Essays: Redeeming appearances |
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Redeeming appearances

CRUEL GRUEL on the tube, men of Athens: the cornucopia rang hollow as a bongo. Barbara Shelley played a prostitute on Z Cars, by my count her one and only appearance since she did the first tripartite episode of Granada’s ‘Crown Court,’ a clockwork wig-opera for housewives. Amongst the fuzz as before the beaks, she stood out by a light-year: the effect was as if Antoinette Sibley in satin court shoes and sequinned taffeta were suddenly to be discovered executing a lone La Bomba on ‘Come Dancing.’

Miss Shelley is high on the very short list of secret actresses — the really special ones who, it seems, agree to do a part only when Libra is in the cusp of the Hesperides and the chicken’s entrails yield an A-OK haruspication. Apart from the continuous diversion provided by the leading characters, whose ensemble performances are by now as stylised as a kabuki play which has been running in a back street of Tokyo since the early days of the Shogunate, such rare apparitions are one of the chief reasons for staying tuned to ‘Z Cars’ and Softly, Softly. Speaking of which latter, if you were watching last week you got a chance — more precious than rubies — to see Harry the Hawk in his dinner-jacket, a sight calculated to make the villains surrender in droves. The elegance of Arsene Lupin added to the determination of a tug-boat.

Staying with the heat, an even more elegant operative, and freelance to boot, is Lord Peter Wimsey, played by Ian Carmichael. Last year this amiable shamus appeared to surprising effect in a serialised concoction called ‘Clouds of Witness,’ which for production values and general fluency of action was one of the fun things of the season. With the first episode of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (BBC-1) the trick seems already to be working again. The stylistic slog of Dorothy Sayers’s unreadably fertile pen gains everything from being replaced by efficiently directed cameras, and the lavish fanaticism of the BBC’s formidably historicist design department can pour on the period detail without fear of overbalancing the script, which exists to be overbalanced.

Carmichael is an extremely clever actor, whose reserves of expressiveness not even a hundred years’ hard labour in the salt-mines of British film comedy at its deadliest could completely coarsen. With Wimsey, as with Bertie Wooster, he is turning in one of those thespian efforts which seem easy at the time but which in retrospect are found to have been the ideal embodiment of the written character.

Wimsey’s faithful valet, Bunter (‘The fingerprint powder is in your lordship’s right-hand jacket pocket’), cossets his charge like the last flower of chivalry: Wimsey is the Sick Man, whose sleuthin’ is a doomed recompense for the spiritual integrity which got irreparably shattered during the war — along, apparently, with Western civilisation.

No fear of that recompense in a Man Alive episode (BBC-2) briskly entitled ‘Entente Tropicale.’ Billed as a BBC/ORTF co-production, this two-backed beast of a documentary set out to give us a binocular close-up of the New Hebrides, a condominium in which the French and the British carve up paradise between them, while noble savages straight from the pen of Rousseau (the philosopher, not the Douanier) disport themselves amid fronds and blooms straight from the brush of Rousseau (the Douanier, not the philosopher).

Confirming one’s worst fears about the pussyfooting triviality of ORTF, the French reportress Dominique Viard strove to convince us that she arrived in those islands expecting to see ze lars cannibarls in ze worl’ liveeng in ze boosh. Perhaps she had suffered brain damage in some form when young. Nor did she seem able to get the point about the power structure, apparently never having been apprised of the fact that the secret of finding out what’s been did and what’s been hid is firmly to grasp the concept that the man with the gun is the man with the gun.

We were three-quarters of the way into the programme before the English reporter, Jim Douglas Henry, took over: he promptly revealed that the New Hebrideans have no (i.e., zero) voice in their own affairs. It was also Mr Henry who uncovered a marvellous Australian character who had begun as a cabinet maker and after ‘fleeing from militant unionism’ in the twenties has settled down in the New Hebrides as a copra planter, gradually discovering that the locals were made of stuff less stern. ‘My greatest disappointment is in the native people,’ he announced, graciously leaning a fraction to one side while one of them delivered food to his plate. Apparently they are without either honesty or gratitude, fecklessly departing at the prospect of earning a few bob more elsewhere.

The irascible paragon’s somnolent wife declared herself reluctant to stay on if the natives ever got their rights. She said this, not in the tones of one seeing the writing on the wall in letters of fire, but in the genteelly peeved accents of a fat socialite under a hair-dryer, reading of incipient power-cuts. They were lulus, this lot: no error.

Meanwhile down in the donga, a local land-reform movement called Na-Griamel was revving up, the dusky hand on the throttle being attached to the powerful arm of one Jimmy Stevens, the only man around who seemed to have the slightest insight into political likeihoods. One awaits developments with an interest made comfortable by the intervening miles of ocean.

A better, if smaller, documentary was the last of the All in a Day series (BBC-2), which this time dealt with moving house, an operation complicated in this case by the builders being 15 weeks behind schedule. Hardly typical: not far away in the same district, the house containing my flat also contains a team of builders well embarked on the second year of a run which could leave ‘Chu Chin Chow’s ’ record in ruins. Waiting to move in until someone else moved out, one woman in the programme was apparently regularly hysterical by 10 o’clock in the morning. Tati-type human traffic-jams built up in stair-wells, with a local lady making compulsive cups of tea. The quality of mercy, however, was strained by the perception that everyone involved must have been monumentally well-heeled. A pair of young darlings with hooray voices were moving out of a place with full central heating. What next, a swimming pool?

Quickly: a Comedy Playhouse episode called ‘Marry the Girls’ (BBC-1) looked distressingly hungry to be a series. John Le Mesurier as a man with five daughters to be married off delivered his lines with that I-didn’t-write-this voice (‘asszlutely AWful’) he’s been perfecting over the last decade.

On Crosstalk R. H. S. Crossman mined W. H. Auden for a set of apothegms already deeply familiar to students of the greatest living poet’s ancillary prose. Chief interest here, as always on this programme, lay in trying to figure out where Derek Hart went after introducing the disputants.

The Observer, 4th February 1973