Essays: Mass in the crevasse |
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Mass in the crevasse

A PRIEST who got lost in the Andes turned up on Nationwide (BBC1) to tell the watching faithful that there is no need to worry about the communion wine freezing at high altitude. It does, but it liquefies when the time comes to say Mass.

‘I don’t think I was ever near death,’ he explained patiently, ‘except when I fell down a crevasse on one occasion ... and also an occasion when I started to gather speed.’ His interlocutor, Sue Cook, had a lot of trouble pronouncing Aconcagua. She tried Acancogua. She had a go with Acaconguong. It was that holy smile of his that was throwing her. It threw me too, but it was a nice change from the weekend’s Labour Party Conference (BBC2), which spilled right through the week like a burst tub of stale molasses, owing to the fact that a split in the party had been heralded and everybody wanted to talk about it.

The conference itself took place at Wembley and consisted mainly of votes being taken, but before votes could be taken there first had to be speeches. Most of these were tedious beyond description, as if to be boring were a declaration of faith. David Dimbleby did the linking while the delegates droned on. Occasionally he cut away to a small studio in which Robin Day sat with Ian Mikardo among others. When the others were making too much noise, Robin barked: ‘Let Ian Mikardo have a say. He’s a very old gentleman.’ Mikardo took a certain amount of umbrage at this. Bill Rodgers was one of the others. As a member of the Gang of Three he was about to undergo a sudden logarithmic increase in news value, since even as he sat there the unions’ block votes were assembling like vast phantom armies.

The vote having gone thunderously against the social democrats, the Gang of Three expanded overnight into the Council for Social Democracy. Somebody tried to re-title this latter body the Limehouse Pinks, as a witty variation of the famous dance number ‘Limehouse Blues,’ but the famous dance number was not famous enough for the idea to stick, and anyway the Council for Social Democracy is quite a glamorous title in itself, like the Congress for Cultural Freedom or the Wigwam for a Goose’s Bridle. Down to Limehouse raced all the camera crews, in a daring raid that had about the same result as chasing Lady Diana, but at least you got a chance to see Roy Jenkins rubbing his hands. Either Roy has never heard of Uriah Heep or else it is cold down there in Limehouse.

Foot was given a whole-show interview on Weekend World (LWT) the day after the vote, but there was no missing the fact that he had suddenly ceased to be sexy. He kept bringing out his little mid-sentence laugh that says ‘what I am about to say is so obvious that I wouldn’t dream of stating it unless in reply to a question so foolishly misleading as the one you have just asked.’ His authority, however, had evaporated. From that day forth the Gang of Three, the Council for Social Democracy and the Liberal Party racked up all the TV time going. Shirley Williams was on Panorama (BBC1). She was in Limehouse. She made dramatic dashes from mysterious front doors to dark cars. To demonstrate her social-democratic mixture of dynamism and compassion she wore clothes created by various blind British designers. It’s going to be like this all the way to the next General Election.

Ongoingly off-putting to the last, The History Man (BBC2) came to a regretted end. ‘I think we all owe Howard a debt of gratitude for coming up with the solution to all our difficulties,’ said one of Kirk’s colleagues. Kirk took it as his due and nodded, ignoring Miss Beniform’s accurate observation that all the difficulties had been created by him. The assembled academics had all just tunnelled through the service area under the student picket lines which had been brought into being by Kirk and had surfaced in a conference room to deal with problems which had been fomented by Kirk and had finally got around to passing resolutions in conformity with the wishes of Kirk. He got everything he wanted, including, alas, the divine Annie Callendar. She had his number exactly, but took him on anyway. How could such a thing be?

Perhaps, though transparently a reptile, Kirk was the only real male available. Nevertheless here was a Kirk conquest that the viewer found hard to take. In the book, Malcolm Bradbury gave his terrible hero a certain relaxed appeal: women felt at ease with him. In Christopher Hampton’s television script Kirk had no winning ways at all. Given the role of his dreams, Anthony Sher joyfully seized the opportunity to be as horrible as possible. It was fun, but it fudged the subject. If the Howard Kirks were so obviously fraudulent they would do less damage, and if they were so completely unattractive then nobody except duds would be sucked in. The series offered a false reassurance. It said that snakes can’t have charm. But of course they can: cobras are famous for it.

Exit Kirk, leaving the question unanswered of whether he should have been allowed to nuzzle Miss Beniform’s bosom in sight of all. Since the bosom belonged to the inspiringly lovely Isla Blair I won’t pretend that I was sorry to see it exposed. She has a face that makes thoughtful men glad to be alive, so it was no hardship to find out that she has a figure to match. But quite apart from the revulsion aroused by seeing her shapely poitrine being absorbed into the hairy maw of the omnivorous Kirk — a Leda and the swine tableau that will live long in the memory — there was also the fear that the good actress had been bamboozled by talk of artistic integrity into giving the slavering male public more than it has any right to receive. An element of suggestion might have been even more attention-getting and would have left her with something in reserve to show close friends. But perhaps she is an independent woman and needed no persuasion to disrobe.

Independent women are all over the screen at the moment. They get divorced in order to find themselves. Good luck to them, but one sincerely trusts that the new self they find will be some detectable advance on the old one. There is not much point if they cease to be cute, frilly and fluttery wives, only to become cute, frilly and fluttery independent women. The Beeb’s independent woman appears in Solo (BBC1) and is played by Felicity Kendall, who has such a knack for arousing the protective male instinct that you would not be surprised to find her house surrounded by a Roman legion, the Household Cavalry and the Afrika Korps. Her name is Gemma. God only knows what she will have to do to stop men patronising her: shoot a few, perhaps.

Gemma is not really an ex-wife. She is an ex-mistress. The rejected lover is an ingratiating louse called Danny, played by Stephen Moore in a manner which rejected lovers might well recognise with a twinge of shame. But at least Danny shows signs of life. ITV’s independent woman, played by Susannah York in Second Chance (Yorkshire), is haunted by an ex-husband of such deliquescence that his newly acquired bachelor flat is practically guaranteed to collapse from wet rot.

Grace Kennedy (BBC2) is just what multi-racial Britain needs after a downer like ‘Wolcott.’ She looks sparky, has good taste in songs and arrangements, deploys a big voice that pours into a phrase like cream into a spoon, and can dance like mad without losing her poise. After giving Russell Harty (BBC2) a thoughtful interview, Edna O’Brien, still looking like the head prefect of a private school for the daughters of rich romantic poets, was rewarded by the sudden irruption into the studio of the Dagenham Girl Pipers. As the skirling girls marched and countermarched, Edna eyed them with a lack of appreciation that warmed the heart.

What did Delacroix ever do to deserve The Restless Eye (BBC2)? In World About Us (BBC2) it was revealed that male butterflies after mating plant an anti-aphrodisiac stink-bomb in the female so that nobody else will want her. Feminist butterflies face a long haul.

The Observer, 1st February 1981
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]