Essays: Better than nothing |
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Better than nothing

I HAVE begun to like Whicker. I have warmed towards Parkinson, nor does Harty any longer arouse wrath. Non sum qualis eram. I am not what I was.

Even the news that Hughie Greene must relinquish the frontship of ‘Opportunity Knocks’ came as a blow instead of a relief. What is the reason for this yielding, as of a landscape in spring thaw? The answer is very simple. In recent years I have done some travelling — not much, just a few quick trips — and seen how much worse the rest of the world fares. Best does not mean good, but it still means better than nothing. Most of the rest of the world’s television is significantly worse than Britain’s. No other country, certainly not the United States, can offer a television series like Going Straight (BBC1).

‘Going Straight’ is the worthy successor of ‘Porridge.’ Norman Fletcher, still played by Ronnie Barker, is out of the nick and cleaving to the straight and narrer. His dialogue, like everybody else’s in the show, is still supplied by Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais. Every line they write is at least twice as good as anything in the average West End play. Really the script is an absurd luxury: there is no reason why it should be so good. If it were a quarter as witty it would still do. So the alert viewer gets the sense of privilege which the best popular art often arouses — the feeling that something marvellous is happening without benefit of clergy.

Calling on his probation officer and stirring his tea with her biro, Fletch explains that going straight deprives him of his only purpose in life — not getting caught. Nevertheless he is willing to try, although it means giving up the fun of planning bank robberies with Dinky Toys. He is assigned a job as night porter in a small hotel, run by a tolerant, mad liberal. There remains only the problem of getting to work: the short physical distance is a vast psychological gulf, dotted with pubs.

Into the nearest of these totters the quaking Fletch. ‘I go into the Black Lion to purchase my favourite potato crisp.’ (He likes smoky bacon.) Inebriation ensues. How Len (also now out, and still played by the engaging Richard Beckinsale) and Ingrid (Fletch’s feather-headed daughter, played by Patricia Brake) contrive to save the situation forms the bulk of the episode.

Ingrid is a creation in her own right. She has filial tenderness, gazing at the blotto Fletch with forgiving love as she announces quietly: ‘I brung your sammidges.’ She has a fluffy but compelling sexiness. To borrow some of Fletch’s words, it wouldn’t need no Hercule Pyorrhoea to see that she has enslaved Len. Miss Brake plays her with all the low-life zing that cockney sparrers of stage and screen are traditionally supposed to display but never do. Once again the secret lies in the dialogue. Ingrid’s richest endowment is good lines. ‘When I was a nipper all me party dresses was made out of parachute silk.’ In a few words we have been told everything about Fletch’s career in the Army.

Such dazzling hints at the past are a Clement/la Frenais trademark. They are masters of the enjoyable background detail, In ‘The Likely Lads’ we were always hearing about Sylvia Braithwaite but never met her. She grew more and more tangible the longer she never appeared. A dull way of describing this kind of solidity is to say that the writers have created a world, but in fact that is just what they haven’t done. What they have done is to be inventively consistent with selected detail, leaving the viewer plenty of scope to fill in the spaces from his own imagination. They are very sparing writers — sparing but exact.

It is well known by now that the leading role in ‘Porridge’ and ‘Going Straight’ has coaxed a definitive performance from Ronnie Barker. This fact might seem to go without saying, until you Consider that in ‘The Two Ronnies’ Barker plays Piggy Malone with the same enthusiasm. Piggy Malone is nothing at all and Fletch is as much as you could wish for. The difference is in the writing.

The point needs hammering because the secret of successful comedy is so often looked for in the wrong place. The actor’s personality matters, but last and least. First and foremost comes the work at the typewriter. It is because people have thought long and hard through many drafts that Norman Fletcher or Basil Fawlty can be so convincing with a single gesture. We have the example of American television, not to mention nearly all the Marx Brothers films, to show us that comedy can be infinitely less interesting and still gain acceptance. There is no reason why the best of our television comedy writers should be so dedicated. All we can do is to be grateful that they are.

‘And there’s Divina Galica!’ screamed the voice-over on Motor Racing at Silverstone (BBC1) at the very moment when Divina aquaplaned off the wet track and ploughed through the catch-fences. Once again a sportsperson’s moment of maximum embarrassment had been carefully spotlit. In this and all other respects the Daily Express International Trophy was a classic Beeb occasion.

Silverstone was so deep under rain that the track looked like the Serpentine. Famous drivers took turns during the opening laps to spin off into the catch-fences and be interviewed. The compulsory chat with James Hunt was thus enabled to take place near the start of the race instead of at the end. While he favoured us with his rugged charm, other drivers crashed into the queue of interviewees behind him. The event degenerated from a speedboat race into a demolition derby for submarines. Nobody suggested it was farce.

International Rugby Union (BBC1) was, however, bliss. Wales met France in a thriller final. The French pack was a cross between a centipede and a diesel locomotive. For a while the Welsh backs were unsettled and ran into one another. France pulled ahead. But then Phil Bennett, like someone in a schoolboy story, led his team into contention with a snake-hipped run for the corner. Gareth Edwards kicked for touch like a targeteer and dropped a goal from under the nose of a large Frenchman descending on him out of the sky. J. J. Williams threw a pass from behind his own neck. The whole thing was a dream. The commentary, as usual, was informative and literate. Who needs soccer? I ask in a whisper, but am not brave enough to stay for an answer.

The Observer, 26th March 1978