Essays: Banging on about books |
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Banging on about books

ON Read All About It (BBC1) Margaret Drabble said she’d ‘vaguely heard of Dorothy Parker for years and years.’

For people who had vaguely heard of Margaret Drabble for a similar period, this was the ideal chance to see her in action. The exotica on screen — ranging in erudition from Jonathan Miller to Kenny Everett and in comeliness from Helen Mirren to myself — have made Melvyn Bragg’s Book Bang of the Air the fun panel-show of 1975. It’s not as if the hip literati are keen to get on it. They’re fighting to get on it.

For the First Night of the Proms (BBC2), Pierre Boulez conducted Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, employing musicians and singers to the total of something like 700, which is about 70 times as many people as it takes to deliver Bach’s Cantata 140 — or, to put it another way, about 700 times as many people as it takes for Randy Newman to sing ‘Tickle Me.’ As the majestic work unfolded its enormous length, one marvelled all over again at the tiny amount of content Mahler had been able to dissipate over so large an expanse. The singers were stacked up into the sky like the ranks of the beatified in the last cantos of Dante’s ‘Paradiso.’ Boulez commanded his hosts like Alexander Korda, like Alexander Nevsky, like Alexander of Macedon. I thought of D. W. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance.’ I thought of Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will.’ I thought of running down to the river and throwing myself in.

Third in its series, The Likes of Lord Hailsham (BBC1) was, on the other hand, a scream. The likes of Twiggy had been charming, if predictable; the likes of Jack Hedley had been more substantial; but the likes of the radiantly self-approving Lord Hailsham were on that higher scale where solipsism takes off into realms unknown. For example, he gave evidence that he liked reading out his own poems, of which it may be said in mitigation that they are better than Enoch Powell’s. But on the whole he reads literature ‘for its content, not its form.’

‘Do you listen to a lot of music?’ asked the anonymous interviewer. ‘No. I don’t,’ replied Lord Hailsham with bursting self-confidence. ‘Musically I’m quite illiterate.’ But certain melodies get through to him. ‘I’m haunted by one of the “Yeomen of the Guard” ones, “I’ve Got a Song to Sing-O,” which I find haunting.’ As to paintings, he pronounced himself a ‘great lover of the French Impressionists,’ although he ‘can never remember who painted what.’ Not only did he admire Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, he ‘admires all the heroes throughout history,’ a process which he seems to regard as having taken place in order to lead up to Winston Churchill, whose function was doubtless to pave the way for Lord Hailsham.

Horizon (BBC2) turned aside from pollution in the Mediterranean (watch out for those Italian tomatoes) to deal with a new mathematical gimmick called Catastrophe Theory, which apparently can explain absolutely anything. Not surprisingly it was invented in France, the current world centre for the manufacture and export of intellectual systems. Its chief promoter in this country is Christopher Zeeman, who had a three-dimensional graph to show us — an attractive artefact featuring a rather sexy ogival curve. Christopher assured us that the mathematics of the business would be beyond us. In layman’s terms, however, it could be stated with some confidence that such a graph can describe everything from the dividing of a cell to the progress of a war. Catastrophe Theory is nothing less than a Theory of Universal Unfolding!

Christopher, who at one point said ‘my face is a discontinuity in space,’ at first seemed all unaware that he was playing with dynamite. Between the unfolding of a flower and the outbreak of a revolution the difference is not just one of complication. He conceded that his references to such things as the war in Vietnam were ‘very crude in a certain sense,’ but didn’t realise that they were also inflammatory, since US policy in Vietnam was a clear case of social engineers harbouring the delusion that they were scientists — a delusion which Catastrophe Theory can only intensify.

The show wound up with a playlet of Christopher’s own devising, showing a couple having a quarrel. All this proved was that Christopher is no dramatist, but he fiddled with his graph undeterred, graciously entering the caveat that the theory might not always fit the facts but apparently failing to see the danger that the facts might be twisted to suit the theory. ‘There can be no doubt,’ it was portentously declared, ‘that the kinks and quirks of our behaviour can be described by graphs like these.’ Dialectical materialism returns, with a new wrinkle.

Police Woman (Thames*) is an imported American fuzz opera starring Angie Dickinson: role reversal reaches the precinct. Angie’s chief attribute, apart from a face which looks like somebody drew it, has always been a lissom line in faintly cheap grief. In ‘The Killers’ Lee Marvin threatened to throw her out of a window and she looked scared but not surprised. As Pepper Anderson, girl cop, she looks as sad as ever, but the context redefines the mopes as angst. Horrors pile up in front of her cartoon eyes as she trembles on the verge of catatonia, but when the time comes to ace the heavies she opens fire without even winking.

Success Story (BBC2) starred squash-champ Jonah Barrington, who described his training programme as a form of crucifixion.’ (In a forthcoming instalment of the same series religious leader Jesus Christ will describe his crucifixion as a form of training programme.) Patrick Moore (The Sky at Night, BBC2) has been physically smoothed up — a blow-dried Wernher von Braun haircut and trimmed eyebrows — but his dialogue is as wild as ever. ‘Of course I’m an observer of the Moon myself,’ he explained.

[ * LWT ]

The Observer, 3rd August 1975