Essays: Better than ever |
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Better than ever

THE forensic verve of John Mortimer made A Voyage Round My Father (Thames) as unswitchoffable as a courtroom drama, even though it was nominally about a man who refused to admit that he couldn’t see.

Having your blind father played by Laurence Olivier is no doubt a big help. As Olivier has got older and, dare one say it, feebler, his energy has only become more apparent. When his magnificent athlete’s body could no longer vault up stairs like the young Hamlet or fling itself about like Richard III, his energy transferred itself to his voice, which grew even stronger. When the volume of his voice began to lessen, his elocution became even more sculpturally exact. Forced now to work within a much narrower dynamic range, he is twice the actor for the screen than he was 50 years ago, when he had more fizz than the camera could absorb. Not that he ever hammed it up. But he swamped everyone else just by standing there. People who tell you that Olivier overacts are telling you about themselves. He is just over-alive.

Here was a good chance to watch a senior great actor do one of his best tricks, namely, doddering impatience. The old man’s wife, played by Elizabeth Sellars, had to read him the sordid details of upcoming divorce cases while they were travelling together on the train to London. ‘What was that? Do speak up, dear.’ ‘Stains.’ ‘What was that?’ ‘STAINS.’ It would have been easy to play such scenes as farce but the temptation was resisted. Alan Bates was the young John Mortimer and Jane Asher, by now a valuable actress, played his first wife.

An even younger version of John Mortimer, played with bespectacled sensitivity by Alan Cox, was incarcerated in the mandatory weirdo prep school, staffed exclusively by fruitcake masters of whom the dippiest was the man in charge. Incarnated by the droll Michael Aldridge (who was one of the many things about Michael Frayn’s play ‘Noises Off’ that caused me to leave my seat and roll in the aisle), the headmaster laid down the law to the new boys even to the extent of telling them what nicknames the masters were to be known by. ‘I’m Noah. This is Mrs Noah. You are the animals.’

Mortimer has always been so prodigal with his gifts that one tends to look in the wrong place for his best work: the ‘Brideshead’ adaptation, for example, was nothing like as good as the Rumpole scripts. But ‘A Voyage Round My Father’, generally agreed to be a fine thing, actually is a fine thing. It was in two minds about whether the old man was a paragon or a monster, and it left you convinced that to be in two minds was the only way to be.

The new arts centre at The Barbican (BBC2) was opened by the Queen, who was obliged to put in a pretty tough evening. The music was composed by such dependable regulars as Beethoven, Wagner and Elgar, with Handel being heard intermittently during the fireworks. Also the building itself must have been pleasant for her to make a tour of, even if full of people bowing low, dropping suddenly to one knee, or making speeches. She made a speech of her own, very properly assessing the new place as one of the wonders of the modern world.

But the art exhibitions must have put a considerable burden on the royal patience. ‘The Queen is a great lover of visual art,’ said Richard Baker. Boy, had she come to the wrong place. Apart from the Picasso sculptures the post-war French art couldn’t have been duller, and to clobber the regal visitor with a load of Canadian tapestries was to risk a diplomatic incident. ‘Tapestry is a great tradition in Canada, especially French Canada,’ said Richard Baker with patently attenuated enthusiasm. Her Majesty did not flinch. It’s a tradition in the family: when the Germans drop bombs, you stay put, and when the Canadians send tapestries you pretend to look interested.

One of the strengths of British television is that its style has been set by people overqualified for the task. Robert Robinson, for example, had more than it took for writing and presenting a programme like The Auden Landscape (BBC2), since he has a literary background himself. What television will be like when it is staffed throughout by people with nothing but a television background is a worrying question, but it is a safe prediction that programmes as offhandedly intelligent as this one will be hard to come by.

Robinson nailed his colours to the mast by calling Auden ‘the most distinguished poet to have written in English since the death of Tennyson.’ If the average presenter had said this he might have left you wondering if he had ever heard of T. S. Eliot, but coming from Robinson it was obviously a conscious provocation. I think he’s right, but the programme helped demonstrate that greatness does not preclude childishness. The homosexual ambience was amply evoked, and sounded as bitchy as hell. There can be no doubt that Auden loved Chester Kallman but one look at him told you that that must have made two people who loved him, Auden and his mother. The word ‘mother’ figured large in Auden’s private vocabulary. His own mother knew all about his proclivities but never condemned. He rewarded her by being a man of genius.

An actor read Auden’s verse with no observation of the line endings whatsoever, thereby transforming some of the most vitally rhythmic poetry ever written into spineless mush. Robinson himself should have read it all. He recited from ‘The Fall of Rome’ with just the right measured vigour, although he should not have done so from memory — the reindeer don’t run across the miles and miles of golden moss, they move across it. Anyone who believes that Auden’s gift for evocation vanished after the war should read ‘The Fall of Rome.’ but caveat lector: you will never get its slideshow of phantasmagorical images out of your head.

If you scoop ‘Dallas’ and ‘Flamingo Road’ together, move them north to ‘Knot’s Landing,’ and then transport the whole shebang west to San Francisco, you’ve got Falcon Crest (Thames) and you’re welcome to it. Starring Jane Wyman, it was obviously meant to be entitled ‘The Return of the President’s Wife’ but the White House disapproved. The plot turns on the inability of a preternaturally stupid family to realise that their Aunt Angela is screwing them up. There is a lot of technical talk about the growing of grapes, by which we learn that grapes are susceptible to a fungus called bunch rot.

Forged Papers (BBC2) told you what happened to some of the English residents of the South of France who stayed on during the Vichy regime. Some of it was very nasty. Your average French anti-Semitic ‘expert on the Jewish problem’ was just aching to get started on solving it, so you didn’t have to be a secret agent to be in deadly danger — your ancestry could be enough.

A snooty-looking woman called Lady Henderson looked as if she was going to commandeer your help at the local gymkhana. When she talked, though, it was a quiet litany of unendurable horror. ‘People were tortured all night. You could hear it all going on. Unfortunately I saw my dear husband and I only recognised him by his coat.’ Her husband suffocated on the way to Dachau. She survived Ravensbrück. ‘People say, “Was it really like that?” and I say “Yes, haven’t you read the books?” ’ The titles listed her medals for valour. Here was reality if you could take it. Switch ‘Falcon Crest’ back on, quick.

The Observer, 7th March 1982
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]