Essays: Question of quality |
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Question of quality

MUCH delayed by something called industrial action, Newsnight (BBC2) finally got on the air. Presumably the first couple of episodes were deliberately made boring so as not to attract the attention of the unions.

Peter Snow is a personable enough anchor man, but even at this early stage it is permissible to wonder just what assets ‘Newsnight’ is supposed to have. Nobody concerned seems able to write the English language with any special verve or edge. The news gets analysed as well as announced, thereby fulfilling Peter Jay’s famous requirement. But what was wrong with Peter Jay’s famous requirement was that it never specified the quality of the mind which was to do the analysing. The unspoken assumption was that if the analysis was up to the level of what Peter Jay might accomplish by giving his attention to the topic, that would be enough. This was always a questionable premise, and the cold truth is that most television journalists are even less inspired than Peter Jay.

Pride and Prejudice (BBC2) is coming along reasonably well, although it doesn’t exactly floor you with its subtlety. Mrs Bennet is not only a ninny, but a shrieking ninny, which makes you wonder why Mr Bennet ever married her in the first place. Perhaps this anomaly is hard to gloss over. One of the unanswered questions of the original novel is how Mr Bennet, who evinces the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, ever came to find himself in such at mess. But something could have been done to tone the problem down. In general there is a lot of strident characterisation going on, especially among the daughters.

But the day is saved by the principals. Elizabeth Garvie is excellent casting as Elizabeth. She has the right kind of loveliness to catch Darcy’s eye, and shows the right kind of intelligence to hold it. In ‘Sense and Sensibility’ she would be smart enough to represent sense. As Darcy, David Rintoul has been obliged to spend the early episodes standing about in a saturnine manner with his top lip quivering contemptuously at the local antics. No actor in the world can do all this and simultaneously convey that Darcy is a good egg underneath. The latter fact has to emerge.

Until it does, Elizabeth is propelled towards Darcy by her own antagonism. Desire was ever thus. Jane Austen knew everything about passion, just from watching people in its grip. In those days women had to choose between sex and art. She chose art and put all her fructive energy into it. Auden was right to call her books shocking, but the shock comes from more that just her clear-eyed social realism. The force she shapes to her symmetrical designs is the same vitality that populates the world.

Molière was someone else who never underrated the power of a fond look. He was the classic case of the actor-manager going out of his mind over the ingenue. That sob of longing you can hear in the background of his plays is the distant but undying echo of the aged Ronsard toiling up those killing stairs to rain yet another sheaf of useless sonnets on his unheeding young beloved. The Misanthrope (BBC1) caught the authentic note of its author’s frenzy.

Unfortunately the turmoil had a museum for a setting. The time was the 1920s, but the opportunity was taken to fill the great house with a stunning range of objets d’art dating all the way back to not long after the play was written. This provided a kind of temporal continuity, but introduced a whole new element of tension as you wondered whether some gesticulating figure would brush a piece of Lalique on to the parquetry. There was also the question of why these highly intelligent people did not spend at least some of their time referring to such not entirely obscure recent events as the First World War and the novels of Proust. Indeed Proust should have been present — or, if he was too sick, at least Cocteau.

The choice of period thus left John Wood’s translation even more thoroughly camped in the air than its workmanlike neutrality had placed it already. Nevertheless the piece zipped along. As beautifully dressed as everybody else, but wearing spats as well, Ian Holm’s Alceste had a way of quivering angrily on the spot that recalled Boniface in ‘Hotel Paradiso’ — the right comparison to arouse, since the element of farce is in Alceste’s case to he sought after, not eschewed. He was desperate, poor man. As Célimène, Cheri Lunghi looked worth being desperate about, and spoke well too.

There were many occasions in which the dialogue almost succeeded in upstaging the scenery, although finally your impression was of cherishable bibelots, tulips as crisp as the ones Pompadour made out of china, silk dresses that flowed like at pond of Monet’s water lilies, and cherries glowing in cocktail glasses.

At the time of the Queen’s Jubilee 1 wrote in this column that she looked bored by a sermon emanating from the Archbishop of Canterbury. I was careful to add the rider that her boredom was perfectly understandable, since the man then holding that post was boring enough to bore the fowls out of the air. Next day I disappeared under an avalanche of letters accusing me of having attacked the Queen. Since I was, and will always remain, her admirer and deeply loyal subject, I was distressed.

I concluded that I had inadvertently become involved in a theological dispute. Now I have become involved in another one, about Radley College, the subject of a strange series called Public School (BBC2). I keep receiving letters which inform me that if I am against good education, I must be against Rolls-Royces. Obviously it is useless to reply that I am not against good education, but believe that private education tends to perpetuate social divisions which have by now outlived whatever usefulness they might have had. This would be a reasonable answer to make, but in this particular argument reason is a comparatively feeble instrument.

The latest episode of ‘Public School’ concentrated on Radley’s headmaster, known as the Warden. We were told that the Warden took ‘a respectable degree’ at Cambridge, but what was ‘rather more important’ he also obtained ‘a double blue in cricket and rugger.’ At Cambridge I took a respectable degree myself — it’s what you get instead of a good one — and spent enough time watching the young gentlemen playing cricket and rugger to confirm my suspicion that they weren’t especially good at either. In addition to his blue, the Warden has also opened the batting for his county, but once again the emphasis seems to have been on team spirit. Greeting the father of a prospective pupil, the Warden was quick to notice a fellow enthusiast. ‘You’re wearing the right tie, I see.’ It was the tie of the Free Foresters, apparently some form of exclusive cricket club. Well, it’s your country, not mine, but I can’t help feeling that if you keep the gentlemen and the players apart too long, they won’t like one another when they finally meet.

The Observer, 3rd February 1980