Essays: Rattigan revisited |
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Rattigan revisited

WITHOUT providing anything massively startling, it was still an interesting week’s television. BBC-1’s ‘Play for Today,’ The General’s Day, was written by William Trevor: the name carries with it much prestige, so it was not amazing that the drama department should have fielded two of its top skaters, Irene Shubik (producer) and John Gorrie (director). Good-looking results guaranteed.

Nevertheless, significance failed to occur. Not to be confused with ‘The Night of the Generals,’ ‘The General’s Day’ was fairly easily confused with ‘Separate Tables’ — to the point where the viewer, whose brain the production values persistently deterred from sleep, began a pencilled experiment to eliminate the possibility that Mr Trevor’s name is an anagram of Terence Rattigan’s. Teriv Lali worm — disturbingly close.

In a seaside resort, Alastair Sim is a retired general with a frightful old slag of a housekeeper, played by Dandy Nichols, and an even chance of replacing her with something better, played by Annette Crosbie. Miss Crosbie — fragile enough to be annihilated by a stray neutron — learns from a local busybody that the incumbent’s services to the general do not stop at housekeeping. To imagine how she reacts, all you have to do is remember how the lady in Rattigan’s play reacted when she learned that her beloved officer had been committing public nuisances. Only the circumstances have been changed, to preserve the relationship.

And yet... well, there you go. Undistracted by any real interest, you could sit back and whistle at just how good all these pros are. Production/direction was as solid as a rock, and the acting passed the script from hand to hand almost all the way across the abyss. Dandy Nichols, I have decided, keeps fish in her throat until they are ready for digesting.

World In Action (Granada) did a so-so report on Leopold Trepper, an old-guard Polish/Jewish Communist who was head operator of the Red Orchestra espionage network during the war, was arrested by the Nazis, was re-arrested by Stalin on the usual blanket charge of having been in contact with the West (getting tortured by the Gestapo was included in that) and is now forbidden to leave Warsaw — perhaps because he knows too much about Soviet wartime blundering, perhaps he knows too much about current Polish persecution of Jews.

The ‘World in Action’ team, disguised as tourists, got to Trepper in Warsaw but didn’t get all that much out of him, apart from the touching insistence that during the war his Jewish, Communist and anti-Nazi activities were all in harmony. Trepper denied the long-running whisper that he betrayed the Orchestra to the Gestapo. The programme dealt with the Soviet’s lethal habit of broadcasting its agents’ names and addresses uncoded, but was strangely ready to put this down to incompetence. It’s far more likely that Stalin was taking a quick revenge on the people who had made the mistake of being right about the German invasion. Trepper wants to go to Israel now — looks like the dream’s over. Incredible how long and how bravely these characters held on to their illusions.

BBC-1’s new miniseries, The Commanders, led off with darling old Rommel. Despite being written by Correlli Barnett, this programme was average, going on skeletal. It was better presented than the ‘Grand Strategy’ series, but then so is ‘Stars on Sunday’: what rankled were (a) the construction, featuring repetitious flash-forwards to Rommel’s funeral, and (b) the large-scale question-begging, in which it was once again — and by now astonishingly — not asked whether Rommel turned against Hitler because he had disgraced the Germany army or because he had lost the war.

Like an African politician, Rommel needed to be photographed at all times: fresh snaps keep turning up, lending programmes like this what little purpose they have, beyond educating rank beginners. It’s the educational aspect, though, that bothers me most. There’s no doubt that Rommel fought a clean war, but there’s every doubt about whether his long ignorance of Hitler’s less savoury intentions was helpless or willed. A fair guess is that Rommel was a moral block-head — but to be merely that, in the company of homicidal maniacs, amply qualified him for any haloes that were going.

Rommel’s churning Panzer tracks overlapped with the first episode of another miniseries, BBC-2’s The Edwardians. Robert Powell played Rolls, Michael Jayston played Royce, and your reporter played dead — never heard so much galumphing exposition in me born days. Rolls spent an unconscionable amount of time informing Royce of facts he must have already been well aware of, and tension between the two men was conveyed by asking the actors to shout at each other from short range. In a Mark Shivas production such trad theatricality was an aberration, and one suspected that everybody’s real interest lay in the hardware, which was delicious: there was a Silver Ghost looking so newly minted it must have been warm all over. A pity, in a way, that this programme should have had its standards set by the excellent American treatment of the Wright brothers. Now there was the breath of adventure.

Man Alive (BBC-2) took a week’s rest by screening another George Plimpton programme. This time he was trying to be a stand-up comedian, struggling to work up a routine for presentation in Las Vegas on a certain date. Poor devil, there was no one to help him except Bob Hope, Phil Silvers, Woody Allen, Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters and a team of writers from ‘Laugh-In.’ Actually this last lot — although he didn’t seem to realise it — nearly dished him, since they are a very dreary pack of scriveners indeed.

This was the first time Plimpton has shown up in a territory I know a little bit about, and I found him thinner on information than ever. But while not being crowded with facts, his programmes are teeming with characters hooked on their own trade: and that’s the tone of voice which never fails to get you in, even when the more challenging technical gen they might have supplied has been prudently left out.

Eye-opener of the week for this reporter was John Cranko’s choreography for The Taming of the Shrew (ZDF, pp BBC-2). Classical ballet has always struck me as an exquisite vocabulary in desperate search of a syntax. Cranko’s got the syntax, all right. The ideas were thick on the ground — or rather in mid-air, which is where Marcia Haydée spent most of her time, at one point being hoisted delicately aloft by a thumb inserted in her armpit. Chalk up another Cranko fan: sorry it took me so long to realise.

ATV’s The Strauss Family has now had its unremitting music mercifully stifled by War, a condition established by posting Anne Stallybrass at the window and asking her to say, ‘There’s another building on fire.’ More than you can say for the Thames eh, Sir Lew?

The Observer, 26th November 1972