Essays: Release Bukovsky! |
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Release Bukovsky!

BEFORE remarking on programmes you might possibly have seen in the last week or so, let me touch briefly on a programme as yet unknown to the viewing public — unknown, as yet, even to W. Stephen Gilbert, Prince of Previews.

Called simply Bukovsky, it is an independently made 50-minute film consisting mainly of an interview with the Russian dissident of that name. As we learned to our delight when he first got sprung, Bukovsky is an unusually engaging character, with charm to match his bravery. The programme would be of interest even if it contained nothing else apart from Bukovsky talking. But since it also features interviews with Viktor Fainberg and Marina Voikhanskaya (letting out some of the emotion which she kept bottled up during her recent ‘Man Alive’ appearance), together with a documentary record of Bukovsky’s arrival in this country, plus some thoughtful talk about the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissent, with a lot more besides, it is hard to see why the programme has not already been on the air.

As far as I can tell from ringing people up, it hasn’t been on the air because it doesn’t happen to fit the programming requirements of various BBC departments, who have been passing it around to one another like a hot potato, in the evident hope that it will eventually become a cold potato.

David Markham and Alan Clarke have put a lot of time and hope into making an important programme off their own bat. If the fourth channel takes the form Annan recommends, there will be a safer home for programmes like this. As things now stand, dedicated people mortgage their houses on the off-chance. ITV programme chiefs should take note that there will be a press showing of ‘Bukovsky’ on Tuesday at the Sapphire preview theatre in Wardour Street, starting at 11 a.m. On current form, the Beeb’s representatives will still be in bed at that hour.

Why is the British film industry always in the doldrums? Because British television is too good. This age-old truth was proved all over again by Last Summer (‘ITV Playhouse’), a Jeremy Sanford story turned into a screenplay by Peter Prince and directed by the redoubtable Stephen Frears, whose stature grows with each new achievement, which always seems to be different from whatever it was he did last. This time the subject was a boy’s progress from ordinary yobbery to crime. Starting off as a joy-rider, Keith graduated to stealing cars for gain, coached by a slightly older expert. The expert, in sharp schmutter and shades, was transfixingly played by Richard Beckinsale. Laconically adept, he taught Keith the ropes in a way that almost made you want to try for yourself.

‘I ’ate doin’ Jap cars.’ muttered the expert, ‘they depress me.’ Suspicions that he was, after all, a standard character were confirmed when one remembered Dickens. The Artful Dodger has always been one of the best dramatic roles — it was only by accident that it first turned up in a novel instead of in a play. Eventually the expert lost his touch, while Keith, the coming boy, gained in assurance. Inevitably, Keith acquired a pair of dark glasses. The way the camera did not zoom meaningfully in on them was an indication of the subtlety of Frears’s technique. (It is only when technique draws attention to itself that directors acquire a critical reputation for possessing it.)

The script was a concise effort which I can recommend to the attention of at least three of the four young playwrights recently showcased in an episode of Arena (BBC2), since by putting story before message it got more said about social alienation than they have managed in any of their ranting tracts. In America, a project like ‘Last Summer’ would have to be set up as a full-sized movie. Or to put it the other way about, in this country a project like ‘Car Wash’ would be made for television. On the whole, we are the better off, although our writers and directors are far less likely to attain solvency, let alone universal fame.

Alternative 3 (Anglia) was something else again. Or rather, it was nothing else again. Made as an April Fool’s Day gag, it tried to suck the viewer in by presenting science fantasy as documentary fact. For years, it contended, key people have been disappearing. Meanwhile, it went on, the US and the USSR have unanimously evinced a strange diffidence about their aims in space. The evidence, it concluded, points to a joint attempt by the super-Powers to colonise Mars before the earth becomes uninhabitable.

There was nothing wrong with the idea as an idea. But the script was so flat, and the production so limp, that your only possible reaction could be bored scorn. I was stunned to learn that one of my fellow critics, who shall be nameless, thought the piece well done, thereby aligning himself with the few thousand dullards who ritually bombarded the Anglia switchboard, wanting to know why they had not been chosen to go to Mars. According to the programme, the Mars colonists will reflect ‘a balance of the sciences and the arts.’ It was a good game selecting who should be sent. Max Bygraves, Rupert Murdoch, Clive Jenkins, Liza Minnelli, Auberon Waugh, Lord Longford...

But no. Life without Lord Longford would be no life at all, even though, as time goes on, he shows increasing signs of degenerating into normalcy. On The Frost Programme (BBC1) he was up against Lord Hailsham in a debate about prison reform. This promised to be a Battle of the Loons, but as things turned out each peer put his case with coherence and even wit, Longford favouring Hailsham with many a tolerant smile and Hailsham wagging his usual stretch of white shin above short sock.

According to Longford, every prisoner ought to be released after 10 years unless there are medical reasons for keeping him locked up. According to Hailsham, there are plenty of detainees who would pass any medical test but simply happen to be killers. As Frost well knew, the best talking-point on this issue had to be Myra Hindley, but Longford refused to be drawn, since he was committed elsewhere to doing a full-length programme on her case.

I’ll be watching that one with interest. For now, it is enough to say that his attitude to Hindley strikes at least one of Lord Longford’s admirers as the best reason for considering him a prime candidate for the Mars expedition. Try to imagine the feelings of, say, Lesley Ann Downey’s family, whenever Lord Longford assures the world that her torturer is truly repentant. Since by now even God must be having doubts about His wisdom in creating Hindley, you would think that Lord Longford — who ranks, after all, only among the more recent saints — would show some diffidence about forgiving her. But if was a treat to hear Longford calling Hailsham Quintin and Hailsham calling Longford Frank. Frost called them that too, of course. He had one lapse, but corrected himself immediately. ‘Lord Hailsham, Quintin...’ In Frost’s etiquette, underfamiliarity counts as rudeness.

The Observer, 26th June 1977