Essays: Days of Dan |
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Days of Dan

ON BOTH BBC channels, Wimbledon was back and Dan Maskell was back with it. ‘Ooh I say! There’s a dream volleh!’ Too late now, alas, for Dan to become a popular singer. He could have had a big hit with ‘Golleh golleh golleh Miss Molleh.’

But we should be grateful that Dan was born to be a tennis commentator. Wimbledon would be smaller without him. Even Harry Carpenter, who calls Wimbledon Wmbldn, is a necessary part of the scene, especially when he delivers his famous Rain Commentary. ‘We’re in for a feast of tennis over the next fortnight,’ said Harry on the first day. ‘It’s going to be a wonderful Wmbldn.’ Dan agreed. ‘The Centre Court is absolutely bathed in the most lovely sunshine.’ It was absolutely clear that both boys were on top form. ‘There is the Duke, the President of the Club,’ said Dan. ‘And so ... a Royal occasion.’

Borg and Gorman shaped up to each other. After twenty-seven minutes of play the rains came. ‘This is quite a sight in itself, the court cover being pulled across. It weighs a couple of tons ... they usually get a round of applause for this ... there we are ... just having to ... sort it out ... the rain all the time falling on the surface ... perhaps as the rain is falling on that cover, it’s time to remember how well Borg was playing.’

But most of that came from Dan. Measured against the standards of Rain Commentary set by Harry it was tame stuff. Harry himself came on screen to show how it should be done. ‘And people quite happy to stand out there under their umbrellas and watch the covers being put on.’ What makes Harry’s Rain Commentary such a revolution in communications is the underlying assumption that the rain is fascinating in itself. Not quite as fascinating, perhaps, as Borg and Gorman hitting tennis balls at each other, but still pretty gripping.

Down it comes, bouncing on the covers, gradually accumulating in hundreds of differently shaped puddles. But notice the way some of the puddles are joining up! There’s a positive lake forming near the base line! Yes, Wmbldn fortnight will always be the climax of the year for anyone interested in rain.

In the case of British Hope John Lloyd, Dan’s inextinguishable patriotism found a worthy object. It will be recalled that John, after marrying the American champion Chris Evert, celebrated his good fortune by losing nineteen matches in a row. His opening singles match in these championships made it an even twenty. But in the first round of the doubles his luck turned. This was certainly due to the psychic support from Dan. ‘Ooh, bad luck, John!’ cried Dan as John dinked a sitter into the net or beaned the umpire with his second service. Dan’s waves of sympathy paid off. John, partnered by his younger brother Tony, took courage and won. Only the brave deserve the beautiful.

Meanwhile Jimmy Connors had unleashed his new tactic, the Early Grunt. Yes, Jimbo is grunting earlier this year. Tennis buffs will be aware that after his marriage to the aforementioned Chris Evert failed to take place, the bullet-headed ball-bouncer consoled himself by cleaving unto Patti McGuire, Playboy’s all-time most gorgeous gate-fold. Wedlock has brought wisdom. Once, in moments of crisis, he would take out and read the famous Letter from his Mother — always a heartening event for his opponent. Now he has taken to grunting loudly at the instant of hitting the ball instead of just afterwards. Confused opponents try to hit the grunt instead of the ball.

As the first week of Wmbldn drew to a close, three-time winner Bjorn Borg suffered a groin strain, or grorn strajn as it is known in his country. The possibility that he might be eliminated through injury was greeted with universal, and well-justified, alarm. Simply by doing nothing repulsive, Borg has established himself as the most attractive young champion in sport today.

But more of Wimbledon next week. For the present it behoves me to assess The Mallens (Granada), billed as ‘a story of scandal, passion and romance’ in seven parts, of which three have been transmitted so far. People have written in to ask if I am as enthralled as they are. The answer is that I am even more enthralled than they are. Time between episodes is time wasted. Seldom has the neurotic turmoil of nineteenth-century scandal, passion and romance been so transfixingly rendered. Beside ‘The Mallens,’ ‘Wuthering Heights’ reads like the letters of Madame de Sévigné.

The central scandal, passion and romance is the liaison between Squire Thomas Mallen (John Hallam) and governess Anna Brigmore (Caroline Blakiston). It is madness, their scandal, passion and romance. Yet mere reason is powerless to curb the force of emotion unleashed in both of them by the very sight of each other. ‘Why does it always have to be like a rape?’ ‘That’s what you love the best.’ END OF PART ONE.

But these, like all great lovers, are more antagonistic than affectionate. ‘We can’t afford it.’ ‘Damn your afford it! Am I the master here or you?’ Or have I got Squire Mallen mixed up with evil Donald Radlet? Both men share the same tempestuous hairstyle, although one of them has a white streak in it, like Diaghilev. ‘When I think of the amount I must have drunk.’ ‘And the women.’

Behind locked doors, in shuttered rooms, innocent young girls lie sleeping in their shifts. But there are strange cries from down the corridor. Are they the cries of an animal in pain? No, they are the cries of Miss Brigmore as she lies in the Squire’s powerful arms. As innocent young feet creep close, we see that the Squire and Miss Brigmore are once again lost in the tumultuous throes of ... END OF PART TWO.

‘You will not be happy if you marry Donald Radlet!’ Here comes the great Northumberland horse down the muddy Northumberland lane. Flurp, flurp, flurp. ‘Am I to go on living?’ No less impressive than the evocation of scandal, passion and romance is the painstaking concern with period detail. ‘A bottle of brandy costs five shillings.’ Nothing brings back the past like a seemingly casual reminder about the changing value of money. (‘A solid gold watch! Why, it must have cost at least fourpence.’) But once again Squire Mallen and Miss Brigmore have collided on the stairs. Within seconds they are raining hot dialogue on each other. A foot-race to the nearest bedroom ends in a dead heat. END OF PART THREE.

Women in Captivity (BBC1) was an affecting programme on some ladies who had survived the frightful experience of being POWs in Japanese hands. They pulled through by dint of team spirit mixed with hatred. By now the hatred has dropped away. There is no reason why it should have done, but for some reason it has.

The Observer, 1st July 1979

[ An incomplete version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]