Essays: The wrong note |
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The wrong note

IN THE first of a new series of Not the Nine O’Clock News (BBC2), Pamela and the boys once again raised the roof and lowered the tone. ‘The only good Pole is a deed poll,’ they cried, meaning to debunk an American television compilation, starring Ronald Reagan among others, which had allegedly been extremely vulgar on behalf of Poland.

Unfortunately the American programme was not shown here except in a few extracts, so the ‘Not’ lot were the ones left looking vulgar. Apparently the switchboard was jammed with protests from people who thought that the breezy young comedians were being unforgivably insensitive about Poland. It takes only half a dozen people to jam a switchboard, especially if they are all poised over their telephones just begging for a chance to miss the point of what they see.

Nevertheless it can’t be denied that Poland is currently a dodgy subject for humour, and is perhaps best left alone. The extracts from the American compilation looked gruesomely twee, but I suspect that the complete programme might have been touching for its sincerity. After all, the Americans are bound to be naïve about freedom: they’ve got it, and thus don’t realise what a tricky subject it is. The main reason why we were all so eager to condemn the American programme unseen was probably out of a deep-seated fear that it might result in the United States cavalry, inspired by the voice of Frank Sinatra, actually riding to the aid of Poland. Which in fact is the second last thing anybody wants, the last thing being the Russians doing the same.

If you wanted to jam a switchboard on the subject of Poland, News at Ten (ITN) would have been the place to ring up. Their coverage of the whole sad sequence of events has been far better than the Beeb’s from day one, but a few nights ago their camera crew filming in Poland might have done more to black out the face of the balaclava-clad young Solidarity pamphleteer they were talking to. His features were easily distinguishable by anybody with normal vision, a category which presumably includes the Polish security police, who could soon be in receipt of videotapes by a not very circuitous route. If anonymity is offered, it should be delivered. That apart, ITN deserves credit for biting deep into European politics, almost as if Britain’s destiny were bound up with that of the Continong.

Footage of Suslov’s funeral procession suggested that the Soviet authorities were trying to put one soldier on parade for every innocent civilian that the murderous old hack had caused to be rubbed out, but if that was the intention then they ran out of soldiers long before reaching the proper total. On Newsnight (BBC2) one of the guest experts called Suslov ‘a guardian of party orthodoxy’. If guarding orthodoxy means adapting orthodoxy so that it justifies whatever crime the Central Committee might want to commit next, perhaps he was. Anyway, the point is moot at best, since nobody ever doubted that Suslov’s main task, as the party’s chief ideologist, was to make sure that the State’s monopoly of wisdom could never be challenged by the independent human imagination.

His imagination now more alive than ever, Osip Mandelstam was the subject of a patchy but considerable edition of Arena (BBC2). Arty shots of cigarette smoke could not detract from the awesome dignity of the topic. D. M. Thomas spent an inexplicable amount of time climbing rocks in Wales, but you still did not hurl imprecations at the screen, mainly because Joseph Brodsky might reappear at any moment to say something else that was both perceptive and resonant, while there was also a chance of seeing a few more precious seconds from a filmed interview with the late and truly great Nadezhda Mandelstam, who wrote the best book of prose that is likely to be published in my lifetime, ‘Hope against Hope’. Her book is made doubly tremendous by the consideration that you would dearly like the circumstances undone which led to its being written.

Brodsky was interrupted when he was just about to air his key point about Mandelstam, which is that his work was subversive not just in the occasional satirical poem about Stalin, but in its lyrical essence. The point is fully made in one of Brodsky’s fine critical essays, and would have been made in the programme if he had been allowed to talk longer. The moral is: when you get a talker of Brodsky’s stature and eloquence on screen, let him talk, and save the cigarette smoke for a programme about climbing rocks.

As a weekly critic I don’t have to attend previews, which fits in with a personal conviction that a preview theatre is a bad place in which to judge a programme. The true picture is not up there on the big screen, but over there on the little one standing in the corner. Not, however, that the ambience of Sylvia Clayton’s first play, Preview (BBC2), is entirely strange to me, since in olden days I wrote and fronted 39 separate editions of Granada’s ‘Cinema’, meaning that I ate egg mayonnaise sandwiches in the dark for months on end while watching movies which had the same chance of release as Rudolf Hess. You meet some weird, doomed types in those places, most of them critics who made their names praising the documentaries of Robert Flaherty, who now resent the new names which have replaced theirs, and who are kept alive only by alcohol and the desire to see those new names become obscure in their turn.

‘Preview’ had some of that and would have had more if the pace had not been slower than Suslov’s funeral. There was an agreeably eerie film-within-the-programme in which the assembled scriveners saw themselves acting out their fates, but before you got to that there was a lot of dull dialogue about Fleet Street being a cut-throat place where bright young critics angle for the jobs of tottering crocks. The truth would have been more interesting. Crocks keep their jobs until well after death and are far less likely to check out from a cut throat than from cirrhosis of the liver compounded by sclerosis of the brain.

The crock in the play turned up his toes without ever having got around to writing that novel, but probably that was just one more bad novel we had been spared. Cherie Lunghi, as the nice young critic who thought life in China was more meaningful, unintentionally aroused the conviction that there would be more than one reason to join her on a slow boat heading for that area of the world. Among the many things they have not got in China is Fleet Street. They haven’t got freedom either, so I suppose there is a connection.

The George Formby Story (BBC2) was a reminder that British popular culture is finally impenetrable by anybody not born and raised in these islands. Here was a man with a silly face who flailed away at a ukulele while singing, in a gratingly high voice, ditties burdened with leaden innuendo. He was loved by everybody from the King and Queen on down to the bottom of the coal-mine. The programme tried to cast his wife Beryl as a manipulative ogre, but she seems to have managed his career with unfaltering brilliance, considering the material she had to work with. A great puzzle.

‘I have a gift for disaster,’ said Richard Burton in The Medusa Touch (ITV). ‘I am the man with the power to cause catastrophe.’ He spent the whole movie taking the words out of your mouth. International Snooker (BBC2) was yet another nightmare for the sponsor, Benson and Hedges. Steve Davis, who doesn’t smoke, won. Terry Griffiths, who does, lost. ‘And Terry can do nothing about it,’ said the voice-over, as Terry sat there helplessly smoking. Smoke and lose, that was the message.

The Observer, 7th February 1982
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]