Essays: O Lord, preserve us |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

O Lord, preserve us

WHAT is there to say about the news from the Middle East? Appropriate quotations spring to mind, but ought, I suppose, to be eschewed. It isn’t, after all, God’s fault — unless you think he’s there.

Ivan Karamazov said it was a pity that there was no God, since there were questions that he, Ivan, would like answered. Why innocent children have to die was doubtless one of them. Was it Stendhal who said that the only excuse for God is that he does not exist? You don’t have to be a hero to believe that we are on our own.

The alternative is to stay mired in self-serving sentimental goo, a substance which spreads like a steaming fen in the diabolical Stars on Sunday (Yorkshire). Jess Yates was on particularly winning form last week, telling us to ring up somebody — anybody — and thank them, not omitting a quick call to God to thank him too.

In his capacity as the Deity’s private secretary, Jess is insistent that the prayers keep flowing up as fast as the benefits flow down. A realist, he knows that the games his master gets up to aren’t always — just mostly — beer and skittles. Hence the importance of prayer, to ensure that the rough stuff is always directed at somebody else.

T. S. Eliot once pointed out, unarguably, that the New English Bible had been compiled by people who didn’t even know that they were atheists. The same applies in full measure to ‘Stars on Sunday,’ in which all the faith is blasphemy and every piety is an insult. The Archbishop of Canterbury (ret.) continues to appear and give readings, apparently all unawares that he might as well be doing the same act in the Crazy Horse Saloon, Las Vegas. The stars who appear on the show either do so in a spirit of cynicism or else are damned.

As an alternative to ‘Stars on Sunday’ for those undeflectably determined on religious enlightenment, let me recommend See You Sunday (BBC1), in which, last week, our old friend the Maharishi got an exemplary grilling about his Transcendental Meditation World Plan, with special reference to the role played in it by money. ‘If the Organisation is rich, life will be rich,’ the holy person explained. Pressed further on the point, he yelped, ‘I don’t talk in terms of money... don’t talk to me of money’ He wanted to talk about something called ‘the individual,’ and the ‘full expression’ of its ‘creative intelligence.’ All obtainable for 20 quid.

There was a Shakespeare play scheduled. Luckily, considering the circumstances, it was a comedy. In fact the BBC2 link-man announced it as ‘Shakespeare’s evergreen comedy, Twelfth Night.’ Evergreen, eh? Should be good. ‘What country, friends, is this?’ ‘This is Illyria, lady.’ Wait a second, though... it was Regency England! They’d updated the thing! That meant, as usual, biting your nails for a couple of hours while waiting to see how they handled the scene turning on Malvolio’s crossed garters. It’s an impossible scene to manage if the updating ensures that nobody, whether Malvolio or anybody else, is wearing any kind of garters — crossed, plaited or helical — at any other time.

It thus having been carefully arranged that the climactic comic scene would go for nothing, it was the merest act of courtesy to ensure that the rest of the play’s humour, such as it is, should be extirpated too. Sir Toby Belch was played as a stand-in for Sid James. Malvolio himself was played by Charles Gray, an actor whose perfection of suaveness is funny in itself, but who is therefore quite unable to play anyone with pretensions — he is already what he is, and can’t be funny trying to become it. It’s hard for Malvolio not to get a laugh when he tries out the smile recommended in the fake letter, but Gray managed it. To cap all this, the world had been scoured for a black man who sings as badly as I do. After a long search, one was discovered, and he was cast as Feste. The way one’s spirits sank when Feste came capering on is not to be described. Aguecheek, for a mercy, was passable.

The direction was understandably eager to keep proving that the show had been shot expensively on location. There were long tracking shots through colonnades, long static shots down endless hallways, and a different room for almost every scene. The whole production would have been tiresomely incoherent if Shakespeare and Janet Suzman, hand in hand, had not come running to the rescue. The play’s subtly ambiguous emotional entanglements are just the thing for Miss Suzman to get involved in, since she, without being in the slightest degree butch, is none the less a true trans-sexual actress. She was already established as the only believable Portia I expect to see, and now she is the only credible Viola.

Whether Miss Suzman is being a man or a woman, her deep voice serves her equally well. She has no need to hoot when playing a man: all she has to do is expunge the sweetness. When the sweetness floods back in, she is as female as you could wish. Her face is a classic, making her the kind of man women call beautiful and the kind of woman men call handsome. It was easy to sympathise when Olivia fell for her, even though Olivia’s love was declared, Joan Greenwood-style, from somewhere behind the antrums. It was even easier to sympathise when she, Viola, fell for Orsino. Not that there was much of interest about Orsino except for his habit of using his own stair-well as a drawing-room, but Miss Suzman’s sensuality is an arousingly convincing thing when she lets it roll. She was in a play all of her own — the one Shakespeare wrote, in fact. Her speed and delicacy were just what the bard ordered.

Aquarius (LWT) had the Twyla Tharp dance troupe doing reconstructed Twenties dance steps to reconstructed Jelly-Roll Morton music. Since the original Red Hot Peppers tracks are in every jazz-lover’s library, the British musicians engaged in reproducing them faced a hard task. Most of today’s trombonists play better than Kid Ory but few of them can play like him. Still, the honours were done well enough, and the dancing was very interesting — loose-limbed, slipping and sliding, Bojangles sort of stuff. The item was an ‘Aquarius’ production from top to bottom and compared favourably with the equivalent kind of number on ‘Second House.’

Success Story (BBC1) dealt with Tretchikoff, perpetrator of that picture featuring the green Chinese lady. Presented by the droll William Feaver, the show dug up some people to whom this gaudy atrocity was a genuine aesthetic experience. As one who well remembers having admired trash, I found them hard to laugh at. Commendably, the programme didn’t find them funny either, but contented itself with recording their enthusiasm. Feaver was well aware that popularity is no simple matter. Tretchikoff himself, however, is right up there beside Samson in the front rank of the Philistines. He wants ‘constructive’ criticism, he says — the eternal plea of the kitsch-merchant. While waiting for the constructive criticism to appear, he stalks about among his wealth planning new masterpieces.

The latest Lord Peter Wimsey series came to an end on BBC1: it was the bells that did it, bally things. Smashin’ viewin’ as usual.

The Observer, 19th May 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]