Essays: Squirrel Nuttgens |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Squirrel Nuttgens

IN THE final round-up drone-in for the series Where We Live Now (BBC2), Patrick Nuttgens, who earlier in the week had fronted the programme in favour of modern architecture, was referred to by a lady in the audience as Squirrel Nutkin.

The lady had made a critical statement of some penetration. Squirrel Nutkin, you will remember, tempted fate. He was overconfident. When Mr Nuttgens walks around a modern building, waving airily at the features he finds marvellous, there is an unheeding gesture he makes with his right hand that strongly recalls, in its conceited insouciance, a certain self-important squirrel. The possibility that Mr Nuttgens has a bushy tail tucked down his corduroys should not be ruled out.

What was wrong with Mr Nuttgens’s programme was not that he defended modern architecture, but that he defended it so badly, having apparently failed to realise that it was even under attack. He simply invited us to approve uncritically of the modernist idea that a building was something which automatically benefited from having its functions rationally analysed in every detail before it was constructed.

As an example of this process, he adduced the Festival Hall. Plainly he was right to admire that. But be never got around to mentioning that when it comes to the kind of building that people have to live in, there has recently been some controversy about whether rationally analysing its functions before you build it is really a proper substitute for humbly availing oneself of all the traditional knowledge accumulated over the centuries by people who simply built houses.

When apprised, during the drone-in, that there were nowadays two schools of thought on this last point, Squirrel Nutkin protested hotly. The architects, he said, were not to blame for whatever went wrong with the tower blocks, since at that time there was ‘no information available.’ There were ‘no sociologists’ to tell them what was needed. Here was the moment for Old Brown Owl to swoop down from the gantry and pull Nutkin’s tail off, but unfortunately the dozey bird missed his cue.

On The South Bank Show (LWT) Melvyn Bragg interviewed Alan Bennett and Stephen Frears as a postscript to Bennett’s series of six plays. At one point your reporter was flattered to hear his own name on the lips of these worthies. Proclaiming himself annoyed at the vituperative critical response to ‘The Old Crowd,’ Bennett announced that he was particularly disappointed with me, from whom he normally expects better.

I was left thoughtful but unrepentant. Apparently the hostile reaction has made Bennett more determined, rather than less, to extend his work in a direction away from ‘naturalism.’ Glad not to have hindered his development, I feel free to recapitulate. One’s objection to ‘The Old Crowd’ was not that it branched out in a new, unfamiliar direction: there was nothing it branched out into that was not as old and familiar as your hat. One’s objection to ‘The Old Crowd’ was that it was tosh.

Since Bennett does nor usually write tosh, it was reasonable, even if not right, in place the responsibility on Lindsay Anderson, a director who has a long history of tosh behind him. Bennett and Frears were passionate in defence of Anderson’s personal qualities, which I don’t doubt for a minute. ‘Lindsay Anderson has a wonderful sense of humour.’ There was reference to ‘the enormous response he has when he himself comes to work.’ But a critic’s job is to assess results.

The Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth (BBC1) rocketed straight to number one, beating ‘Richard II,’ and ‘Measure for Measure’ into equal second place on the Bardathon hit-list. Kevin Billington directed the piece with a cunning eye to locations. He gave it a soft look which inevitably ran the risk of conjuring up the cinematography of ‘A Man For All Seasons,’ but that was a better risk to run than making the whole thing look like a triumph for Holbein — who indeed used to steal all the notices during the nineteenth century, when Wolsey was a favourite virtuoso role for the actor-managers.

John Stride carried off the title role with judicious use of his bell-like voice. It is a hard part because nothing is explored in it: Henry must stand about thinking earnestly of his kingdom’s good, which he finally ensures to perpetuity by begetting Elizabeth. To do that, he has to set Katherine of Aragon aside. It is all very regrettable. He is given speeches in which to regret it. The speeches reveal him to be as pure in heart as Princess Grace of Monaco contemplating the necessity of redecorating the Casino. There is no warrant for injecting even the slightest touch of evil and sensibly Stride did not try.

The real leading male role belongs to Wolsey. To play the great cardinal at the height of his power, Timothy West had merely to remember the way he played Bounderby in ‘Hard Times,’ and then put on a red hat. The hard work came after Wolsey’s fall, when he had to be made sympathetic. West did this with accomplishment. I would have been astonished at him if I had had any astonishment left over from watching Claire Bloom.

As Katherine, Claire Bloom turned in the best performance of the series so far. In fact she established Katherine overnight as a Shakespearean female role on a level, in its intensity if not in its range, with Gertrude, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. She spoke the verse with unfaltering musicality even when racked by emotion, thereby embodying Shaw’s great ideal of a Shakespearean performance, in which the acting is done on the lines and not between them. She made it credible that Katherine should go on loving Henry even after the imperatives of history had cast her aside, leaving her shipwrecked upon a kingdom.

Telford’s Change (BBC1) is a good read, but under the lush production values it’s really just ‘The Brothers Go Banking.’ In the latest episode Telford was on the point of putting some of the bank’s money into a massage parlour. Meanwhile Mrs Telford was on the point of falling into bed with a dynamic theatrical impresario. Both of them are obliged to stay a long time on the point of doing things because if they actually did them the interest — which is simple, not compound — would evaporate.

Did you watch Youngblood Hawke (BBC1)? Undoubtedly it deserves its reputation as one of the worst movies in the world. Yet the extraordinary Genevieve Page does some of her best work in it. That, Mrs Worthington, is what your daughter’s life could be like if you put her on the stage. She could have all the talent in the world, and still find herself lavishing her technique on lines like: ‘Kees me, as only my wild Hawke knows how.’

The Observer, 4th March 1979