Essays: The perfect butler |
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The perfect butler

THE avalanche of treasure promised for the autumn schedules has mainly turned out to be a clattering trickle of zircons. Still, nil desperandum: there is the odd, good thing.

Two’s Company (LWT) is a six-part mini-series written by Bill McIlwraith and starring Elaine Stritch and Donald Sinden with a supporting cast of none — a by-now-familiar cost-cutting device which simultaneously pleases the company accountants and gives Equity the horrors. The plot is even more familiar: brash American career-woman (la Stritch) employs perfect British butler (Sinden). But on the basis of its first episode I can confidently pronounce the show as fresh as a daisy. The two roles are written with no salient degree of wit, but they are properly supplied with character-points, and Stritch and Sinden are well qualified to do the rest.

Sinden is one of our most cherishable actors. Indeed it is hard to think of any other actor, with the exception of the much-underestimated Nigel Patrick, who can play the British heritage of comic leading men to the full range of its possibilities. Usually the personable actors are not funny, and the funny actors are not personable. Even in Restoration comedy — the most rigorous proving-ground for an actor’s style — Sinden can be almost crazily inventive without even once camping it up.

From a throat sprayed with Drambuie and painted with maple syrup, his voice emerges in a deceptively ampliative purr which is transmogrified to thunder at the slightest hint of interference with his plans. His lips run such a gamut of pouts and pursings they are never still, except when suddenly thinned into the rictus of an anticipatory or collusive grin, at which point the focus of attention shifts to his predatory teeth, while his eyeballs extrude themselves into threatening cones and their brows perform dazzling arabesques in conformity with the speed of the wheels turning inside his untrustworthy skull. He can suggest athleticism just by sitting there.

When you consider that Stritch is at least Sinden’s equal for riveting your attention, to watch them bandying aggro is like attending the last day at Wimbledon. She has decided to call him ‘Sneakers.’ He is suffering on behalf of a disinherited nation. The show is small, well-crafted and bids fair to be amusing.

Angels (BBC1) is large and clumsy, with its heart in the right place and its feet tripping over each other. An Elementary Young Nurse saga whose trade nickname is ‘Z-beds,’ the show would be easy to knock, but compared to ‘Oil Strike North’ it is a miracle of dramatic complexity, compared to ‘Quiller’ it is a paragon of moral responsibility, and compared to a poke in the eye with a burnt stick it is really not all that bad.

Faith Brook as the hospital’s top lady is grappling with the same role as Googie Withers in ‘Within These Walls,’ but this time the ethical relationship obtaining between screws and prisoners is a lot less questionable. The patients might be you and me, and the nurses — this is the message — might be any kind of girl at all, since the force that unites them is vocational.

Patricia (Fiona Fullerton) is the articulate, well-born girl from Bath. (‘You’re all fakes,’ she tells her doting dad, ‘you armchair liberals.’) Maureen (Erin Geraghty) is the quiet, underprivileged girl from Ireland. Over the next weeks we will see them brought close by the mighty democracy of their calling — a true democracy, in which Maureen might end as Patricia’s superior.

There could be worse story-lines, and as long as the writing supplies a plenitude of technical detail the series can’t go wrong. One’s objection to ‘Oil Strike North,’ incidentally, is not that it finds drilling for oil fascinating, but that it doesn’t find drilling for oil fascinating enough — the series might just as well be called ‘Cod Trawl South’ or ‘Elk Stalk West,’ since the nominal subject matter is kept firmly in the background, usurped by stock conflicts nobody but a dunce could get interested in. In ‘Angels,’ despite the likelihood that tough Sister Broomstock will turn out to have a Heart of Gold, the characters are at least to some extent affected by the work they do.

Upstairs, Downstairs (LWT) is back. The period setting is now the roaring twenties, established by such subtle strokes as Georgina rushing in from Charleston lessons to say, ‘Oh dear, how awfully weepy.’ For a moment it looked as if the old house would have to go, but finally the joy her children took in playing with the servants convinced Virginia that she might like to live there after all. Mrs Bellamy is dead. Long live Mrs Bellamy. Plus ça change, plus c’est la memsahib.

The set-up at 165 Eaton Place would be guaranteed to arouse the ire of Jim Allen (writer), Tony Garnett (producer) and Ken Loach (director), whose four-part blockbuster Days of Hope (BBC1) looks intended to delineate an altogether less complacent social view. The first part showed a conscientious objector being given the works in 1916 — no upper-crust intellectual like Bertrand Russell, but a country lad whose moral stand might cost him his life. Grim stuff, done with the faultless, vérité touch — like dreaming in colour — we have come to associate with this troika of radical talents. I reserved the right to be bored, however, since the hortatory tone was unrelenting. The persecutors were caricatured (even the sergeant-majors, which is a difficult trick, since they are caricatures already), with the result that the persecuted were caricatured as well. Ben Hall (BBC1) is really a better study of rebellion, for all its crudities.

‘Days of Hope’ was partly overlapped by The Other Half of the Sky (ATV), a documentary about Shirley MacLaine’s trip to China. Considering that Miss MacLaine would probably look with favour on Allen-Loach-Garnett’s story of one man daring to be different, it was remarkable how chuffed she was by the prospect of a whole nation doing the same thing. There were the usual data about families renting flats for half a dollar per century. It is incontestable that the Chinese revolution had to occur. But what is amazing is that freeborn Westerners can praise its results in terms which apply with better justice to an ant-hill.

To do Shirley credit, though, she did ask what would happen if a new Michelangelo turned up in a factory producing Mao-busts and dared to be different. She was told that the party cadres would have a ‘heart-to-heart talk’ with him. ‘I wanna know why they’re so happy,’ yelled one of Shirley’s girlfriends enviously.

The Observer, 14th September 1975