Essays: The Perry and Sherry show |
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The Perry and Sherry show

THE WEEK’S bright point, or giggle-node, came in the middle, when Sheridan Morley met Peregrine Worsthorne for a languid Wednesday night Line-up (BBC-2) discussion of what Perry might conceivably have meant by his recent article about television in Encounter. Sherry as always was keen to learn, and Perry — undisputed crown prince of the bizarro-loco school of creative journalism — never looked lovelier. Illustrating his point that television chat was essentially a con, the province of calculating adepts, Perry told Sherry, ‘You and I are acting,’ which came as a huge relief for those of us temporarily convinced that the two lads were losing their marbles for real.

The artificiality of telly natter, Perry explained (doing an effortless job of profiling his body while presenting his face to camera, a trick Zsa Zsa Gabor still hasn’t mastered), is dictated by the fact that it ‘can’t really afford the long periods of dullness which a real conversation has.’ Doubtless trying frantically to think of a real-life conversation duller than the artificial one he was currently engaged in, Sherry was slow to respond, leaving Perry ample time to elaborate on the thesis that if you wanted somebody to sound as eloquent on the tube as an ordinary bloke sounds in the pub, you’d need to get Bertrand Russell. Neither Perry nor Sherry paused to consider that Bertrand Russell is currently under exclusive contract to a rival organisation. It was a great bout, boys: 15 minutes later, on ITV, Les Kellett pinned Judo Pete Roberts with a body-slam — but somehow it was an anti-climax.

Back to the weekend, and to business. ‘Country Matters,’ Granada’s new series based on short stories by A. E. Coppard and H. E. Bates, got off to a blandly pleasant start with Craven Arms, starring Ian McKellen as Coppard’s tail-chasing art master. The rugged stuff will come later (one’s particularly keen to see how they handle the breast-soaping scene in Bates’s ‘Breeze Anstey’), but this first story was a good earnest of the project’s essential seriousness. The rival girls were uniformly accurate, and McKellen got television’s measure for the first time.

McKellen is a young actor who has had an overwhelming effect on even younger actors — the tube is literally crawling with them, all faithfully reproducing his key trick of letting his lips flutter in front of his dentistry like tent-flaps in a gale. Grander and less readily adaptable than his epigones, McKellen has so far been essentially a stage actor whose powers of projection can’t easily be scaled down to fit the screen: for anyone who had admired his Richard II in the theatre, his Ross for television was over the top like a regiment. With ‘Craven Arms’ he got his radiant talent tightly confined, and it burned all the more fiercely for that. A good performance, and a promising series: if the production tonight of Bates’s ‘The Mill’ comes anywhere near matching the text, it’ll strip the veneers right off your set.

The Vanishing Hedgerows (BBC-2) was a different kind of country matter: change and decay in all around he sees — he being Henry Williamson, who for many years has farmed as well as written. I hate to say this in my first week on the job, but the programme was a masterpiece, cunningly (how did they get the ‘before’ footage — time travel?) filling out Williamson’s meticulously scripted anger at the countryside’s ruination. Having undergone the well-known process of media desensitisation. we’re supposed to be pretty blasé about the doomwatch routine by now, but with this effort the ecological lobby got its biggest boost since Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring.’

Williamson’s farm rated an ‘A’ during the war and in the ensuing decades flourished under his green fingers like a demon lover; it was a perfect demonstration ground for the eco-cycle at its most enchanting. The leitmotiv of the programme was the humble partridge. There was a time when the haymakers used to drive around partridge nests: nowadays the whopping flail-cutters thrash right through them. Five thousand miles of hedgerow are coming down every year, making room for the big new fields that buy their efficiency at the price of wiping out the habitat of many tiny things. Williamson had no trouble linking these depredations to modern disaffection: after driving an acre of straight furrow, the erstwhile lone ploughman felt his evening’s leisure was honestly earned. None of that today, we could be sure.

There is crankiness in Williamson’s make-up (he was a tougher Mosleyite than Radio Times let on), but his individuality is impossible to deny: the case for rejecting the impoverished abundancies of progress has rarely been so movingly put. For the half-dozen cameramen involved, the technical reality of this beautiful programme must have meant darting about with an Arriflex on your shoulder while pointing the lens at a rampant pipit, but the shots married up with that convincing harmony you always get when a production team knows that it is on to something solid.

The Tuesday documentary (BBC-1) was called Dieppe 1942 and revisited that nightmare turkey-shoot with a bit more aplomb than the circumstances warranted, considering that the raid was a monumental cock-up. Taking a crash-course in advanced thumb-sucking at the time, I wasn’t available for consultation, but am now free to declare that it will take a higher authority than Earl Mountbatten — who set the tone and the terms of the discussion — to convince the appalled student that anything was learned at Dieppe which hadn’t been learned at Balaclava.

The programme was riddled with double-think and sorely needed a bitter voice to examine its bad conscience. Mountbatten said he was shaken at the time by the cancellation of the preliminary aerial bombardment. In view of this, it was unsettling to hear it coolly contended that the raid helped make D-Day possible by proving there was no point in trying to seize enemy-held ports, since they would he rendered useless by the preliminary aerial bombardment. What the Dieppe raid did prove, surely, was the undesirability of unloading men on wired beaches under cliffs densely occupied by lethal Germans in pristine condition. Wasn’t that it — that and perhaps a few other things, but basically and ineluctably that?

Bewildered, the viewer was able to take refuge in the Pythonesque humour provided by a rather marvellous major (who called German tanks ‘uncharitable’) and one of the enemy commanders, who explained how he had ordered a wootine alarm vizzout knowing vot vos plant and was subsequently gratified to find a captured officer complimenting him on having expunged a couple of hundred British troops. It appears they smoked a chendlemanly cigaredde togezzer.

Keeping you from laughing too hard at these diversions was the footage — most of it German, shot for propaganda purposes when the spilt blood was still warm — and the usual couple of characters who can be relied upon to turn up and verbally supply the atmospherics the bigwigs always eschew: the stink of stomach wounds, the cries of maimed men rolling in the waves and the deep-down merriment engendered by being offered up for sacrifice in front of automatic weapons you can’t even see. Yes, Eunice, that’s where you went swimming last year.

The Observer, 27th August 1972