Essays: Pulling the plugs |
[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]

Pulling the plugs

Magnus Magnusson misquoted Keats on Mastermind (BBC1). ‘A thing of beauty,’ he informed us, ‘is a boy forever.’ For a moment you got a picture of him as a Roman poet in a low-cut toga, with vine leaves in his hair.

But the picture was all in the mind. On the screen he was still Magnus the Icelandic inquisitor. He was lucky to be on the screen at all. The Beeb’s technicians pulled the plugs on the Queen. They even pulled the plugs on Angela Rippon, which is going a bit far. Thursday night’s nine o’clock News was an abridged version, with Angie given barely enough time to breathe hello. The vacant running-time was made up with old Interlude featurettes from the fifties, including the one where a disembodied hand makes a clay pot.

Not having been raised in Britain, I had never seen this most famous of all television creations. Viewed even once, it was hypnotically boring. Viewed time after time over a span of years, it must have worked like a mantra — you could do transcendental meditation to it, or perhaps even levitate. I had never realised that the pot was doomed to remain unfinished: forever changing shape, it goes everywhere and nowhere, like the history of the human race.

Or like Charlie’s Angels (Thames), which has succeeded in uniting the population of the world like nothing since the common cold. Half-wits of more than a 100 nations watch every episode. In the latest series there has been a slight change of cast. Farrah Fawcett-Majors, for some reason the most popular of the original Angels, has been replaced by Cheryl Ladd. Cheryl’s teeth are big and strong like Farrah’s so she will probably become equally famous, if my theory is correct. (My theory is that the majority of males in the audience harbour an unspoken desire to be eaten alive.)

Since Farrah is now a millionairess, which is a large reward for doing almost nothing except look healthy, it is perhaps permissible to say that she had a bad case of duck’s disease, to the point where the directors had to be careful in the long shots. Cheryl’s behind is a lot further from the ground.

Anyway, Cheryl, or Kris as she is called in the series, now joins Jaclyn, known as Kelly, and Kate, who plays the taxing role of Sabrina. Commanded by Charlie’s ghostly voice, each week they leap pertly into action against relays of dumb but sinister heavies. It’s a sort of George Plimpton number, whereby the Angels solve the crime by merging unobtrusively into the milieu.

If the offence is perpetrated in Hawaii, they immediately become surfers. If it happens in an ice show, they are transformed into ice skaters. They are equally ready to impersonate nuclear physicists, test pilots and sword swallowers. One of the two big questions in the viewer’s mind is why the heavies are always so slow to catch on. The other big question, of course, concerns the Angels’ love life. Is Charlie getting them all?

‘Dickens did not write what the people wanted,’ said Chesterton. ‘He wanted what the people wanted.’ Leaving aside the awkward fact that there is undoubtedly a sense in which the people want ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ Chesterton was stating a great truth. Dickens did not talk down. He was genuine in everything, even his sentimentality, which was really just a powerful assertion that people could be noble beyond their circumstances — an assertion he had a right to make, since he had the courage to see circumstances for what they were, and the optimistic energy to set about getting them changed. Hard Times (Granada) continues to be remarkably successful in transmitting the largeness of his spirit.

Dickens knows, and lets you know he knows, that he is writing melodrama: one of the functions his style performs is to win your consent while he simplifies. It follows that a dramatisation must find a style to match, and here it has happened. We can see that the relationship between Gradgrind and Louisa is overdrawn, but we don’t mind, because the high emphasis is subtly handled, so that you get intensity rather than crassness. What Dickens spells out is made to seem natural.

Jacqueline Tong does very well as Louisa. The line about the chimneys spitting fire at night was not shirked: she looked ready for arousal, even if the arouser had to be the detested Bounderby. Now Harthouse is on the scene, in the person of Edward Fox, here licensed to employ his full range of gentlemanly effects. He gives it the voice. (‘Vair lawdable’ means ‘Very laudable’.) He gives it the raised eyebrow. In short, he gives it the works. You could have roasted a turkey in the glances exchanged between Harthouse and Louisa.

In You Never Can Tell (BBC1), first in a new series of ‘Play of the Month,’ there was a similarly high charge circulating between Kika Markham (Gloria) and Robert Powell (Valentine). Here was ample proof that Shaw knew a thing or two about desire. He may have been beyond sex himself — or beneath it or above it, depending on your viewpoint — but he could see something of what it did to other people. Even in this, a play pleasant, the emotions can be made as fierce as the actors are able to manage. Shaw knew that love is real, and hurts. He just took a light tone.

So did the director, James Cellan Jones, and with excellent results. Apart from Dolly, an impossible role with which there is nothing to be done except play against the text, the personnel were satisfactory throughout. The cast was so strong that Cyril Cusack was playing the waiter.

As for Kika Markham, I had better rein myself in, except to say that if she ever grows tired of trying to change the world with her political activities, she has an excellent chance of changing it as an actress. She has a marvellous gift. The boom operator was almost equally forthcoming. At one point he laid the shadow of the microphone across Cyril Cusack’s forehead with such precision that you could practically read the brand-name.

The Observer, 6th November 1977

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]