Essays: A touch of menace |
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A touch of menace

AT SEVERAL points during her Christmas message on all channels, The Queen was tactless enough to mention Christ. She was practically the only one who did. As far as the BBC was concerned it was Christmas with Bogart — a threatening slogan, making you apprehensive about the possibility of Easter with Cagney, or Whitsun with George Raft.

The Beeb’s menacing tone was further exemplified by the Mastermind final (BBC1), an event obviously fated to lend future television Christmases a vestigial whiff of the Spanish Inquisition, which I suppose is one way of harping back to the season’s Christian origins. As usual, but even more so, Magnus Magnusson appeared in silhouette, leafing through his dossiers to the accompaniment of pitiless music. Did one detect the outline of KGB epaulettes and a cigarette held upright between thumb and forefinger?

A sudden clash and four victims were slung into the brightly lit interrogation cell. It was a surprise to see that three of them were men — usually the finalists include one token male at the outside. Perhaps the lads are getting the hang of it at long last. Of both sexes, many are called but few are chosen: out of 2,500 selected contenders. only four make it to the last mile. This year’s eventual winner, John Hart, was a second-time applicant — not just a mere man, but an ex-flop! The Cuba expert, who had looked unbeatable all season, faded on the run to the wire. In ‘Mastermind,’ the only constant is Magnus Magnusson, and even he sometimes wears strange clothes. All else is flux.

There was a Mastermind sketch in the Punch Review (BBC2). (I think they meant ‘revue,’ but it seems that the distinction between the two words is a lost cause.) Roy Kinnear was asked his name and answered ‘pass.’ The show’s material was lifted from the magazine and most of it transferred only averagely, but there was the odd brilliant thing. E. S. Turner’s parodies of Lady Antonia Fraser and Harold Macmillan were finely overwrought, and exceptionally well acted — an instructive reminder that there are things real actors and actresses can do which university wits can’t.

Gwen Taylor’s Lady Antonia caught not just the subject’s porcelain beauty, but the way that the porcelain beauty vibrates with nerves, like a Dresden blender. Robin Bailey’s Harold Macmillan beat so far around the bush it became a rumble in the distance. Bailey is an accomplished actor with a wild streak which ought to be provided for more adequately than just casting him in the Cockburn’s commercial on ITV.

Genuine laughter wasn’t all that plentiful: you had to punch buttons looking for it. I punched the wrong one on Christmas Day and missed the first 20 minutes of Morecambe and Wise (BBC1). It’s what one gets for letting oneself be distracted by half a pound of those second-rate Brazil nuts that won’t come away cleanly from the shell. One picks at them morosely with a skewer and at length discovers that 20 minutes of Morecambe and Wise have spooled off to oblivion while one has been plugged into a bummer called Great Big Groovy Horse (BBC2). This, billed as a ‘rock-musical romp through the legend of the Wooden Horse of Troy,’ seemed either unaware of or unworried by the fact that Offenbach had already romped with fair success through most of the same material in ‘La Belle Hélène.’

Here was evidence that the rock opera in its present form is a dead genre already: one has only to see characters passing microphones to each other to be assailed with yawns. The lyrics were right up to expectations (‘Aw, Paris, which one will you choose? / Lift up your voice and make your choice / What have you got to lose?’) Bernard Cribbins sank bravely as the narrator but can rest content in the knowledge that nobody could have been watching except me. Putting it on opposite Eric and Ernie (who were involved with Robin Day, Diana Rigg and dialogue like: ‘Do you know Marjorie Proops?’ ‘I didn’t know that. How sad.’) was the same as chucking it in the fire.

The special Yuletide edition of Porridge (BBC1) was probably the funniest thing on the air. There is no denying that Ronnie Barker is good in ‘Porridge.’ There is plenty of denying that he is good in many of the other things he does — those Piggy Malone numbers in ‘The Two Ronnies,’ for instance, seem just lame excuses, concocted by Barker himself, to get actresses flashing their knickers. But in ‘Porridge’ Barker is delivering the lines of Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais, and is obliged to raise his game. On Christmas Eve he was terrific. So was the script, which included a marvellous visual pun — a cake in a file.

It’s A Christmas Knockout (BBC2) came from Cortina d’Ampezzo. A winter sports version of the traditional format, it was typical in all other respects, including the ability of our amateurs to be so much more amateurish than theirs. The British team had learned to skate for the occasion. The Continental teams included skating champions. Brave little Britain consequently came last in many events. But since ‘Knockout’ is so fatuous that only an idiot would train to be good at it, losing is no disgrace.

A different story with rugby, which is a real sport, and never more real than when the Welsh are beating the Australians hollow at it, as they did in Grandstand (BBC1) a week ago yesterday. Gareth Edwards in action was great television. He has the reflexes of a mamba on methedrine.

Merry Christmas, Fred, from the Crosbys (Thames) was an American import starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. But Bob Hope flew over in person to appear on Parkinson (BBC1). Recalling old times is the easiest trick a trouper can do: there is really no excuse for being less than interesting. With that said, Hope was still pretty funny talking about Jimmy Durante. He was less funny talking about how the US military could have won the Vietnam war ‘in two days’ if Washington had ‘let them alone,’ but everybody’s got a weak spot, and in ageing millionaire entertainers reality tends to be it.

The air was full of flying Princes. Prince Charles, Pilot Royal... was shown again on BBC2. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was the subject of Flying Prince of Wildlife (BBC2), introduced by David Attenborough and featuring the Good Sight of the Week — a white giraffe. There were such moments to be picked up in various places, but mainly it was a standard television Christmas, with the channels hacking away at one another in pointless duplication (ATV’s Celebrity Squares went out opposite BBC1’s The Generation Game — a schlock contest) or else taking turnabout at chewing up whole evenings with a blockbuster movie. ITV spent two nights running Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole’s teeth, which were also in The Lion in Winter on BBC1. Better than either was The Agony and the Ecstasy: given to cliché (‘He’s a strange one’) and lapses of tone (‘You know, Michelangelo, you smell’), but with more going on. The Wizard of Oz (BBC1) traumatised me as a child and probably traumatised a whole new generation this time around. Tom Thumb (BBC1) was less disturbing, although I don’t know whether that is a good thing. The Railway Children (BBC1) was the only Christmas film I hadn’t seen before. I was about 25 years too old to be knocked out by it, but it was all right.

Bergman’s The Magic Flute (BBC2) was questionable in various ways, but magisterially done, I have to admit. It was the festive season’s solitary moment of artistic sublimity, but it would take a churl to expect more. After all, it’s only television, and there can be little doubt what Mozart’s favourite programme would be were he alive today — ‘Pot Black.’

The Observer, 28th December 1975