Essays: Plantagenet Place |
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Plantagenet Place

THE Devil’s Crown (BBC2) is still with us. Yet another cheaply done series about British kings, this one has an ineffable charm all of its own, perhaps emanating from the desperate look in the eyes of its leading actors, each of whom gives you the impression that he is being handed the script page by page, with no time to rehearse except while the other actors are talking.

‘The Devil’s Crown’ is a tale of long ago, when budgets were low. Equipped with many a styrofoam sceptre and cardboard sword, it ought to be called ‘Plantagenet Place,’ since the motivation is as makeshift as the props. Brian Cox plays Peter O’Too... Henry II. Jane Lapotaire plays Katharine Hepb... Eleanor of Aquitaine. Jack Shepherd plays none other than Richard Bur... Thomas Becket.

Or rather he played Thomas Becket. His part is now over, since Becket got killed in the latest episode. This must have been a blessing for Shepherd, who was thereby able to remove himself from a screen on which he has appeared so often lately that he has run the risk of overexposure — than which no actor dreads anything more, unless it be underexposure. Another good reason to stop being Becket as soon as possible was the disparity between the actor’s talent and the lines he was given to utter.

Jack Shepherd is a very good actor. Becket was a very bad part. Mediocre actors can get by in this sort of stuff, but gifted ones go ga-ga. For survival purposes, Shepherd bedecked Becket with a speech impediment, so that the script’s predictable sentiments could be expressed in unpredictable lengths. The general effect was ex. Cruciating, but you could har. Dly blame the man. Visually, of course, he filled the bill to perfection, since he looks just like a brass rubbing.

Short on statistics but long on anxious mood, the Man Alive (BBC2) about British engineering was a programme well worth having, although ideally it should have dug deeper. Michael Dean was the front-man. Projecting his unique air of imperturbable perturbation, he introduced Liam Hudson, Patrick Nutgens, Correlli Barnett and Alastair Mant, all of whom relayed more or less the same message, which was that engineering in Britain is regarded as a second-class occupation, and that the direct result of this attitude is a second-class country.

Since these worthy men were all saying the same thing, it would have made more sense to focus on one of them and give him time to elaborate. Alastair Mant, for example, has shown in his writings that there is a close reciprocal connection between the British class-system and the fact that industry tends to split up into two sides. But on screen he was given no time to make the point. Nevertheless the programme reached some persuasive conclusions, among which was the conclusion that matters are likely to get worse. Since we probably need a crisis before things can be turned around, this is not necessarily a cue for bursting into tears. After all, when the crisis comes it will be a British crisis.

For what an Italian crisis looks like, we had an episode of Faces of Communism (Yorkshire), fronted once again by Robert Kee, whose haircut is by now too young for a man so wise. Nor was there a great deal of his wisdom in the actual programme, which was more concerned with filmed footage than with spoken analysis. Without suggesting that any television programme on Italy’s problems could match the subtlety of, say, Jane Kramer’s recent New Yorker article on the same subject, one can still propose that the man with his name billed above the title should spend more time addressing the camera.

The question of whether the Italian communists are sincere about democratic power-sharing can’t be answered just by staring them in the eye. You have to look at the Italian CP’s history, which involves raising names like Gramsci and Togliatti and finding out what they stood for. Nor did Kee bring out the full significance of the official CP line in favour of private enterprise, which can’t be seen in its full paradoxical beauty unless you realise that the capitalist forces in Italy are in favour of more nationalisation, the better to ensure that the ordinary citizen takes all the risks.

In Italy, the problem of whether or not to trust the Communists is exacerbated by the likelihood that nobody else can be trusted either. The programme did not clearly establish this, and was thus only a notch or two above Kissinger’s view of the matter.

The Beeb’s Dance Month (mainly BBC2) has been fruitful. The ballets I liked best were Ashton’s A Month in the Country, in which Lynn Seymour was dynamite, and Balachine’s La Valse (BBC2), whose costumes and choreography were the last word in chic, as if fashionable elegance had suddenly lived up to its ideal self. Ashton’s The Dream I liked less, and the revival of Les Noces hardly at all. Bernstein had no trouble demonstrating that this was one of Stravinsky’s best scores, but the choreography, however faithful to Nijinska’s original conception, struck me as dull. Taken all round, though, the big money that ‘Dance Month’ must have cost was well spent.

In Bionic Woman (Thames), Bionic was joined by Evel Knievel in her struggle to foil the East German heavies. Evel had come to Germany to perform charity jumps in aid of something called ‘motorcycle safety.’ It was never mentioned that the actual Evel has more hardware in him than the fictive Bionic is supposed to have. Motorcycle safety has made such a wreck of him that he can’t walk through an airport metal-detector without lighting up the entire district.

The Observer, 21st May 1978