Essays: Plonking purgatory |
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Plonking purgatory

IT was during The Italian Grand Prix (BBC2) that the moment of revelation came. ‘James Hunt, comment!’ screamed Murray Walker. Whereupon James Hunt commented, pertinently and in a normal voice, thereby proving once and for all that for a television performer it is not absolutely necessary to talk like a freak — merely advisable to.

On Tomorrow’s World (BBC1) the intelligent and extremely presentable presenter Judith Hann was notorious, until recently, for her ability to hold out against concerted pressure to talk like a freak. She had no trace of the plonking manner. Her eyebrows and lips moved normally, while her voice issued forth in a temperate range of tones, with all the stresses in the proper places. The other night I tuned in and found her bobbing and weaving like a prize fighter, each eyebrow striving to upstage the other every time she stressed a word, which happened, at a reasonable estimate, twenty times per sentence.

She still looked and sounded pretty good, but the plonking manner was already well developed, and unless she takes steps to purge herself of these habits she might find herself being asked to join Nationwide (BBC1). Ever the true home of the plonking manner, ‘Nationwide’ will not hire a presenter unless he, or she, has a solid track-record of talking like a freak. Mere unnaturalness of emphasis is not enough. You have to frown when you ask yourself a question, look relieved when you supply the answer, half-laugh when the subject is light, half-sigh when it is grave.

Sue Lawley incarnates the plonking manner to such a degree that she can even laugh at Max Boyce, which nobody else except a million crazed Welshmen has ever been able to do. On Thursday evening’s ‘Nationwide’ Max plugged his new book — apparently some kind of anthology enshrining the squibs and puns with which he makes his benighted countrymen laugh. Introducing Max to her public, Sue fought to contain her merriment, but it ke-hept bu-hubbling up.

The plonking manner does for presenters what make-up does for actors: it is something to hide behind. For many actors, make-up is a shield warding off the world. They can’t relax until they’ve put it on. For all presenters, except the ones who are so freaky they talk like that anyway, the plonking manner is a way of preserving the self while letting the not-self make a fool of itself. It is a trick for survival which all but the most intelligent presenters acquire automatically.

To be one of those voice-overs which announce forthcoming programmes, however, needs special training. Only after the most complete brainwash is the new recruit ready to announce, as a BBC1 voice-over announced earlier this week, the advent of a new spy thriller series based on a novel by John le Car. Possibly he was thinking of John Dickson Carré. Also there is a kind of car called le Car. It is no joke being a disembodied voice, waiting for hours to say your line. The same thing happens to one-line walk-ons on stage. ‘The carriage will see you now, my lady.’ But the average walk-on sometimes gets it right. The average voice-over never gets it right.

The first big question posed by Episode One of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC2) was: would the series be as dull as its own trailer? Featuring playwright Arthur Hopcraft, who had been charged with the task of adapting the aforementioned John le Car’s masterpiece for the small screen, this trailer had been filmed on Hampstead Heath. Hopcraft, bravely sporting the same own-up baldy hairstyle as the present writer, walked in a very ordinary way around the Heath while explaining that any of the other very ordinary people to be seen walking around that same verdant expanse might well be spies. The camera closed in on people who looked so tremendously ordinary that your suspicions were immediately aroused.

Thus Hopcraft was able to divert suspicion from himself. What better cover, when you think about it, could a KGB master-spy have? Adapting a John le Carré masterpiece for the BBC, you get to meet all the right people. Preparatory articles in the Radio Times assured us that Sir Alec Guiness, to whom had fallen the task of impersonating le Carré’s hero George Smiley, was granted long interviews with Smiley’s original. Presumably Hopcraft was in on that. Thus do the British intelligence chiefs preserve their anonymity, never emerging from the shadows except to meet the playwrights who are going to note down everything they say and the actors who are going to copy everything they do.

In the event, the first instalment of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ fully lived up to the standard set by the original novel. Though not quite as incomprehensible, it was equally turgid. Le Carré’s early novels were among the best in the spy genre, but by the time he wrote ‘TTSS’ he started believing in his own publicity. He shifted the emphasis from plot to character — especially to the character of George Smiley. As the later novels have gone on to prove, Smiley gets less interesting the more interested in him the author gets.

But one should refrain from judgment. Things might pick up. Even in the first episode, there was the fun of trying to distinguish Sir Alec’s performance as Smiley from his performances in ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ and ‘The Ladykillers’, both of which the BBC screened for purposes of comparison. There was also the fun of listening to some highly stilted dialogue (‘Let’s talk about Control. Shall we talk about Control, George?’) and then finding out from the critics next day that the dialogue had been natural, terse, etc. There was the fun of watching a black, leather-gloved hand parting Venetian blinds. There was so much atmosphere you couldn’t find the planet.

In Public School (BBC1) the plonking voice of Fran Morrison introduced us to Westminster, which on this showing must be an educational paradise. The teachers all seemed brilliantly qualified to be in charge of their pupils. As for the pupils, they all seemed to combine easy charm with the fanatical motivation of suicide pilots.

I can see no case for abolishing such a school but an excellent case for nationalising it. As Margo McDonald pointed out on a news programme during the week, it makes no sense talking about children going to ‘the school of their choice’ when choice is something only the well-off can afford.

In Ring of Bright Water and Beyond (BBC1) an actor pretending to be Gavin Maxwell went to bed with an otter. Later on in the programme it was established that the same otter bit two finger-tips off one of Maxwell’s young male companions, a datum which made you wonder what the furry creature, when it was down there under the blankets, might conceivably have bitten off Maxwell.

The Observer, 16th September 1979

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]