Essays: Soap opera parable |
[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]

Soap opera parable

No use denying that Washington: Behind Closed Doors (BBC1) is gripping stuff. It gets into your mind like cow gum: tacky but inexorable.

‘Doors’, as it is called in the trade, had its origins in the mighty intellect of John Ehrlichman, who you will remember was once a Nixon aide chiefly distinguishable by his fanatical loyalty. After being indicted and locked up he became chiefly distinguishable by his fanatical disloyalty, but there is nothing remarkable in that, since the abiding characteristic in men like Ehrlichman is not loyalty but fanaticism. He wrote a novel, which forms the basis for the series, which unsurprisingly neglects to feature any character easily recognisable as Ehrlichman.

You would think that Nixon dragged the Bill of Rights through the mud without Ehrlichman’s assistance. The series does, however, feature a character based on Ehrlichman’s equally charming colleague Haldeman. Played with chilling authenticity by Robert Vaughn, he goes under the name of Frank Flaherty, but we would do best to think of him as Haldeman and Ehrlichman rolled into one. Any portrait of Haldeman is a portrait of Ehrlichman, especially when Ehrlichman is the one painting it. How can Tweedledum tell you about Tweedledee without telling you about himself?

Anyway, by the time it has been expanded into a TV series Ehrlichman’s vision, no longer under its author’s control, has stopped being one man’s cheap novel and started being a whole generation’s big-budget parable. It is by fictions that the facts are remembered if they are to be remembered at all, and the first thing to say about ‘Doors’ is that it is not entirely to be despised. Like ‘Roots’ it has its naïveties, but once again they spring less from cynicism than simplicity of heart. The main effort goes into driving home the lesson, and it seems to at least one viewer that they’ve got at least half the lesson right — not a bad proportion, as historical lessons go.

Nixon was out to subvert the Constitution of the United States. In ‘Doors’ Richard Monckton, the Nixon figure, is shown doing the same thing. Actually the series is often kinder to Nixon than the facts warrant, since it shows his abuse of power springing more from faults of character than from the will, when there is good evidence that Nixon didn’t just drift into subversion but headed straight for it from an early date. But even though the script leaves his motives blurred, nevertheless it does make clear that Nixon was in the process of forming, and ruling by, a Presidential Party — the very thing which the Founding Fathers were determined to prevent. The Nixon administration was deplorable not so much for its incidental crimes, which have been committed by every other administration as well, but for its central impulse. This is a difficult message to get hold of and transmit, but ‘Doors’ has managed it and therefore deserves praise.

With the main idea so robustly put, it doesn’t matter so much that a lot of the detail is weak. Besides, the leading roles are in some cases more powerfully cast than the script deserves, thereby providing that feeling of solidity which often goes to make strong soap opera more memorable than weak art. Jason Robards has tricked out the character of Monckton with every nervous spasm and paranoiac twitch that ever racked Nixon’s chaotic body.

Some of the best scenes are shot mainly from behind, to show Monckton/Nixon feeling up an acquaintance. The arm is placed with would-be confidence around the victim’s shoulder. Then the hand attached to the arm becomes unsure of itself and starts shifting position. Robards has even succeeded in echoing Nixon’s unique slouching walk, with the arms out of coordination with the legs — a physical reflection of the recriminative battle being waged in his spirit.

And so on down the line of leading characters, with Cliff Robertson in poised command as CIA boss William Martin, a role presumably based on Richard Helms. Martin is a heavily idealised personification of what the CIA was actually up to throughout that period, but there does happen to be a tinge of justification for making him a good guy. (And by handing the character to Robertson, of course, you make him a good guy automatically.) Nixon did, after all, favour the FBI, traditionally the intelligence agency most concerned with making sure that the State kept track of its enemies at home. The CIA was more concerned with enemies abroad.

The series takes it for granted that the CIA was justified in committing assassination, in order to avert World War III. In fact such activities practically guarantee the loss of World War III by handing the moral advantage to the other side, but this is plainly too awkward a subject for the script-writers to tackle. A forgivable omission, but unfortunately it leaves them with little to say about Kissinger, who in the series is called Carl Tessler and does nothing more reprehensible than manifest a taste for power. The missing half of the lesson starts, or ought to start but doesn’t, with him. My personal choice of villain in the Nixon years is Kissinger, since he was bright enough to know that in contriving with the President to hide his foreign policy from Congress he was subverting the Constitution.

More of that at a later date, however: the series might yet reach such conclusions, or others I haven’t thought of. At the moment it is enough to know that the USA can turn out, for popular consumption, a TV show which faces the fact that its Government can be headed by somebody who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong and that there will be clever men, who do know the difference, keen and even desperate to serve him. You can’t imagine the Soviet Union coming clean in the same fashion, although I suppose a series called ‘Kremlin: Behind High Walls’ could be based on Khrushchev’s speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, if Khrushy himself were not now out of favour.

The re-run of Tom Stoppard’s Professional Foul (BBC2) gave me my first opportunity to see it. There is no point in adding to the praises with which the play has been justly showered, except to note that one of its themes is very relevant to ‘Doors’: since you can convince a man of anything as long as he’s clever enough, the way to test the ethics of an idea is to try it out on someone simpler.

Eduardo de Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday (Granada) was the best yet in the ‘Laurence Olivier Presents’ series. Most of the actors coped well with the Italian gestures, especially Celia Gregory, who got them just right. The sense of community was delightful.

The choice of plays in this series has not always been good — the Pinter was scarcely his best, and the Tennessee Williams unfortunately was his best — but here was a piece that gave you the essence of its author and the enviably coherent family life he celebrates.

The Observer, 8th January 1978

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]