Essays: Master of the world |
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Master of the world

PATRIOTISM, said Dr Johnson, is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but perhaps I can be forgiven a small purr of satisfaction in a week when an Australian won Mastermind International (BBC1). Next stop, the galaxy!

She was an Australian called Ray. Her special subject was the life and times of Julius Caesar. She was up against ‘Mastermind’ winners from six different countries, since by now the format is popular all over the world. There they sat: Maestromind, Maîtremind, Meistermind, Messiahmind ... But Ray creamed them all.

It was no mean feat, when you consider that she was also up against Magnus Magnusson’s pronunciation, which is presumably excellent in Old Norse, but tends to wander when it comes to matters Roman. Catullus received an accent on the first syllable of his name, like Catiline. Or perhaps there actually was a Roman called Catullus who accented the first syllable of his name — this was all pretty arcane stuff. Refusing to be put off, Ray gritted her teeth and slogged on to victory. It was the spirit of Anzac. Once a jolly swagman ... but modesty forbids.

It is time to sing in praise of Fox (Thames), to which one has by now become mildly addicted. Not that it has the same life-warping fascination as ‘Dallas.’ If I miss an episode of ‘Fox’ I merely go into a light coma. Wholly created by Euston Films, the Thames subsidiary headed by the redoubtable Verity Lambert, ‘Fox,’ as is by now obvious to all, shamelessly transfers ‘The Godfather’ to South London.

‘The Godfather’ was a big success not just because it was about mobsters, but because the mobsters were a family who all lived together in a compound where the older members could give the benefit of their wisdom to the young hot-heads while Mama stirred the pasta. For an audience composed of millions of nuclear families who didn’t see their parents more than once a year and wouldn’t have known an uncle from a stranger in the street, all this came over like a heady dream of propinquity. It was ‘Watership Down’ plus guns.

In ‘Fox’ there is not much action and the would-be tough dialogue once again points up the chief difference between British and American low-life. American slang grew out of a multinational mixture and was an attempt to make things clear. British underworld talk largely springs from an attempt to keep things secret. Still, ‘Fox’ is not without the tang of authenticity.

The Fox family are a hard bunch. Billy Fox, threateningly played by Peter Vaughan, is the founder of the family fortunes. Later generations of Foxes might go in for things like studying Moral Philosophy, but basically they all remain rooted in petty crime. As thieves go, however, they have their honour and are even, in a hard-bitten way, lovable. You can bet that old Billy, in his prime, would have nicked the lead off your roof in a pretty lovable way.

The Foxes are menaced by various heavies whose names I have trouble catching. The chief function of these heavies is to make the Foxes look lovable by contrast. One of the Foxes boxes. He is a boxing Fox. Another Fox chats up the birds in the district and inveigles them back to his drum for a spot of the other. He is a cocksman Fox.

This behaviour is frowned upon by Billy. The old Fox shocks easily. He is a crook of the old school, but perhaps his age is passing. He sits around in sad kayfs and ponders the mystery of existence. Only one thing is certain: cross one Fox and you’ll have the whole pack of them after you. They’ll pull your pants off in the street. They’ll let the air out of your tyres. They might even save up to buy a gun.

Speaking of Dallas (BBC1), the current series has now come to an end, one week ahead of the scheduled time. The episode in which JR gets shot will now not reach our screens until an indeterminate period has elapsed — presumably long enough for mainline addicts like myself to go stark mad with anticipation. The two big questions are who shoots him and in what part of his body. JR has been shot once before, but that was only in the leg, which gave him an obviously much-relished opportunity to writhe around on the ground and do some advanced teeth-gritting.

Where will JR be shot this time? And who will pull the trigger? It is unlikely to be Sue Ellen, who went back on the bottle after her lover, a rodeo rider called Dusty, wrote himself out of the series by flying his plane into a mountain. Sue Ellen had been able to face the berserk mugging of her psychiatrist with comparative equanimity, but Dusty’s prang put her back over the edge. Her mouth started to change shape like a blob of paint in a light-show. In that condition she couldn’t hit the side of a barn.

My own tip for the role of the would-be assassin is Kristin, but Lucy should not be ruled out even though she is so precariously poised on those high heels that any attempt to lift a gun must inevitably entail her falling flat on her face. Or it could be Cliff Barnes. This much is certain: it won’t be Digger, who croaked last week, joining Dusty in the sudden massed trek to the Great Beyond.

Benjamin Britten was the subject of a special South Bank Show (LWT) by Tony Palmer. The programme could have been by almost anybody, since Palmer, exercising heroic self-control, eschewed the shock effects that made him famous. Most of the story was told by Peter Pears, who spoke with great dignity about a long homosexual alliance that did nobody any harm and left the world what is reputedly a great legacy of operatic music.

I have put in the ‘reputedly’ because I have not yet been able to see the attractions of an operatic style in which the voice never seems to get a chance to enjoy itself. After a few minutes of listening to ‘Peter Grimes’ I always find myself thirsting for Verdi. But one day persistence will have its reward. Thousands of music-lovers think the world of Britten and they can’t all be wrong.

It was a big week for both Sean O’Casey and Anna Scher. Red Roses for Me and The Silver Tassie (BBC2) helped answer the question of why it is so hard to say something fresh about the troubles in Ireland: because it has all been said already. Anna Scher’s Ain’t Many Angels (BBC2) was a convincing demonstration of what she has been able to achieve with young people who would obviously have small chance of expressing themselves without her. The latest in the ‘Bestseller’ series of American imports, A Man Called Intrepid (Thames), was a mess called interminable.

The Observer, 13th April 1980