Essays: For the rest of their lives |
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For the rest of their lives

SUFFER, little children. The week started with wrecked kids crowding the news programmes (the thalidomide tax blunder) and the documentaries (blindness, brain damage, autism). There was nowhere to hide.

Still in a Class of Their Own (BBC1) was a follow-up programme on Condover School, which deals exclusively with children who are not only blind, but also handicapped — most of them stunningly so. As with the drug-blasted youngsters, it was hard to know what to feel, beyond the scant satisfaction which lies in the knowledge that ours is the only century which has seriously tried to help. (This small glow of achievement is more easily experienced, I suppose, when one is not among those actively engaged in the helping.) Panorama (BBC1) was about autism. Here was another school for ravaged tots. Called Somerset Court, it will try to look after 20 autistic children for the rest of their lives. For the thousands of other cases there is as yet no room. A teacher said that once an autistic child has been made self-aware by years of attention, it is a crime to lock it up later on in a subnormality hospital.

Anyway, onward — to what Nadezhda Mandelstam called the privilege of ordinary heartbreaks. On Softly, Softly (BBC1) the missing child was merely unloved, and it was something of a relief to find out at the end that the pervert hadn’t murdered him: he had simply run away and drowned. He was the product of his Environment. On Telling It Like It Is (ATV) Hugh Cudlipp showed us that there was plenty of this kind of Environment still on offer. This was the programme pulled off the air just before the election, presumably because it was concerned with actual politics, whereas the politicos are mainly concerned with show-business. Cudlipp has never been high on my list of the lovable, but it has to be said that he was forceful on this occasion. We were introduced to people who were ‘applying’ for a bath in their house. There are families in Salford who have been waiting for a council house for 25 years. For these, said Cudlipp, ‘the Welfare State hasn’t begun.’ All of which was salutary, and would have been more salutary still if not vitiated in the viewer’s mind by the memory of Sir Hugh Cudlipp (in last year’s blaze of self-glorification, ‘Cudlipp and be damned’) messing about in his motor-cruiser while sycophantic minions called him ‘Captain.’

Much of the Environment in Cudlipp’s programme looked like the cleverly used stills in The Case of Eliza Armstrong (BBC1), an interesting series about a nineteenth-century journalist being prosecuted for setting up an investigation into child prostitution. David Jones, the producer, delivers an economical and interesting commentary to camera. You glean an idea of how Classes 4 and 5 lived while Classes 1-3 were busy with the task of forgetting all about them. Squalor was a moral judgment. There was more of that in the last episode of Microbes and Men (BBC2), where Ehrlich, curing syphilis, had to tread warily lest he offend those worthies who believed the disease to be a divine regulator of naughtiness.

Another period piece (and here we move on to springier ground) was the first chapter of Jennie (Thames), the story of Lady Randolph Churchill. Starring the superb Lee Remick, it can’t lose, and will surely become a craze. Jennie led off by marrying Randolph (Ronald Pickup), a move which annoyed their parents. ‘I’m afraid I can’t possibly give my approval to such a foolhardy venture.’ Julian Mitchell’s script is wealthy in such bromides, but he constructs situations so cunningly that it doesn’t matter. And eventually everything depends on the extraordinary Remick, our single most valuable acquisition from America.

Yet another girl in trouble with her parents (I’m using ‘Nationwide’-type link material today) was Electra (Play of the Month, BBC1). A Cedric Messina/Michael Lindsay-Hogg production, it seemed to be set in a Maginot Line pill-box, with costumes from ‘Zorba the Greek.’ The acting, though, reached a high standard. Eileen Atkins in the title role looked like an exophthalmic Germaine Greer shampooing her hair with Araldite, but her passion for Orestes as the instrument of retribution was deeply scarey. Georgina Hale’s Chrysothemis, a Virgin from a Memling triptych (my mixture of visual reference only reflects the show’s eclecticism), was delicately prudent. As Orestes, Martin Shaw had the malted voice of the Population Bulge generation of actors — cod-liver oil did their facial cavities the world of good. These were an heroic trio of siblings who made sense of all they had to say.

Lord Goodman delivered the Dimbleby Lecture (BBC1), perhaps as an assurance to Cudlipp that the housing crisis was a matter of urgent concern. He called, in portly tones, for a supremo, or Messiah — a man who would tackle the problem with passion. Don’t hold your breath. Heil Caesar (BBC2) was a repeat counting as a first showing, since it started out as a schools programme. Up-dated in dialogue as well as costume ‘Julius Caesar’ was threatened with extinction. Against the odds, John Bowen’s version was of some interest. It came out as a strong Machiavellian critique of Brutus. John Stride was just right as Mark Antony, and Anthony Bate was more believable as Brutus than he is as an ageing businessman in Intimate Strangers (LWT), which is otherwise a typically adventurous Richard Bates production. Bates’s track record as a prober of modern moral problems is looking very good.

The Unsettled Peace (BBC1) is solid, analytical stuff, but on too late. A Taste of Britain (BBC2) is almost as good as a meal. Last week they were on about the demise of the Yarmouth herring. On The Book Programme (BBC2) Robert Robinson’s questions to Joseph Heller were twice as long as the answers, ‘What,’ asked Heller at one point, ‘are you suggesting that I may be suggesting?’ Emanuel Ax won the piano competition in an excellent Aquarius (LWT). Second House (BBC2) featured Randy Newman and Isaac Bashevis Singer — good too. There was a tolerable Warship (BBC1) for once, written by Allan Prior, who managed to invest the ‘Spitfire Parade’ story-line with some real-life conflict. On People and Politics (Thames) Llew Gardner and Sir Keith Joseph misquoted Yeats at each other, proving that Class 1 is still being denied a decent education. Gag of tha week was Sykes (BBC1) hanging helplessly from a light bulb he was trying to change while Hattie accused him of being a show-off.

The Observer, 27th October 1974