Essays: The Pinter sisters |
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The Pinter sisters

SCRIPTED by Harold Pinter from a novel by Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down (BBC2) was Irish Chekhov. In Russian Chekhov, declining families of landed gentry talk their lives away. In Irish Chekhov they do the same thing, but end up trying to shoot the cherry orchard or chop down the seagull.

There were three sisters. Two of them were Judi Dench and Annette Crosbie. The third spent most of the play being invisible. For a long while it seemed possible that she did not exist. Information was fed to you with the parsimonious gradualness typical of Pinter, whose dramaturgy is like that television quiz in which you are shown fragments of a photograph and asked to say which city you are in. A cupola suggests Leningrad. A minaret is added, and you guess it might be Istanbul. After the appearance of a few more turrets and gazebos you eventually wake up. It is Blackpool.

Jeremy Irons played Otto, a visiting Bavarian scholar. In the preliminary skirmishing he climbed a tree while one of the Langrishe sisters ran naked through the shrubbery. Judging by height, and by breadth in certain areas, it was Imogen, the sister played by Judi Dench. Anyway, Imogen was the one who found herself being seduced by Otto. Their intimacy was the most convincing thing about the play. Lovers do, after all, do mad things. Merrily she washed the lice out of his hair. Gladly she dabbed cream on her nipples, thereby transforming herself into a sweet trolley. Presumably she went down, as per instructions.

Pinter himself appeared in a cameo role, as a drunken literatus. It has several times happened in Pinter’s screenplays that the author’s cameo has been the best thing. In ‘The Servant’ the scene featuring Pinter — a scurrilous dialogue between gentlemen of the cloth — stood out a mile. The same applied to the brief sequence in ‘Accident’ where Pinter impersonated a maniacal television producer. He has presence in large amounts, plus a voice so resonant that it plays chimes in the cocktail cabinet.

As a playwright he is variable. If you don’t say he is everything, you are supposed to say he is nothing, but in fact he is somewhere in between, at his weakest when conceptualising and at his strongest when following his odd sensitivity to emotional tension. The same rule applies to his screenplays. If the emotional tension is meant to be in the foreground, then it doesn’t matter if the background is only suggested. But if the background is crucial to the subject, he can leave you feeling starved. In his script for ‘The Last Tycoon,’ for example. he fatally left vague what Scott Fitzgerald had been most concerned to make specific — the business of making movies.

Otto’s pedantic knowledge of Irish history ran up against Imogen’s physical embodiment of it. An interesting theme in itself. Is it crass to suggest that one would have liked to hear more on the subject? But the very fact that such a desire could be aroused was a mark of the work’s seriousness. Nobody else writes quite like that. David Jones directed the piece with the grave fluency it deserved.

A deficiency of exposition is not necessarily preferable to an overdose, but at least it sounds less clumsy. Disraeli (ATV) has been suffering from exposition the way the Sahara suffers from sand. In a play like ‘Langrishe, Go Down,’ if you were told everything you need to know in the first 10 minutes the thing would be over, since finding out what is meant to be going on is half the point. In an historical series like ‘Disraeli’ there is no alternative to laying the facts on with a trowel.

Interviewing a prospective private secretary, Disraeli says: ‘Since Lord Palmerston’s death Mr Gladstone has become leader of the Liberals.’ You would have thought that a prospective private secretary who was not already in possession of such information would have stood small chance of getting the job. But if he doesn’t need telling, the audience does, and the only way of telling the audience is to tell him.

While you sit there waiting for Disraeli to start telling Queen Victoria that she is the British Sovereign and that Britain mainly consists of a group of islands situated just off the Continent of Europe, there is the additional diversion of wondering what Ian McShane, playing the title role, has done to his head. In the early episodes he merely equipped himself with a kiss curl. In the later episodes he has apparently donned the kind of bathing cap affair known in the theatrical trade as a bladder. Painting the bladder to look like a bald head, he has added a few sparse hairs, arranging some of them into a vestige of the original kiss-curl. The result is meant to look like the later Disraeli, but in fact it calls to mind the early McShane in a hairy bathing cap.

Why bother to parody soap operas when they already parody themselves? Dallas (BBC1) is a case in point. I must say I love it. It washes my mind cleaner than ever before. My brain cells look brand new and the original fluffy softness is fully restored. I don’t know what I would do without ‘Dallas.’ Try taking ‘Dallas’ away from me and giving me some other product in exchange. I’ll break both your arms.

Being set in Dallas, ‘Dallas’ features a lot of high-powered executives in those vaguely Western clothes whose pockets have button-down flaps that come to a point. The men have initials instead of first names and their wives come in two kinds, satisfied and dissatisfied. J.R.’s wife is dissatisfied. She tries to arouse him by donning a new black negligée. ‘What’s gotten into you? Go put your clothes on.’

His wife, who has a tendency to weep, weeps. ‘J.R, we are married. Sometimes you seem to forget about that.’ J.R. is unmoved. She weeps again. ‘J.R.! Every mornin’ I have breakfast aylone!’ But J.R. has gone to his mistress, a flame-haired raver with a beauty spot that makes her cheek look like a spare breast. ‘This is narce,’ she breathes, kissing like a squid. Without thinking twarce, he vents his lust upon her, rewarding her afterwards with a hundred-dollar bill in lieu of marriage.

Starring Ian Hendry and Denholm Elliott as two old chums who belatedly realise not only that they are chums no longer but that they were never really chums in the first Place, Crest of a Wave (BBC2) was good value. So, as always, was the tremendous Tommy Cooper, star of Cooper — Just Like That (Thames). There has been nothing like Cooper’s verbal style since W. C. Fields. He talks in an impressionistic blur that makes Eddie Waring sound like Julie Andrews.

‘Lazen gem, like you to inroduce you to four** singing scissors from Ireland. They knee no inroduction ... because they already know each other.’ It’s an old joke, but it’s funny the way he says it. A stage full of ducks is an old idea too, but it’s funny when it happens to Cooper. ‘Is there a duck expert here?’ Dressed in his evening fez, the one with the sequins, Cooper barges elegantly about, avoiding ducks, clearly unaware that somewhere far away, among his millions of grateful viewers, at least one jaded television critic is in hysterics.

The Observer, 24th September 1978

[ ** The Duane Sisters were five ]