Essays: Walkies out West |
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Walkies out West

TRYING to cope with Poland and the festive season simultaneously, television did rather better with the first than the second. There wasn’t a lot on the screen to help you relax, apart from the movies.

Probably the best of these was Sweeney 2 (ITV), which looked good even if you had seen it before. The same actors as in the television series drank in the same pub and pulled the same birds, but the action was on the more lavish scale allowed by a feature film and there was time to develop a suitably intricate plot. Rich-living heavies who had quit England but came back periodically to rob its banks finally got sorted out, thereby showing that the old country still has something going for it after all. This message was particularly warming if your house happened to be surrounded by 10 feet of snow liberally sprinkled with abandoned cars.

Seeing El Cid (BBC1) for what must have been the tenth time, I turned down the sound and supplied my own dialogue. It was thus possible for the Cid, or El as he was known among intimates, to make explicit remarks about Sophia Loren’s personal architecture instead of just feigning anxiety about the fate of the Spanish monarchy. Made in the richest period of the Eastmancolor process, ‘El Cid’ is a good-looking picture even when cropped to fit the tube.

The same, alas, can’t be said for 2001: A Space Odyssey (BBC1). When it came out I saw it four days in a row from a front seat, revelling in the definition of the 70mm print while being knocked variously sideways by the eight-track stereophonic sound. Re-released in 35mm, the picture lost much of its visual impact. Cut down at the sides to fit on television, it became ordinary at best, with many of its most hard-won effects unintelligible. Sometimes the image switched back to wide-screen but the starry borders placed at the top and bottom simply made it look messy. You can’t have everything but sometimes it is better to have nothing. ‘2001’ pioneered much of the optical splendour which the ‘Star Wars’ generation now takes for granted. It deserves respectful treatment as an heirloom, if as nothing else.

Since Gone With the Wind (BBC1 two nights running) was made in roughly the same shape as a television screen in the first place, it didn’t lose its proportions when reduced, and might even have gained from the fact that the process photography suddenly looked artily stylised instead of obviously fake. What the film mainly had, of course, was stars you wanted to watch. Why should Vivien Leigh care about Leslie Howard and his elocution when she could have Clark Gable and his ears?

Stardom was also the deciding factor in Salute to Fred Astaire (ITV). Hollywood salutes and tributes are usually to be avoided and in many respects this one was no exception. Some of the face-lifts present were under so much strain that if a suture had burst the whole deal would have fallen on the floor. But Astaire is a true hero of popular art and there were film clips to prove it. All over again I found myself spontaneously applauding, although this time I didn’t try copying that trick of dancing towards the chair, placing one foot on its seat, placing the other foot on its back and gradually transferring the weight forward until the chair has moved through 90 degrees and you go dancing on. Either your feet have to be Fred Astaire’s or the chair has to be made of steel. With an ordinary chair the back snaps straight off and the two back legs. buckle at the same time, thereby ensuring that your head reaches the kitchen floor while the feet are still airborne. This would not impress Ginger Rogers even if she happened to be present. She wasn’t at the salute either, interestingly enough.

The unexpected success among the movies was The Savage Bees (BBC1). The same subject, killer bees, had previously given rise to one of the most treasurably ludicrous films ever made, ‘The Swarm’. But ‘The Savage Bees’ was tense, terse and convincing right up until the moment when Horst Buchholz’s bee-proof suit got sliced open by a drunk dressed as a pirate. That was a bit hard to take, not because Horst was eaten by the bees but because the blotto reveller with the cutlass was an obvious plot-device in a film otherwise well done within its set limits. It all goes to show that there is no such thing as a bad theme.

There is, alas, such a thing as a bad joke. There were enough of these around during the last two weeks to convince you, if you needed convincing, that such reliable jesters as Morecambe and Wise and the two Ronnies are well worth their fame and fortune. Even during the most desperate famine of comic material they never sink below a certain level, whereas others — who shall be nameless while the season of goodwill is still on — never rise to it. But there could be no real doubt about which was the most consistently amusing show of the putatively fun-filled fortnight. Barbara Woodhouse Goes To Beverly Hills (Yorkshire) had everything.

‘Will the people and pets in this town take to the Woodhouse Way?’ Barbara asked herself while bowling into the Hollywood Hills by limousine, ‘I’ve come to find out.’ The Woodhouse Way, it will be recalled, involves saying ‘Walkies!’ to dogs and breathing up the noses of anxious horses. Barbara had good cause to be apprehensive, however. Some of the stars she was about to visit had left mere dogs and horses a long way back in their successful careers. Now they were surrounded by marmosets, lemurs, leopards, lions and tigers. Could the Woodhouse Way extend to whistling up a lion’s behind? Barbara would soon find out, but first she had to talk about dogs with Zsa Zsa Gabor.

‘You’ve not only had many animals,’ Barbara told Zsa Zsa, ‘but you’ve had quite a few husbands.’ Zsa Zsa, apparently dressed for a walk-on appearance as a seraglio supervisor from Samarkand, wasn’t about to disagree. ‘Ha ha ha ha ha ha,’ she commented. ‘Ha ha ha ha ha.’ Long ago in Budapest, some misguided suitor had told her she had a laugh like silver bells. She was good with the laugh but self-confessedly bad with the dog, who would not obey her. ‘Shall I show you how?’ asked Barbara. ‘I would love it, dollink.’ Barbara said ‘Walkies!’ to Zsa Zsa’s pooch, which promptly walked, perhaps for the first time in its life. Zsa Zsa tried saying ‘Walkies!’ too. ‘Volkease.’

Barbara visited a special training camp where people put their heads into the mouths of lions, presumably so as to breathe directly down their throats. She visited a dentist who caps the teeth of pets. Barry Manilow’s dog checked into hospital with a possible nervous breakdown. Barbara was in a context which should have made her look normal. Telling Britt Ekland how to hold a dog (‘Your second finger goes slightly in there’) she sounded almost humdrum. But during the closing moments she revealed a whole new side of herself. She is in spiritual contact with her lost pets. ‘I’ve never gone to bed at night and had a dream without my dog is with me.’ Her face lit up the screen.

In the final scenes of Brideshead Revisited (Granada) Laurence Olivier gave us Lord Marchmain’s death scene. He did everything except levitate. The directors of the series managed well enough in difficult circumstances but there is no need to go overboard. Your main challenge when directing Olivier, for example, is to make sure that there is film in the camera. More telling were such scenes as those in the last episode when shambling extras pretended to be soldiers. Lack of authenticity abounded. The series was a Fabergé curate’s egg.

The Observer, 3rd January 1982