Essays: Deep in a married mess |
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Deep in a married mess

WE have heard so much about Simon Gray of late that it would have been no end of a let-down if his new piece, Plaintiffs and Defendants (‘Play for Today,’ BBC1), had been ordinary, or even just mildly extraordinary. As it happened, the writing was exceptionally good in almost all its aspects, while the acting and directing scarcely faltered. So we will go on hearing a lot about Simon Gray. Like Alan Bates, he is clearly to become a by-word for obscurity, tucked away in a humdrum, no-crap existence where nobody can reach him except every arts interviewer in the country.

Wince-provoking viewing for the introspective male, the play gave such a rending picture of married mess that it was hard to know where to look. Alan Bates and Rosemary McHale were a lawyer and a teacher yoked in a two-career marriage gone cold. Georgina Hale was the lawyer’s latest mistress in a line 10 years long. It was obviously the standard pattern, except for a new and dangerous twist: this one was stuck on him, and wouldn’t let go when asked.

Bates adopted the haunted expression of a man being valued at a higher rate than he sets on himself. Telephones rang inopportunely, in his chambers and — panic stations! — at home. The hero was still in command of his ramshackle kingdom when the titles rolled, but he had been revealed, to us and in his own eyes, as on a level with his pathetic clients, racked by the woe that is in marriage.

‘Making love to someone who’s infatuated with you and you can’t stand,’ mused Bates, ‘makes you feel that you have a soul, otherwise why would you feel so rotten?’ But the hero’s soul-searching, like the natural charm of the actor playing him, went only so far. Beyond that point, he was shown to be a bit obtuse. He was insensitive both to his son and to his wife, and although this was believable enough, it made him perhaps a less instructive case than somebody thoughtful and kind all round, with a sweet home-life instead of a sour one, who still got into an adulterous shambles.

A week ago yesterday BBC2 staged a blockbuster drone-in called Inside the News, featuring representatives from the news departments of both the Corporation and commercial television, plus A. S. Byatt, who was presumably representing the consumer, i.e., you and me. Peter Jay, of The Times and LWT’s ‘Weekend World’ unleashed a beautifully proportioned hatred of Derrick Amoore, chief bottle-washer of BBC News. The dislike was plainly reciprocated, Amoore’s top lip (whose whuffling twitch seems to be modelled on Huw Wheldon’s) curling fulsomely with pained derision.

But there was substance in their struggle, not just animus. Jay claimed that the Beeb favoured facts over explanation and that its explanations were all too often ‘grossly inadequate.’ He spoke of a ‘conventionally minded ... news editor.’ He got on Amoore’s wick. Amoore said, ‘This is not just a little tiff we’re having.’ Facts came first: if there were more room in the bulletin, he would put in more facts, not more explanation. The implication of Amoore’s view was that the bulk of the explanation would need to be done elsewhere — presumably in the current affairs programmes. But since there is manifestly a declining number of these, it was hard not to reach the conclusion that BBC television was easing itself out of the explanation business.

Jay was back on the air next day, fronting ‘Weekend World,’ which illustrated his position to the point of telling you who Sir Keith Joseph was, but not to the point of making clear the connection, or divorce, between, say, monetarist economics and (I’m improvising) Keynesian deficits. In other words, Jay’s position has opposite but equal logical difficulties to Amoore’s. Jay has to decide how much significance is news, while Amoore has to decide how much news is significant.

Compared with a good newspaper, television is a clumsy analytical tool. But it has the advantage of dissolving the literacy barrier — a stumbling-block which Panorama (BBC1) treated at some length. Here were stories of obviously bright people for whom reading and writing are torture. Particularly memorable was a young man who memorised which buttons on the pub juke-box selected which record, so that be would not tip his handicap to the girl he was trying to impress. If you can’t use the alphabet, but must register every separate combination of letters as an individual image, then English must be like Chinese picture-writing to the nth power. It seems that 300,000 people are leaving school each year with a reading age of less than nine. Fleet Street might have even bigger problems on its hands than it thinks: a population that can’t understand a line of print until Sue Lawley reads it out.

‘It was a tense period,’ warned the voice-over at the start of Crisis at The Observer (BBC2), ‘and some of the language in the programme reflects that tension.’ In the event, the only rough speech to be heard was something like ‘Piss orff aht of it.’ The real linguistic question concerned the gap in speech patterns between the salaried and the wage-earning. The men around David Astor sounded as if they had been born on a different planet from the men around the Imperial Father of THE OBSERVER’s Federated House Chapel, Bert Hand. But somehow the extremes met.

Speaking as a freelance contributor who values his privilege of not being obliged to get involved with office politics, I learned a lot from this show about the paper I write for, although doubtless not everything. I have met David Astor only twice during his incumbency, so really this was my first long look at him. The language barrier being what it obviously was, it would have been no mystery if the professed objectivity of the management had sounded like callousness by the time it reached the shop floor. But in the event, general fair-mindedness — for which Astor himself seemed to set the tone — worked better than slogans and was probably the deciding factor in the eventual salvation of the paper.

The Observer, 19th October 1975