Essays: Patrick and the lute |
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Patrick and the lute

FRESH back from a tour of the outer planets, Patrick Moore was on Face the Music (BBC2). Resident host was Joseph Cooper, he of the silent piano. As always when Patrick and Joseph are in conjunction, the results were spectacular.

The screen was ablaze with inexplicable phenomena. For example, Patrick was unable to recognise a portrait of the Queen. Admittedly the portrait was by Annigoni, but it did look something like her. It made you wonder about all those times on ‘The Sky at Night’ when Patrick confidently assures you that the minuscule smudge in the bottom left-hand corner of the photograph is a quasar at the edge of the universe.

But the high point came when Patrick got into trouble over another question and Joseph tried to give him a hint. Giving a hint to Patrick isn’t easy. The question involved identifying some musical instrument: a lute, if I remember rightly. Anyway, Joseph decided to mime that he was playing one of these.

Patrick, with his head in the Magellanic Clouds, did not catch on. Joseph increased his efforts, strumming frantically at the empty air. After the silent piano, the invisible lute! Patrick looked stumped. His face was a study — I mean on top of the study it is normally. Ask him about the period luminosity relation in Cepheid variables and he knows where he is, but he is no good on invisible lutes. Joseph mugged and plucked. Patrick groaned and writhed. The viewer goggled in disbelief. Two great clowns were locked in combat. It was a needle-match for nutters, a Brands Hatch for buffoons, a demolition derby for dingbats.

Also on the panel, the new model Robin Ray remained calm. Calm was something the old model Robin Ray could never remain for a minute, but the years bring tranquility even to the hysterical. The week before, on the same programme, Robin had failed to remember that the K-number of Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ piano concerto is 537. There was a day when such a lapse would have sent him into paroxysms of defensive laughter. But this time he just sat there, silently smiling: a fatalist. Robin Ray has acquired gravitas, a presence befitting his new role as front-man for the programmes being put out under the catch-all title The Lively Arts (BBC2). Humphrey Burton’s biggest project since he moved back to the Beeb, this series has already established itself, in my view, as a success.

So far ‘The Lively Arts’ has been at its best when presenting ballet and opera. I can think of at least two programmes in these areas that I am very grateful for. The Australian production of the Malcolm Williamson opera The Violins of Saint Jacques was first-class television, even if it was not first-class opera. I found the score short on singability, but since I think the same about Britten perhaps it’s a personal opinion best left aside. There could be no doubt, though, that this was serious work seriously done. Only the credit roller, with every second name a Bruce or a Barry, betokened parochialism. Otherwise it was a show for the world.

But the outstanding programme in the series was one of the first to go out — the German production of John Cranko’s ballet Onegin. The earlier television version of his ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was already sufficient evidence that Cranko was a genius, but here was the proof compounded. It should be impossible to find a dance equivalent for Pushkin’s lyricism, since in the poetry of ‘Eugene Onegin’ there is nothing arty. But Cranko paying homage to Pushkin was like Verdi paying homage to Shakespeare — the spirit was preserved even if the letter was transformed.

Cranko’s choreography was a bolt from the blue — classicism revivified, a fountain of inventiveness that our end of the twentieth century really had no right to expect. The ZDF cameras caught some of it. The BBC borrowed what they caught. If only for its imaginative global shopping, ‘The Lively Arts’ would deserve commendation.

And fronting most of its programmes is the new model Robin Ray. Only once has he fallen back on his erstwhile habits. After introducing a production, starring Teresa Berganza, of The Barber of Seville, he reappeared during the interval to help commemorate the composer by eating, with the help of his wife, some Tournedos Rossini prepared in the studio by the chef from the Savoy, or it could have been the Ritz. The chef from the Ritz, or it could have been the Savoy, explained the recipe step by step, for those of us in the audience who had a spare truffle within reach and were keen to have a go.

Robin clucked appreciatively between, and often during, mouthfuls. All this was numbingly trivial and had the sole merit of echoing with exactitude the merits of the opera itself — Mozart minus the brains. But apart from this one slovenly attempt to link high art with rich living (not only is there no connection; there’s an active antagonism), ‘The Lively Arts’ has kept a high average in which Robin and Humphrey could be excused for taking some pride.

Somewhere down-budget from Humph’s monstro prestige music shows, a secondary cluster of arts events has formed around the pulsating energy of Melvyn Bragg, the man with the keen, if crushed, nose for what’s happening creativity-wise. Bragg’s Read All About It (BBC2), the Paperback Book-Bang of the Air, is by now an accepted mini-hit, which at its best elicits just as much relaxed chat from the literati as you ever find on The Book Programme (BBC2), where Robert Robinson, while equalling Bragg’s acumen, has seldom felt able to emulate his reticence. Bragg also fronts the prosier shows for ‘The Lively Arts’ and has broken important new ground on Tonight (BBC1), where his items are often the sole feature lifting the programme’s IQ into three figures.

On the whole it is to be deplored when a field of human endeavour is always represented on television by one person — Moore equals astronomy, Burke equals technology, Magnusson equals omniscience — but if somebody has to equal books then it might as well be Bragg. At least on the BBC the star-arts-front-man system, however invidious, can he said to work. Aquarius (LWT) gains little from its star, Peter Hall, since he is hardly ever there. Last week he was to be seen topping and tailing a show in which the real work was done, none too informatively, by Russell Harty, interviewing Sir Harold Acton. The connection between rich living and high art was firmly made, alas.

In Abide With Me (BBC2), a play adapted by Julian Mitchell from sources in Winifred Foley, there was a supreme performance by Cathleen Nesbitt as an ancient lady nearing the end. ‘I’m afraid we’ve had the best of summer’ — you had to see it to believe what she could do with lines like that. Kennedy’s Been Shot (BBC2) was a worthy attempt to find out what people were doing on the big day, but the bombastic script was a switch-off.

The Observer, 28th November 1976

[ An abbreviated excerpt from this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]