Essays: Morecambe, Mercer and Wise |
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Morecambe, Mercer and Wise

A NEW chat show, André Previn Meets (BBC1), logged its first episode. The subject, sure-fire, was Morecambe and Wise. Previn got little from them that Parky and Michael Aspel, among others, had not got already.

Strangely, considering his showbiz orientation, Previn failed to ask them about their acute musical sense. Morecambe and Wise dance very well, but nobody ever asks them how they learned. He will doubtless make a good interviewer, but it’s hard to see why someone so intelligently busy in other fields should want to be one.

Riding just behind the Previn programme came something unexpected — an interesting Omnibus (BBC1). In addition to being talked to by Humphrey Lyttelton, Johnny Mercer had his songs illustrated by film-clips and a highly competent studio band, including Stan Tracey. Humph’s interviewing was not all it might have been. He already knew too many of the answers, so his probing tended to be a bit oblique. (He did a better job than I ever did, however: I once interviewed Mercer, and was so voluble with reverence that the resulting, untransmittable film consisted of nothing but questions.) Mercer being one of the half dozen formative lyricists of the century, it’s a privilege to find him making himself available for two programmes (this one and an earlier ‘In Concert’) which should go straight into the archive under armed guard. Some of the film-clips served the songs ill, and could only have been put in with a mistaken loyalty to visual interest. In a clip from ‘Here Come the Waves,’ Bing murdered ‘That Old Black Magic’ at dirge tempo, while Betty Hutton fainted in the reaction shot, presumably from boredom. The original film presentation of ‘Blues in the Night’ was likewise a lifeless bore. There is a fifties Sinatra recording of the song which would have demonstrated its quality better, and you could have had Mercer reacting to his own stuff on screen — which would have been all the visual interest necessary. Other clips were just right. Fred Astaire, every songwriter’s favourite singer, sang the great ‘One for My Baby,’ a product of Mercer’s fruitful collaboration with Harold Arlen.

Mercer was full of interesting facts. It was Hoagy Carmichael who supplied the last line of the lyric to ‘Lazy-bones.’ Mercer sang the ravishing, Beiderbecke-style bridge to another collaboration with Hoagy, ‘Skylark.’ There was some in-studio singing by Georgie Fame and Marian Montgomery, all of it adequate and some of it better than that. What stuck in my mind, though, was Mercer’s quietly confident attitude to his craft. Ira Gershwin once said that even if an aspirant had everything it would still take him five years to reach the first rung as a lyricist. It is an art-form in which experience is all and Mercer has had all the experience there is.

BBC2’s drama series Centre Play starts with a logo that looks exactly like the Steradent commercial. But last week the play that followed was of some moment. Written by Tom Hadway, it was directed by Jack Gold, whose work for television (‘Stocker’s Copper,’ ‘Arturo Ui’) usually makes cinema look redundant. ‘God Bless Thee, Jacky Maddison’ was not quite in that class, but still a study in care for detail. The scene was Northumberland, 1905. Jacky (David Daker) was a Methodist miner, Ann (Anne Raitt) was a Catholic fisher-girl. Potatoes were called tetties and people said things like ‘How’s tha’ keepin’?,’ but when you focused your gaze through the miasma of regionalism it was hard to detect much except a Romeo and Juliet story minus most of its plot.

The lack of action was to some extent made up for by Greek-chorus abuse from the fishwives (a richly vociferous aggregate of harridans and viragos) and some Synge-like intoning in the dialogue — especially in the final lines, where Ann seemed to be groping for Aida’s music, or Dido’s Latin, but could come up with nothing but a dud phrase interminably repeated. An incredibly wise old priest was on hand to do what he could, but eventually the lovers had to part. Brueghel-faced fisher-folk waded through kelp. The air was alert with the pong of crabs.

There was a disturbing Horizon (BBC2) on the quality of teaching imparted to, and treatment meted out by, immigrant doctors. The show was produced by Brian Gibson, who was right up to form as the documentary asker of awkward — really awkward, embarrassing — questions. This was dynamite material. A lung was produced to show the effect of excess drip therapy, prescribed in good but misplaced faith by a doctor who didn’t know what he was doing. Mental hospitals, it turns out, have a high proportion of immigrant doctors, working in the precise area where their cultural alienation is likely to prove disqualifying. They end up there because they have cocked up everywhere else.

How to raise standards without the Health Service breaking down from understaffing — that, it appears, is the problem. Since the medicos are well aware of what can and can’t be done, one is slow to see the benefits of starting a public scare. Yet experience proves that it rarely hurts to rake muck, even if, in the short run, you’re handing ammunition to the wrong man. Racists probably found this programme right up their alley. You’d need a better reason than that, though, for not screening it.

Man Alive (BBC2) was about child labour. Fifteen-year-olds told horror stories of wading through four feet of water to pull turkey corpses out of jammed machines. That sounded like fun to me, but other, less spectacular stories were more worrying. Children working too long on paper-rounds did no homework and dozed in class: deschooled with a vengeance. Exploitation? Parents had either never thought about it or believed that it kept the kids off the streets. This last argument had more force than the humourless commentary allowed.

I was too quick to award the BBC supremacy in the competition to present the most indigestible all-star spectacular. ATV’s Julie and Dick in Covent Garden had an indefatigable witlessness which put it in the same league with Liza, Charles and Tom. In Today (Thames) Sammy Davis Jr’s ego ran all over the studio — a ghastly sight. Showjumping from Hickstead (BBC1) is with us again. Shockemöhle sat to attention while the horse below him, sensibly refusing to jump over a high fence, kicked it to pieces twice. The Day-Long antiperspirant commercial features a surrogate Marilyn Monroe and should be withdrawn immediately. Fans of ‘Star Trek’ should contrive to purchase an imported copy of issue No. 2 of The Monster Times, devoted exclusively to their favourite show. We learn that the ability of Starship Enterprise to travel through time is ‘due to a recent phenomenon.’ This is only one of the many daft items of fax’n’info vitally interesting to all Trekkies.

The Observer, 21st July 1974