Essays: Monster's return |
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Monster’s return

AT 5.42 on Wednesday afternoon ITV came back on the air with a jingle and an effulgent pyrites caption. ‘Welcome, welcome, welcome home to ITV,’ went the jingle. ‘Welcome, welcome home.’

Not to be outdone, the fool’s gold caption gave forth its own brummagem radiance. It read ‘Welcome home to ITV.’ The total effect was ITV to the life — cheap, garish and repetitive. Nevertheless there were reasons to give thanks. I speak as one who has been waiting to make some programmes for LWT, but if the BBC were making them I would feel the same. A plurality of potential employers is better than a monopoly, even if the chief effect of competition is to multiply the amount of trash. Competitive trash strikes the occasional spark. Complacent trash just lies there.

ITV’s headline act for the big reopening was the first part of a four-part Quatermass (Thames), written by Nigel Kneale and starring Sir John Mills as the eponymous boffin. Piers Haggard’s direction was quite classy, but the script was a corpse. When the first Quatermass movies were made back in the fifties there were only two conditions that had to be fulfilled. The invader from space had to be a special effect costing not more than £86 sterling and the hero had to be played by the least expensive recognisable American male star who could be imported from Hollywood by legal means. In the event, these two leading roles were taken by a pile of foam rubber and Brian Donlevy respectively.

In ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ and ‘Quatermass II’ Donlevy gave the scripts that extra touch of unlikelihood that ensured renown. Wearing a fly-fronted gabardine overcoat and a trilby hat, he looked like a scientist the way Henry Cooper looks like the Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford.

Quatermass became a British institution, like Blue Streak and Cliff Richard. Inevitably, national conceit parochialised the concept. On television Quatermass had always been played by a British actor, André Morell. Now he was played by a British actor in the movies as well. Peter Cushing was far too credible to be entertaining. Meanwhile the invader from space graduated from an ordinary, if omnivorous, hunk of protoplasm to a metaphysical postulate deploying a budget-straining capacity for warping men’s minds with beams of coloured light.

The current effort is a further step along the same road downwards into capable humdrum. Sir John Mills plays Quatermass as a partly defrosted Scott of the Antarctic. The theme is bigger than ever — nothing less than the Collapse Of Civilisation As We Know It. The invader from space seems to be some sort of concentration of ethereal force which you can only hope will not wipe out Barbara Kellerman, who is very easy on the eyes.

Only the dialogue maintains the authentically dud standards of the original Quatermass adventures. Otherwise everything is of a high-flown, dreary competence. The series is made by Verity Lambert’s outfit Euston Films, a Thames subsidiary dedicated to realising interesting projects. This project is presumably designed to help finance them. Good junk, however, is produced by meat-heads doing their best, not by gifted people slumming.

Another ITV trump card in their first night back was 3-2-1 (Yorkshire), a game show along American lines, which is to say that the contestants all behave as if they have been to drama school and the host appears to be acting according to the dictates of some hypnotist who has put him to sleep and told him that he will, after he wakes up, laugh at anything anybody says in any context.

For some reason this blanket directive fails to include the most risible stimulus of all, namely the blonde hostess, whose name, if I caught it accurately, is Moray — doubtless one of the Eel girls**. Moray is not British. She is foreign. ‘Veeck and Jeff got seez poins,’ she explains, ‘so they ween hundred and twenny pounds.’ Perhaps the chief function of ‘3-2-1’ is to remind you how good the BBC’s Blankety Blank is — i.e., no good at all, but better than ‘3-2-1.’ And it has to he admitted that ‘Blankety Blank’s’ Terry Wogan is sometimes not entirely unfunny, in the right light, at certain angles.

In Prince Regent (BBC1) Prinny has gone on expanding indefinitely, like the universe or THE OBSERVER. But in the next, last, episode he is due to explode. He will he missed. The series was sheer nonsense, but presumably it showed you what life is like among the upper orders. To the Manor Born (BBC1) is supposed to do that too, but fact it is short of everything except two good leading players. Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles deserve the immense popularity they are already enjoying, but the script is so short of pointed writing that the actors can’t relax for a minute. Nor does Not the Nine o’Clock News (BBC2) show any signs of sweat at the typewriter — which always means that the performers must sweat instead.

Ripping Yarns (BBC2) has once again been an uneven series, but at least it had the odd glimmer of verbal inspiration. In the latest episode, ‘Roger of the Raj,’ the droll Michael Palin came equipped with a tremendous brace of aristocratic parents, played in ripping style by Joan Sanderson and Richard Vernon. Jan Francis was fetchingly amusing as the Hon. Miranda. Question Time (BBC1), chaired by Robin Day, featured Clive Jenkins among the panellists. A reasoned exchange of views duly followed. ‘Will you be quiet?’ ‘Rubbish!’ ‘Treason!’ A bearded man in the audience said, ‘Let’s get down to the facts’ and a Ford convener said ‘situation’ 27 times in one sentence.

BBC2’s Jean Renoir retrospective*** is now over. It was ably conducted by Gavin Millar. The revelation of the season was ‘French Can-Can.’ It is now a month since it was on and I still walk on air every time I think of it. Ike (Thames), an imported American ‘Bestseller’ mini-series, is garbage. Hateful to see Robert Duval and Lee Remick wasting their time.

Mainstream (BBC2) was marginally less lousy than usual. Richard Hoggart lent it his distinguished presence, assuring us that the public had been right to like ‘Tinker, Tailor,’ despite the fact that some critics had complained about its being too complicated. Here is one critic who complained about nothing of the kind. The series averaged one plot-point per episode and everything else was flannel.

Survival (Anglia) was all about sharks, which were filmed in throat-drying close-up. ‘Watch the jaw open ... see the way the teeth ... fragments of tissue and blood ... note the teeth...’ Cameramen in frogman gear vied with one another to secure the best footage of a mako’s gullet. The ACTT should go on strike again: those guys aren’t getting enough.

The Observer, 28th October 1979

[ ** Mireille Allonville ]
[ *** ‘Tribute to Jean Renoir’ ]