Essays: Matter of rape |
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Matter of rape

RAPE. I didn’t say that just to get your attention. There was a great deal of rape about on television this week, most notably in Do As I Say (BBC1), a ‘Play for Today’ by Charles Wood, starring Angela Down as Daphne, the rapee.

The rapist was called Terry and made only a brief appearance, armed with a large knife. Apart from a non-committal shot of his twitching behind there was nothing that was hard to look at. Daphne, though afraid, took things calmly. She spent the bulk of the play wondering what to do next. Enter a neighbour, Louise, brilliantly played by Heather Canning. Like Daphne a member of the affluent middle class, Louise was nevertheless a flagrant brasser, garrulous, self-obsessed and revolting. She was the last person for Daphne to confide in.

And indeed it was hard to see why someone as decently intelligent as Daphne should confide in her, although to give Charles Wood his due, Angela Down perhaps made the role look more decently intelligent than it was supposed to be. (Although to give Angela Down her due, it isn’t her fault that she can’t help embodying decent intelligence.) Anyway, the script gave us a let-out on this point: Daphne, besides being in shock, had taken two Valliums.

Burying your suspicion that Daphne would have had to be tranked to the eyeballs before telling Louise even the time of day, you could settle back to enjoy the incomprehension Louise lavished on Daphne’s little problem. The burden of Louise’s argument was that the crime, if it had happened at all, should not be revealed, since she was trying to sell her house, and that sort of talk lowered property values.

Enter another friend, an American women’s libber called Hilary, earnestly crying ‘Shit! This is it!’ Played by the versatile Kate Nelligan, Hilary talked a prose style strongly reminiscent, in its rhetorical viscosity, of the dedicatory passage to ‘The female Eunuch.’ It was Hilary’s assumption that Daphne, ravaged by the crime against her person, must be on the edge of madness. Daphne’s protestations of normality were ignored. Despite strident declarations of love (‘Hell, I’m SHY!’), Hilary’s interest in Daphne’s violated integrity was notional. Daphne reached the conclusion that everybody was ignoring her. ‘Even if I only objected with my eyes, how dare anybody?’ But the question went unheard, let alone unanswered.

Fine playing from all three women ensured that the screen stayed alive, but one eventually could not shake off the impression that Charles Wood was ignoring Daphne too. Her character begged to be explored, but most of the subtler touches came from the actress rather than from the script. Wood is a clever writer but he has spent too much time kicking through open goals. Screenplays like ‘How I Won the War’ and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ devoted most of their energy to the vacuous proposition that war is an activity staged for the benefit of the upper classes. Here, with a subject requiring to be examined rather than spoofed, he lacked the wherewithal to strike deep. Still, the play was at the very least a subject for discussion. Should Daphne have gone to the police? To judge from the impassioned advice of some of the real-life victims appearing in Act of Rape (BBC2), emphatically not. But could Terry be allowed to roam loose?

Granada’s excellent The Disappearing World sent an all-woman film unit to Morocco. The resulting programme, entitled ‘Some Women of Marrakech,’ showed what a male chauvinist pig society is like when carried to its logical conclusion. Hidden behind high walls, the women have nothing to look forward to except the prospect of entertaining one another by dancing in a trance. As portrayed to the inquisitive camera, the trance-dance is either subtle beyond the comprehension of the European mind or else pitiably boring. Faced with all this evidence of man’s inhumanity to woman, it was hard to suppress a twinge of male guilt. But don’t let’s forget, chaps, that male chauvinism, while it still reigned supreme in Our Society, was just as degrading for us as it was for them.

A new six-part series about famous females called The Velvet Glove (BBC2) started off with Nurse Cavell. Worthy enough stuff in a genre — potted biography — which is temporarily out of my favour. The week before last somebody put on a programme called ‘Hazlitt in Love’ which almost caused your tranquil scribe to kick the set in. Ken Russell founded a style of telly-biography in which the unique secrets of great lives are sought in the scandalous facts which great lives share with ordinary ones. Russell’s imitators can’t match his energy, but are just as addled in the head, so the junk they turn out hasn’t even the redeeming straightforwardness of hack work: not content with being lifeless and brainless, it’s uninformative as well.

The chief concern of ‘Hazlitt in Love’ was Hazlitt’s unconsummated passion for an illiterate girl. It was an episode that made him look foolish in his own eyes, but he should never be made to look foolish in ours: the affair was a failure, but it increased him. Rewritten for the screen, it diminishes him.

At least Eleanor Marx (BBC2) was allowed to keep her dignity. Now completed, this three-part show was something of a success, largely owing to Jennie Stoller’s believability in the title role. An idealist with a wicked world to change, in the last episode she was up against the intractable problem of her lover Edward Aveling’s bad character. Wastrel, fraud, libertine, sponger, hypocrite and all-round twerp, Aveling shouldn’t have happened to a dog. Finally the poor lady did herself in. Eleanor was the child of Karl’s blood. The children of his mind were to be altogether less restrained by tender feelings.

Not that Professor Galbraith would easily allow the sins of the Marxists to be blamed on their progenitor. His portrait of Karl Marx in the third episode of The Age of Uncertainty (BBC2) reserved judgment in favour of exposition. Like the previous two episodes, this one made for a good read in script form: the Listener is printing the text each week. On screen, though, the series Is a pain in the eye.

Alas, Moses (ATV) can’t be expected to survive the advent of Burt Lancaster. ‘I am slow of tongue,’ he says, but he is quick of hands — his gestures carve the air into cubic cubits. Pharaoh, however, remains credible: a David Bowie figure with no muscles except in his Adam’s apple. It will be interesting to see him swamped by frogs and locusts. Don’t miss The Muppet Show (ATV): it’s something else.

The Observer, 30th January 1977