Essays: Amok in the Med |
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Amok in the Med

THE Mediterranean mystery series is usually a bad format, but Seagull Island (ATV) has proved an exception, the production values being well above the customary hair-in-the-nose level and the plot showing frequent signs of incipient comprehensibility.

You can never quite figure out what is going on, but still tend to retain faith that the script-writer, if no one else, is privy to the facts. In this case the scribe, producer and director are all the same person, one Nestore Ungaro. Since the show also has the kind of credits in which you are told that the role of Mario is taken by Marcello Monstroboffo, it is a pleasant surprise to find Jeremy Brett filling most of the close-ups and speaking English with his lips as well as with his voice. Not even the seagulls are dubbed. The water around the island glitters, the leading ladies look svelte in bikinis, mysterious frogmen fight to the death, and lethal dialogue coils in wisps from under the door of the boudoir. ‘I can’t take it any more. There's no hope left for us like this.’

Everyone on the island is a head-case except Barbara (Prunella Ransome), who pretends to be blind in order to find her missing sister. Jeremy is not fooled but pretends to be. He turns a blind eye. So does his gorgeous female companion Carol (Pamela Salem), who is either his sister or mistress, if not both. The role of Enzo Lombardi is taken by Gabriele Tinti. I think he drives the jeep. Somewhere down near the cliffs. Jeremy’s son lurks hideously scarred. Barbara is attacked by a blind seagull. Classily filmed and assembled, the series makes you wonder how so little content ever got itself married up to so much style.

The same could not be said of Prostitute I Am — Common I’m Not (Thames), in which several ladies of the night revealed all. Apart from the trade secrets, there was a beguiling emphasis on character. Lindi was the one who got you laughing. Fabulously successful at her chosen metier, she lives like Hugh Hefner, sharing his idea of good taste even to the extent of possessing a revolving bed with quadrophonic speakers, built-in barbecue, etc. ‘I was very well developed,’ she announced, explaining how the career began that had made all this possible. ‘Always had a large bust.’ The large bust seems recently to have been joined by the rest of her, perhaps as an inevitable side-effect of her lavish standard of living. Not that she doesn’t give value for money. Her torture chamber has everything that opens and shuts, not to mention pummels and stabs. ‘I got two different racks.’ Proudly she demonstrated a large item of high technology which she described as ‘an automatic rotating rack with motor and gearbox.’

MPs, QCs and peers of the realm apparently spend a lot of time swinging by the heels from the roof of Lindi’s dungeon while she plies them rigorously with black-jacks and cured stingray tails. Sheila offered a less comprehensive service than Lindi, but if you didn’t mind her headmistressy expression would probably make a more intellectually stimulating companion. Kristina, an ex-Chelsea glamour queen, was so genuinely tasteful that you blushed for her and not just for yourself: plainly only her nervous breakdown had propelled her into these circumstances and it was hard to see what she was doing on screen except providing irresistibly good copy.

The gormless Liz was there to remind you of what prostitution really entails. Lindi, registered as a limited company and paying company tax, might seem to have got life well weighed up, but with Liz the truth was plain to see. For selling love to strangers you need partitions in the mind. But that was the minor message of the programme. The major message was that to legislate against prostitution is like drawing up laws against the sea.

The hookers’ symposium was produced and directed by Judy Lever, one of three female programme-makers who all turned in good shows on the same evening. Chris Mohr produced Ready When You Are, Mr de Mille (BBC1), scripted and fronted by the redoubtable Barry Norman, who has by now got the documentary-about-Hollywood format running like a Rolls. The famous joke whose punchline provided the programme’s title was told by various celebrities all delivering one sentence each, but this fancy idea unfortunately resulted in the gag being muffed.

Everything else, though, contributed infallibly to bringing out the old phoney’s gimcrack greatness. If he had lacked energy, a talent for spectacle and the organising ability of Dwight D. Eisenhower, he would not have been such a problem. As it was, people couldn’t decide whether they admired him or despised him, and still can’t today. His amatory pluralism was decorous rather than otherwise; his severity with his minions got results that paid their salaries; his appalling vulgarity now looks like vigour. Basically he was an actor. In true existentialist style, he woke up each morning and played the part of film director. Acting better than his actors, he had all the personality that his films lack.

The third stand-out made-by-a-woman documentary was Elvis Lives (BBC2), produced by Sandra Gregory. Presented with the minimum of commentary but demonstrating the maximum of editorial judgment, this was really mind-bending stuff. Having unaccountably failed to rise again on the third day, Elvis is now buried under a mountain of souvenirs — a teetering peak towards which the faithful flock by the million, many of them dressed and hairstyled to resemble their hero. There was a stunning shot of half a dozen Elvis imitators crossing the road towards the camera. It made you feel that you had a many-faceted eye, like a fly.

But these were Elvis imitators only on their days off. ‘Airs no way I can describe it,’ said an Elvis imitator from Britain. ‘I just love the man.’ Other Elvis imitators work at it for a living. These Elvis imitators are best described as Elvis impersonators, since they hope, in the right light, to be taken for the original. Aspiring professional Elvis impersonators were shown auditioning. Some of them looked a bit like Elvis, but sang like dying dogs. Others could imitate his voice brilliantly, but looked like Lord Thorneycroft. The more desperate had had plastic surgery. A man looking like Elvis Presley injected with cortisone sang like Humphrey Bogart injected with cement.

Easily the most successful Elvis impersonator is Morris Bates, who hasn’t had any plastic surgery but studies the video-cassettes until every sneer and pigeon-toed ankle-wobble comes as naturally as breathing. The sad thing with Morris is that he would be a tremendous rock ’n’ roll singer on his own account. But he is humbly content to wear the Presley persona, as long as he can leave it behind in the dressing-room when he goes home. The fanatics want never to leave it behind. Larry Geller, billed as ‘Elvis’s hairdresser and spiritual adviser’, made it clear, while addressing a rally-sized meeting of pilgrims, that the movement had reached a point where it must beware of traitors. It was revealed that a child has been born with its top lip curled, although whether it had emerged from the womb wearing blue suede shoes was not stated.

Sir Geoffrey Howe was very good on Face the Press (Tyne-Tees), when you considered that he had almost nothing to face them with. Bought in from Geneva, Rigoletto (BBC2) would have pleased Verdi. He gave innovatory producers short shrift, but on this occasion a mild switch of period resulted in good-looking designs, and anyway the singing was marvellous, with a dynamite Gilda.

The Observer, 16th August 1981
[ An excerpt from this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]