Essays: Grotto-Blotto |
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Never drawing breath, The Borgias (BBC2) bores on, like a bore at a party who, having bored everybody else into the wall, stands alone in the kitchen and bores himself.

Borgia dialogue is a closed circuit in which the output exactly equals the input, since everybody in it tells everybody else nothing except what they must know already. ‘Send my brother Jofre to me,’ says Cesare Borgia to his father, Rodrigo Borgia, alias the Pope. But even in the hectic procreative whirl prevailing among the Borgias, the Pope would have had time to notice that his son Cesare had a brother called Jofre.

The reason Cesare tells Rodrigo that he, Cesare, has a brother called Jofre is so that we, the audience, may be informed. When the dialogue is not informing us about the genealogy of the Borgia family it is informing us about the geography of Italy. ‘Rimini has fallen. We must take Ferrara unaided.’ ‘Ferrara unaided! Are you mad?’ ‘Surely you know that the Duke of Ferrara’s sister Isabella della Pella is the nephew of your cousin, Giotto Grotto-Blotto?’ ‘For your sake I hope you speak the truth.’

After a short pause for the torture, strangulation, poisoning and beheading of their latest guests, the Borgias all get back into bed and resume the activity which has made their name terrible in the annals of European history. Rival families ambush them, France invades them on a regular basis, but nothing can stop them talking. ‘Help me retake Urbino.’ ‘Retake Urbino! Are you mad?’ ‘My friend the King of France advises me to be rid of you. Do you plot against me, Romeo?’ ‘The Duke of Milan attacks Bologna and the Duke of Bologna attacks Milan. God is good to us, my friends.’ ‘The man lies!’

Unable to tell his own sons apart, the Pope is in his cups. But the wine has been spiked by the agent of some rival family who want a series of their own. Or perhaps Rodrigo’s sons have grown sick of hearing the dialogue mispronounced, especially when you consider how hard it is to follow even when pronounced clearly. ‘Barf! Yark! Whok!’ shouts the Pope, but on past performance he could be reciting the Gettysburg Address. When he clutches his cassock and takes a nose-dive into the mixed salad, however, the matter is beyond doubt. ‘GARF! BWUP! THWORK!’ But Cesare, too, is stricken. He writhes in his bed as if suffering from a maladjusted codpiece. ‘Your horse and foot await.’ ‘My horse?’ ‘And your foot.’ More next week, and every week, forever.

Photographed with the clean-edged richness of colour that you get only when the cameraman is knocked out by the subject, The Shogun Inheritance (BBC2) has been the visual treat of the season. Julian Pettifer is to be commended that the series has a commentary to match its looks. Having been twice briefly to Japan, I consider myself an expert, because the place is so odd that if you have been there even for five minutes you are miles ahead of someone who hasn’t been there at all, even if he has been studying its history all his life. But I have learned a great deal from every episode I have watched, and by now am even inclined to modify my earlier conviction that the Nips are weird. The Nips are very weird.

Jazzing up that otherwise intractably rebarbative subject, the Japanese traditional theatre, Pettifer said: ‘Sodomy, which was already commonplace among the soldiers and clergy, now began to interest the common people also.’ This caught my attention, which the puppets, beautiful though they were to look at, had temporarily lost. I once asked my young interpreter in Japan how often he went to see Kabuki or Noh and he said he wouldn’t touch either of them with a ten-foot ceremonial sword.

The otherwise inexplicable popularity of crude Japanese science fiction movies, and of interminable television series about men in dressing-gowns kicking each other, can perhaps be understood in terms of the boredom induced by the traditional art forms from which they represent the only escape. Also the enormous success of Western music in Japan is perhaps no accident, Japanese music having so little in it except subtlety. Phoowee-phut. Tick. Plonk.

It will be understood that these are frivolous estimates, arising from a profound, and indeed disturbed, recognition of Japan’s abiding strangeness. Pettifer and his production team have done much to induce the appropriate sense of alienation. A Japanese master swordsmith was shown putting a lot of effort into constructing a sword which will probably never be called on to actually do anything except rest in its scabbard. For two weeks he melted the metal, doubled it, tempered it, annealed it, melted it, doubled it ... All the time he was sitting cross-legged while wearing the joke hat of an honorary Samurai.

Meanwhile Dr Sen was putting young ladies through a three-year course in the tea ceremony. The tea ceremony does not last much less than three years anyway, so during the course the trainee gets only a couple of chances to go right through it. ‘You are rejuvenated,’ said Dr Sen, ‘ready to continue the fight.’

Those of us who dimly remember what the fight was like the last time the Japanese were using their swords in earnest are glad that the fight nowadays is being conducted by peaceful means, even if they are now winning instead of losing. This excellent series gives you some idea of the reason for their triumph. They are a rich culture with the emphasis on collective dedication. Most of us in the West are not very fond of collective dedication and in our case we are probably right. But over and above that the Japanese have chosen to sell goods wanted by people instead of guns wanted by governments. The United States, which is selling guns, is being outsold by the Japanese. In the long run people have more purchasing power than governments. It should have been a simple lesson, but for the Japanese it took a shattering military defeat to teach it.

The winners have learned more slowly. Zone of Occupation (BBC2) has been telling — in a lugubrious manner, alas — the story of how Britain did everything wrong when occupying its zone of Germany after the war, but how the Germans, having learned their lesson, did everything right. The consideration that Britain must have done something right, or else the Germans would never have got started again at all, is seldom allowed to arise.

The latest episode of To the Manor Born (BBC1) was billed as the last instalment of the series, but will no doubt be merely the prelude to another, since the two leading characters are now married. Now at last she will be able to do something about his clothes. One imagines that those slanting pockets on his tweed jackets are meant to indicate an arriviste, but surely he arrived long enough ago to have noticed by now what everyone else is wearing.

In Dallas (BBC1) we are required to believe that Jock, despite the recent passing of the actor concerned, is alive and well in South America. Pam, on the other hand, is confined to the nut-house preparatory to an imminent write-out. ‘I’m worried,’ murmurs the shrink, ‘that Pam might be going into a full-blown psychotic depression.’ In Flamingo Road (BBC1) Constance and Lane are still fighting for the dubious privilege of physical intimacy with the increasingly feeble-minded Fielding.

The Observer, 6th December 1981
[ A shorter, edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]