dad, toured the perimeter of a pentangle in which he was trapped, our hero attracted everybody’s misunderstanding except Sheila Allen’s, whose peculiar fate it is to look and sound twice as humanely intellectual as any script with which she is supplied — her role as George Eliot was the only part which has so far been worthy of her magnificent screen presence. Here she proffered her bosom for Mr Ackland to bury his head in, the lucky devil. She then turned up in the dream as one of his accusers, presumably signifying that her generosity had threatened him with castration. You may have noticed that the play ended with a scream. It was mine.

In The Edwardians (BBC-2) Timothy West played Horatio Bottomley with the scatty appearance of Patrick Moore and the strident vocality of Sir Gerald Nabarro. The impersonation was a success, but the show surrounding it — ‘Lovely War’ meets ‘Monty Python’ — was hung up on its own exposition, like last week’s episode on Rolls and Royce. Alistair Cooke’s America (BBC-2) has allayed many of my fears by rising above the anecdotal to achieve the analytical — must viewing. Omnibus (BBC-1) was devoted to Sidney Nolan: technically it was a brilliant job, with chroma-keyed images zooming eerily through frozen frames, but the final effect was of a pretentiousness which frequent reference to Siegfried’s death march and the last bars of ‘Götterdämmerung’ did nothing to ameliorate.

The Observer, 3rd December 1972

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]