Essays: For good measure |
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For good measure

IN World of Sport (ITV) there was cliff-diving from Acapulco and women’s surfing from Hawaii. The cliff-divers prayed that the tide would come in while they were on their way down. Two of the women surfers were called Jericho Poppler and Sally Prange.

Taking leave of its senses, BBC1 screened Seven Seas to Calais, which some people fancy for the title of the worst film ever made. Australia’s own Rod Taylor plays Sir Francis Drake. ‘Let’s foller their tracks,’ he says, in Elizabethan tones, holding his arms slightly out from his sides to indicate the bulk and power of his lateral muscles.

John Mortimer fronted Shakespeare in Perspective (BBC2), introducing Measure for Measure, shortly to follow on the same channel. Speaking from the Inns of Court and the law courts themselves, Mortimer eloquently expounded the play’s ‘two great conflicting claims,’ justice and compassion. He also spoke about two great conflicting claims in Shakespeare’s mind, namely the impulse towards order and the distrust of authority. So finely judged was his whole address that the following play seemed like an illustration of it.

The play proper, directed by Desmond Davis, had the best costumes and decor of the Bardathon so far. ‘Richard II’ looked a touch more convincing, but that was probably because they turned the lights out, so that your imagination could work in the dark. Here it was all sunlight, yet the effect did not run shallow. The perspectives were well planned and properly crowded. It could have been old Vienna. At worst, it was a TV studio making a pretty good stylised shot at appearing not utterly different from what Shakespeare might just conceivably have thought old Vienna looked like.

Tim Pigott-Smith spoke so well as Angelo that you felt a glittering career was assured, and that he might therefore care to think about simplifying his name, since ‘Tim’ will date and ‘Pigott’ somehow suggests horses. ‘Timothy Smith’ would be more appropriate to an actor with a long future. The ladies were excellent. Impersonating Maria, who for some reason resents being abandoned by the dreaded Angelo, Jacqueline Pearce was a picture, and Kate Nelligan gave Isabella her formidable all.

A great gift is always an accident, but Miss Nelligan can be complimented for the sheer intelligence with which she guards her talent. She is a keen student of her lines, using her voice first and foremost and relying on her beauty last and least. As Isabella she gave only one reading that sounded even slightly false. (In the half-line ‘To use it like a giant,’ the word ‘use’ should be stressed, or else the argument is lost.) In all other respects she was clear-headed moral outrage personified. The Duke did a lot of wise nodding, especially in the last scene, when Isabella, instead of kicking him in the crutch for mucking everybody about, seemed willing to marry him.

One Fine Day (LWT), the latest in the series of Six Plays by Alan Bennett, showed the author on good form. It was too long and it sometimes sounded thin, but it was a subtle text that was well served by the director, Stephen Frears.

As far as Alan Bennett is concerned, there is really no substitute for the way Stephen Frears directs, since Bennett has by now taken to employing such an economical style of writing that the merest clumsiness from the camera would shatter the whole effect. In ‘One Fine Day’ Dave Allen, going legit, played a real-estate salesman called George who was having qualms about modern life, with particular reference to the architecture of office blocks. With Puccini coming in through his earphones, Weltschmerz was going out through his eyes.

There was a lot of Puccini. ‘No Credit for Puccini’ would have been a good title for the play. Puccini helped you guess at George’s interior state. There was very little dialogue to help you do that. Most of the good things were said by Robert Stephens, playing George’s awful boss. George rebelled, left home, and camped in the office block he was supposed to sell. Finally he unloaded it on the Japanese. In a way that was not made quite clear, he had rediscovered himself.

About five years ago Bennett appeared on one of those afternoon shows Thames put out for affluent housewives with a Hitachi in the kitchen. Bennett was inveighing against modern architecture. The interviewer asked him to give an example. Bennett invited her to consider the truly outstanding hideousness of the building they were both currently sitting in — i.e., the Euston development, which houses Thames’s headquarters. The interviewer simply didn’t understand what he meant.

By now she is probably catching on. BBC1’s week-long series on architecture, called Where We Live Now, started with a programme by Christopher Booker in which the new orthodoxy — that modernism is barbarous in general and high-rise dwellings are a disaster in particular — was roundly proclaimed. Though overlong, this was a sobering piece of special pleading. Booker placed too much emphasis on Le Corbusier and not enough on materials: the Victorians would have built high if they had had the wherewithal and there were Ronan Points, called insulae, in ancient Rome. But on the whole he had my vote.

So did Michael Frayn, whose contribution to the series once again showed him to be a dab hand at turning an architectural survey into social analysis. He was on about the London suburbs, in one of which, Ewell, he was born and raised. It was made clear that the speculative builders who created the suburbs had it all over the council planners who came along later and built the towers. Once again, this time by implication, but no less powerfully for that, the modern architects got a hammering.

In Too Good to be True (Granada), Tom Robinson was interviewed. He is as impressive as his songs, which I think are among the best agitprop pop there has ever been. Engaging, intelligent and inventive, Robinson has too fine an ear to indulge in slogans, but too active a conscience to leave his fellow homosexuals in the lurch.

The Kenny Everett Video Show (Thames) is back, brimming with ideas, including snide references to an ailment called BBC — Bad Breath Condition. Disguised as a gospel singer called Brother Lee Love, Kenny is making what could be a successful bid for the charts.

Pop is alive again at the moment, what with Blondie at number one, although it is a pity that they don’t give a damn for the visual aspect. Nor, of course, does Magnus Pyke, currently to be seen flogging Creda washing machines. Since Magnus Pyke spells science to the punters, presumably sales will soar.

In the Circus World Championships (BBC1), escapologist Mario Manzini, awesomely clad in crash helmet, strait jacket, shackles and handcuffs, dangled upside down thirty feet above the sawdust ring from a burning rope. The rope burned too well and Mario came down early. ‘That ... obviously not meant to happen ... now being helped from the ring.’ But all bad vibes were dispelled by the trapeze competition between the Oslers and the Cavarettas, in which girls of incredible pulchritude turned triple somersaults. It was an air-show for lechers, a Freudian Farnborough of flying crumpet.

The Observer, 25th February 1979

[ A shortened version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]