Essays: Prize performance |
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Prize performance

THE British Screen Awards (ITV) came from the Albert Hall, hosted by Diana Rigg and the lovely Eamonn Andrews. ‘Enjoying yourself so far, darling?’ brogued Eamonn. Diana beamed with simulated glee. A trouper.

The script left a good deal to be desired. ‘The joy of laughter is precious indeed,’ Diana found herself saying. Well schooled in the art of transforming duff material, she was able to enunciate such things with a certain air. She got off a stunning imitation of a smile at Rod McKuen, who had unwisely been asked to present John Williams with an award (surely richly unmerited) for the score of ‘Jaws.’

John could not be present. Unfortunately Rod could. He wore basketball shoes with his evening dress, or perhaps evening dress with his basketball shoes, and favoured the transfixed audience with a terrible little song. Compared with that, Eamonn sounded almost like a philosopher when he explained how he personally found the Newcomer’s Award particularly exciting because it encouraged new talent.

Such toe-curling moments aside, the proceedings were reasonably dignified, especially when compared with the American equivalent. You didn’t feel that the judging was being done on the purely commercial basis of what films or programmes did most for the industry’s revenue.

John Hurt was Best TV Actor for his portrayal of Quentin Crisp in ‘The Naked Civil Servant.’ Since this was a programme about male homosexuality, it was perhaps a bit unfortunate for Eamonn to say that Hurt ‘doesn’t only play a role, but gets totally inside the character.’ But nothing could mar the moment.

Hurt’s was a fine performance in one of the finest of all television programmes — one which, like everything produced for television by Jack Gold, made the cinema look redundant. For years Gold’s programmes, none of them like the others, have been accumulating into a unique body of work, while the man himself remains unknown to the viewing public — like James Joyce’s ideal artist, he stands aloof. So it was disturbing as well as gratifying to see him emerge from the audience of celebrities and collar the Desmond Davis Award, which apparently is the best one to have. Really one doesn’t need to know what the man who made ‘Stocker’s Copper,’ ‘Arturo Ui’ and ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ looks like — one merely needs to know that he exists.

The television premiere of In Praise of Love (Anglia), by Terence Rattigan, was extraordinarily successful, granted that the piece was clockwork. But a well-made play with well-made dialogue would be contemptible only if all other plays were well-made plays with well-made dialogue. In the context of present-day theatre, where only a child’s handful of playwrights are capable of composing a speakable line, ordinary craftsmanship stands out as mastery. By those standards, Rattigan’s symmetrical plot and subtly balanced speeches were highly appreciable.

Claire Bloom played the Estonian whose marriage of convenience with a British officer has turned into deep love and who now must keep from him the news that she is dying of leukaemia. Kenneth More played the British officer, now a writer, whose marriage of convenience with an Estonian has turned into deep love, and who now must keep from her the news that she is dying of leukaemia. An American friend acted as go-between: his main task was to shake his head ruefully at the amount of British reticence and European self-sacrifice that was accumulating in the living-room.

It was sob-stuff of the higher grade, but Miss Bloom was touchingly beautiful as always and Kenneth More was the best that he has ever been on television — he only said ‘Ha-ha!’ once. Like most of Rattigan’s plays, this one was really an elaborate excuse for the British to congratulate themselves on their own qualities. But to the extent that those qualities exist, Rattigan is undoubtedly an ace at describing them. You couldn’t help feeling, when More at last gruffly revealed the depth of his concern, that the good old stiff upper lip is something to be proud of. An incidental pleasure was the up-to-dateness of the contemporary references: playing chess with his Liberal son, More said ‘Your Jeremy Thorpe is coming under considerable pressure.’

Panorama (BBC1) was about Western parents adopting children from South East Asia. Some outfit called Holt’s, was handling the arrangements. ‘Your babies are sitting at the table with their foster mothers in front of them,’ shouted a Holt’s man. The Holt’s office processes 20 babies a month. The Korean tots looked keen enough to be adopted: anything to get out of Korea, where the South must be almost as frightful to live in as the North. They end up being pampered in the West and bearing names like Frederick Rice. Not feeling very reverent, I thought this should have been Paddy Rice.

All very sad, but emotionally manageable for the mere onlooker. An Horizon (BBC2) on abortion was harder to take lightly. This was a dramamentary about the Kenneth Edelin case in Boston. Edelin was a black doctor who performed an abortion and got busted for ‘manslaughter of the foetus.’ Edelin was found guilty. The programme itself found him innocent.

Hearts and Minds (BBC2), an American documentary about Vietnam, was a good introduction to its terrible subject, but a bad summary of it. The undoubted star was a gung-ho ex-pilot and POW called Lieutenant Coker, who told how Faith had helped sustain him against torture. It transpired that by Faith he meant being afraid of what the women at home would think of him if he cracked. He was also under the impression that America won the war — a commendably original interpretation of events.

Coker was jokey-sinister but scarcely representative. After all, it wasn’t blockheads like him who got America into Vietnam, it was the Best and the Brightest. To focus on the worst and the dumbest (and General Westmoreland is still insisting that the Vietcong were ‘on the ropes’ after Tet) is to cloud the issue.

On Tonight (BBC1) Lord Chalfont was to be heard talking about the ‘terrible apathy in the West’ and the ‘social ... penalties’ which will have to be accepted if we are to face the threat. Now what social penalties could he possibly have in mind?

The Observer, 21st March 1976