Essays: Fired into operatic orbit |
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Fired into operatic orbit

A BAD clash last Monday night between the repeat of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (BBC1) and a freaky ‘Look Stranger’ called Patrick Moore’s World Premiere (BBC2). Judging from what I saw of the latter, Patrick had never been more active or closer to the Earth. Flames came off him and it probably would have been dangerous to look at him for long.

As far as I could gather, Patrick had written an opera, called ‘Perseus and Andromeda,’ which was being put on by the Shoreham Light Opera Company. The opera itself was plainly the most abject pastiche of Gilbert and Sullivan. The real centre of interest lay in its author, who could not be restrained from expounding the plot — an affair which would have been labyrinthine even if intelligible. For amateur observers of Patrick Moore (and it is to them that we owe many important discoveries concerning the eccentricity of his orbit) it was a great moment. ‘I can hardly believe I’ve written it, actually,’ he was to be heard shouting as the titles rolled.

I myself was present at the scarcely believable breakthrough — comparable to the night the Cambridge radio astronomers picked up the pulse from the Crab Nebula — when Patrick heard that the comet Kohoutek (whose glories, he had promised, would light up the sky) had disappeared. It was during the production of an episode of ‘Up Sunday.’ Patrick was dressed as a spaceman. He was all set to lurch on and do his number when suddenly the telephone rang. It was for him. Kohoutek had failed to show up. Production ground to a halt while Patrick’s helmet was removed. Everyone — camera crews, engineers, half-dressed actresses — watched fascinated: while the spaceman (‘Has it? It has? Extraordinary! EXTRAORDINARY!’) assimilated the news about the missing phenomenon. None of us discussed these events later, for fear of being thought unhinged.

Panorama came back from Nepal with an outstanding documentary about the coronation of King Birendra, a monarch still equipped with those attributes of divinity which we in the West have long since prudently removed from our symbolic rulers. Lacking faith in the perfectibility of States, one is a monarchist by political conviction, but there are limits, and Birendra is too much — or, rather, not enough. Absolute monarchs ought at least to look aquiline. Birendra looks like Mr Nothing. Put a turban composed of precious stones and bird of paradise feathers on top of a head like that and it makes no difference: you’ve still got zilch. Meanwhile the illiterate population is conking out from leprosy and malnutrition. Vaguely mindful of this anomaly, the monarch has pronounced himself ‘willing to consider’ alternatives to absolutism, but on current form this can only mean, at best, that he is willing to consider not locking dissident voices up.

In this context the coronation was something of an obscenity. Nevertheless our own royals were there in strength, headed by Charles, whose long training at sitting still through low-quality entertainment must have paid off in a big way, since apart from a few psychedelic elephants it was a dire show. The military contribution was tacky in the extreme and the arts were represented by an epic poet who seemed to function as the local Patrick Moore. (There’s one in every town.) The programme’s view of all this was refreshingly sardonic. A clip from a Pathé newsreel of 20 years ago amply demonstrated the reverence with which the old steam-powered media used to treat the participation of our royals in this kind of wing-ding. (Prince Philip could not go on a tiger-shoot because he ‘had a whitlow on his trigger finger.’ Their warts used to be news, baby.) On the plus side of the emotional spectrum, it turns out that Sir Edmund Hillary is still busily repaying Nepal for having provided access to its key topographical feature. Properly suspicious of the benefits of tourism, Sir Edmund is helping to build schools and hospitals. He is undoubtedly a good man.

From Afghanistan, Taste for Adventure (BBC1) brought news of Buzkashi, a game in which 130 horsemen belt one another with loaded whips while trying to score goals with the headless carcass of a calf. In the days of the Moguls the ball used to be a live prisoner of war, but lately the rules have been cleaned up. A winter full of such fixtures apparently means the same to Afghanistan as football means to us. The commentary correctly pointed out that there was no alcohol or hooliganism, but neglected to mention that there was almost no excitement either. The alleged horsemanship might have been in evidence to horsemen, but meant little to the viewer. Like Sir Alf Ramsey’s famous ‘work-rate,’ it was a thing of purely professional interest.

In the commentary accompanying England v West Germany (ITV) Sir Alf’s strangled voice was still to be heard, telling us, when the ball went over the goal, that the shot had been too high. But out on the pitch Don Revie was in charge. The England players looked as if they were enjoying themselves, which they never did under Alf, fiercely loyal to him though they were. A prominent poster said, ‘Happiness is a Chrysler Car.’ It’s not: it’s a Cigar called Hamlet.

Honeymoon in the Sky (BBC2) compiled a fascinating programme from such standard components as the Shuttleworth collection of old aeroplanes and those reminiscences from pioneer airline pilots which we had already heard in ‘Yesterday’s Witness.’ The transforming ingredient was a set of interviews with some First World War pilots, whose vitality was amazingly untarnished. Perhaps an early escape from death makes the rest of life a holiday. Kojak (BBC1) got shot but survived. In Six Million Dollar Man (Thames), Six was nearly aced by revolutionaries, but used his super strength. You’re On Your Own (BBC1), starring Denis Quilley as a free-lance nemesis, is a waste of superior acting but worth a look. And The Sweeney (Thames) has gradually become required viewing, if only to keep tabs on the way television now seems willing to replace the nice cop myth with the nasty cop myth. Allan Prior wrote last week’s episode, getting much more mileage out of the format than be has recently been able to do with ‘Softly, Softly.’ Casting was strong, Warren Mitchell climbed into drag and Julian Holloway repeated the cockney number he had already done three nights earlier in Z-Cars (BBC1), which was otherwise notable for featuring Sharon Duce — playing, very credibly, a girl whose allure warped men’s minds.

The Observer, 16th March 1975