Essays: Marvels of Minder |
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Marvels of Minder

ALWAYS the best thing of its kind on air, Minder (Thames) has been particularly nutritious lately, with George Cole’s portrayal of Arthur Daley attaining such depths of seediness that a flock of starlings could feed off him.

Not that Arthur Daley is a scruff. Indeed his standard of living is quite high. But he is very dodgy, very furtive. ‘Mr Daley?’ someone asks. ‘Depends,’ he replies. His past might catch up with him. The future looms. He deals in cash. Small amounts of cash which he takes in, and even smaller amounts which he gives out. By far the smallest of these latter he gives to Terry, his Minder. Played by Dennis Waterman, Terry is honest to the core, but works for Arthur because there is nothing else going. Hence he is always being dropped in it.

That is the basic scenario each week: Arthur drops Terry in it. But the outline is filled in with richly tatty detail, like one of those Japanese woodcut series about the Floating World, the life on the verge of criminality, where nothing is nailed down. In the episode before last, Arthur’s niece was getting married on the same day as he needed to shift a consignment of pornographic magazines. The bride found herself sitting on the magazines while Terry drove the limo.

In the latest episode Terry looked on in alarm while Arthur tried to get more than his fair share of a quarter of a million quid that an old lag was supposed to have tucked away in a bank, pronounced bang-k by Max Wall, who was playing the old lag. The standard of the casting is high each time. Maurice Denham and Rula Lenska were among those chasing the quarter-million.

As well as looking like four times that much, Rula caught acting from everybody else, so that by the end of the story you hoped she would be back. But if Terry had a classy girlfriend in a white Porsche he would be out of character. Strippers are more his weight. In ‘Minder’, luxury is a vodka Slimline in the local boozer. This is the best low-life comedy series since ‘Budgie’, which was likewise conceived under the aegis of Verity Lambert. Her sure touch for this kind of thing is something of a mystery. Perhaps she used to be a gangster’s moll.

Looking at shows like ‘Minder’ and ‘Shoestring’, you can see what happened to the British film industry. Television left it standing. Apart from the concerted effort represented by Ealing in its best years, very few British films got within a hundred miles of authentic low life. They didn’t get within the same distance of authentic high life, either. They were made, on the whole, by people who knew very little about any kind of milieu except the perennial one in which bad movies are made. Wanting that kind of film industry to return is like wanting the restoration of the Bourbons. In Britain, the only reason for turning an idea into a feature film instead of a television programme is if the small screen and a low budget would combine to cramp it.

After only two episodes as guest host of Film 82 (BBC1), Tina Brown has already got the format licked — an impressive achievement, because those clip-shows aren’t as easy to bring off as they might look. Each clip comes up with a five-second lead on it, so that you get the floor manager wagging a rapidly diminishing bunch of fingers at you while the autocue goes on rolling inexorably. Circumstances conspire to squirt the bloodstream full of adrenalin at the very time when you should be trying to obey the first rule of television — slow down.

The present writer took 10 years to stop sounding like one of those coded signals in which all the information is squeezed together and transmitted in a single, high-pitched burp. Tina started her first show like that, but by the time the last clip rolled she was making herself at home, and in the second show she was practically lolling around on a tiger-skin rug. Having good things to say is a big help. Her turn of phrase is just what the show requires. If Barry Norman tries to get back into that chair he might find himself having to sit in her lap.

Postponed because of the Polish crisis, Isadora (Granada) at last hit the screen, and soon told you, if you needed telling, that Kenneth MacMillan is a man of genius. Either something is out of whack about the way theatrical events are reported, or else MacMillan’s creations for the ballet are transformed between stage and screen, so that what starts out as a grudgingly praised semi-inspired sprawl arrives in my living-room like a revelation.

Not that the story was without hiccups. As well as being a woman of towering originality, Isadora was a bit of a fruitcake, and in her late years spent a lot of time being messy and boring — qualities never easy to convey without being messy and boring in your turn. Also I thought the death scene went for nearly nothing: a Bugatti can’t dance, but Isadora might well have danced for a while with the scarf that got caught around its wheel and broke her neck.

As things were, the car came down the ramp, her head snapped back and the lights went out. MacMillan is not always successful in giving his works a final, simple, climactically satisfactory dramatic shape. But what he invents along the way is so rich there is no point carping. The first pas de deux with Gordon Craig was even more dementedly erotic than the best things in ‘Mayerling’, and the lurching, starkly sculptural dance of grief in which Isadora and Paris Singer mourn their dead children was like nothing else I have ever seen.

The preliminary programme, ‘A Lot of Happiness’, which showed MacMillan in rehearsal and was screened in December, was directed by Jack Gold. This one was directed by Derek Bailey. Between them, Gold and Bailey have done a lot to convince me over the past 10 years that to review television is to have a front seat for the main action.

Both directors have responded to MacMillan with the gifted attention that his work deserves. Granada and the ITV network in general can also be commended for devoting the best part of two whole evenings to an artistic enterprise with no guaranteed appeal for a mass audience.

If the fly is clever, the fly on the wall technique can occasionally generate such a multi-faceted view of life as Hot Champagne and First Night Nerves (BBC2). An amateur dramatic society of British expatriates in Monaco were shown struggling with their latest annual production, ‘The Heiress’. ‘There’s not a lot to do out here, so most of us become preoccupied with the group.’ One way or another they all felt that Monaco lacked something. ‘I long for winter.’ They were huddling together for cold. But the awful thing about provincial art is the way that its exponents must stew in their juice. Confiding in the camera, they ratted on one another right and left. ‘For the last four days anyway I would have given my right arm to get out of this part.’ ‘She hasn’t got the first idea of the part anyway.’

Josephine, who was having trouble remembering her lines, never wanted to be in Monaco in the first place. ‘Close the door, Gerald. Gerald wanted to leave England. I didn’t.’ The producer’s approach was perhaps not best calculated to calm the nerves of amateurs. ‘A major prop wasn’t there. A major prop. How DARE you?’ The actual first night performance was not shown, but the conversations overheard in the dressing-room afterwards suggested that it might attract mixed reviews. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘Forget it.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘You were fabulous.’

The Observer, 28th February 1982
[ A shorter, edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]