Essays: Nut week's flying start |
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Nut week’s flying start

THE portents started in the late part of the week before last. They built up quickly, and it was not long before men wise in these matters were predicting a Silly Season of unusual intensity.

On Saturday night’s BBC News, the news reader, who shall be nameless, was given the task of informing us that Norma Levy’s supposed presence in Ireland had turned out to be only a rumour, and that we would now go over to Ireland to see a reporter confirming this.

Leaving aside the bulky question of why the BBC should be chasing after so temporarily fashionable a lady in the first place, there was the even bulkier question of just what the BBC thought it was doing by cutting to a piece of film shot in Ireland which would indicate that Norma Levy had never been there. In the event, the slight strain detectable in the news reader’s voice was unwarranted. The film broke down. So that when we were finally psychologically prepared to watch a man in Ireland saying that Norma Levy hadn’t appeared, he didn’t appear. Bank Holiday Nut Week was off to a flying start.

Not that we knew at that stage, needless to say, precisely to what heights of foolery it would attain: before a handful of days were out, another late-night BBC news reader was hoarsely promising that camera crews were e’en then racing through the gloom to King’s Cross, there to await the arrival of the faery couple who were streaking down from Balmoral on wheels of steel. A programme would be put together as we slept and screened at 7.45 next morning. One’s brain swarmed with images of hard-palmed ACTT card-carriers grouped on the cold platform with sun-guns and Arriflexes piled around their horny rustic knees — adoring yokels from an up-dated Flemish triptych. How to light the scene without obliterating Anne’s halo? The technical problems would be enormous.

In the space of a few light-hearted days, the taint of the call-girl had been fumigated from the land, and everywhere there drifted the pure scent of orange-blossom. That, I think, was the general idea. On BBC radio they interviewed the station master. It was at this point that your reporter realised how advisable it would be to keep a low profile. Madness was stalking the country: dangerous in its merriment, murderous in its melancholy, unpredictable, inexpungeable, unassuageable. I am writing this in bed, watching the set through dark glasses.

To celebrate Bank Holiday, most of the decent programmes were cancelled; the seasonal policy of bombarding the video-space with repeats was if anything intensified; and care was taken to lay on an overwhelming supply of the rottenest old movies known to science. There was a brace of good Peter Sellers comedies on the Saturday afternoon, but a decisive counterstrike was scheduled for that that same night: the unspeakable Sodom and Gomorrah, which apart from a deathless line in the first reel (‘Be careful of Sodomite patrols’) is an interminable demonstration of the fact that ineptitude need not be interesting.

Piling Pelion on Ossa, BBC-2 screened The Citadel, which would probably have dropped out of sight years ago if not for the continuing belief that poor, sick Robert Donat could act. He couldn’t at all, but the truth does little to dispel a myth. ‘A. J. Cronin’s famous novel beautifully realised by a superb cast,’ sang Philip Jenkinson in the Radio Times, ‘and one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, King Vidor.’ Incredible. One sent to see if the public fountains were running blood, while listening for the howls of whelping lions.

There was a measure of redemption in screening The Phantom of the Opera on BBC-2 late on the Monday night: it was the Claude Rains version, which is easily the most tolerable one, with fright-wigs made from real hair and some good splashy sets pretending to be the sewers of old Paree. But the Beeb’s movie policy for the holiday weekend was best summed up by their decision to rerun Hollywood: The Dream Factory on BBC-1 late on Sunday night. Apart from enshrining a bunch of clips ordinarily unobtainable, this half-witted show is nothing but an extended beating of MGM’s drum, and symbolises the BBC’s readiness to regurgitate the Hollywood heritage without criticising it. The Corporation carries more film criticism than any other channel in the world, yet not an atom of it is directed towards their own schedules. But there is no reason why some of it shouldn’t be, and the results could be funny as well as honest. At the moment, blinkered eclecticism is looking like ordinary bad faith: it’s time to come clean with the public.

Apart from The Sand Pebbles, a film of inexpressible tedium, ITV didn’t seem to be running anything very much. Commendably, they filled Sunday night with Southern’s screening of the Glyndebourne Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Less commendably, another night was devoted to their share in the pointless game of chicken staged between ITV and the BBC over the match between Ajax and Juventus. To solve the problem of who should screen it, everybody screened it. Apart from the soccerpaths who switched on two sets and watched the game in stereo, there could have been nobody grateful for such a purposeless duplication. Sort it out, do.

BBC-1 started a new series fronted by Esther Rantzen, called That’s Life. It’s a consumer show and might be jolly in a Bradenish way, but like nearly all television of its type it is hopelessly underwritten. If you can’t be cutting about creepy products, what can you be cutting about?

A Picture of Katherine Mansfield (BBC-2) has been better lately, but without being really good. Eddie Charlton won the Pot Black final (BBC-2): good on you, sport. Philpott (BBC-2) was on about golf, but the absence of Trevino, Nicklaus and comparably expensive faces was severely felt. Instead, the programme was full of old Americans who wanted to die at the tee. A reasonable desire, Philpott must have thought, and sensibly forbore to probe. Necessarily less critical than the earlier shows in the series, this final one lacked lift. Tune in on The Song of Songs (BBC-2) to watch Charles Gray and the fine Penelope Wilton soaring hand-in-hand above the material. But whatever you do, stay indoors. From here until Anne’s honeymoon it’s going to be absolute insanity.

The Observer, 3rd June 1973