Essays: Hammer and kisses |
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Hammer and kisses

THE Beeb’s Russian Week (BBC1 and 2 recurring) must have gone down a bomb with Brezhnev.

One doesn’t suggest that he would have been rolling around the Kremlin in ecstasy, but you can bet that his eyes were closed and his upper incisors slightly bared — the sure signs, in his case, of unbridled hilarity.

With very few discordant notes, the BBC programmes about the Soviet Union added up to one enormous kiss on the wrist. Nor did ITV, who got in a pre-emptive strike the week before with Hammer and Sickle (Thames), do all that much better. This mammoth programme had some interesting footage, but Neal Ascherson’s script was evasive where it wasn’t trite — which didn’t leave it much room to be evasive. ‘A spectre is haunting Europe.’ Spectral footsteps haunted the soundtrack. The spectre was communism, but in the event it proved to be not so much of a spectre after all.

Stalin was the only villain in sight. Ascherson unblushingly defined the word ‘kulak’ as ‘rich peasant.’ But the facts say that a kulak was any peasant who resisted collectivisation: even the Intourist guides who herd you around the ethnography museums are ready by now to consider the possibility that in this department ‘mistakes were made.’ Ascherson’s idea of facing up to the fact of State-organised massacre was to make the large admission that ‘Soviet Russia was using the same methods as the Tsars.’

In ‘Hammer and Sickle,’ as in most of the Beeb’s programmes that followed, the emphasis was on what has been achieved. It was not assumed that at least as much would have been achieved anyway, even if Lenin had stayed in Switzerland. I have never been able to see quite why this is so seldom assumed, but let that pass: for whatever reason — perhaps because the contrary thought is too depressing to entertain — it is usually assumed that what has been achieved could not have been achieved without all the suffering, and so it was assumed throughout Russian Week. Which left you free to boggle at the achievements.

One of these was the Bolshoi production of Boris Godunov (BBC2), which ‘The Lively Arts’ piped to us from Moscow. At least one viewer enjoyed this hugely. The score is so sumptuously melodic it curls the toes. I was eager to see what the Bolshoi production looks like and was not disappointed — mainly because the whole approach was fiercely traditional, to the point sometimes of being downright staid. Traditionalism is the stuff to look for in Soviet theatre: when they try to be modern, the results beggar description.

Anyway, Nesterenko is about twice as tall as Boris Christoff and built like the Peter-Paul fortress, so Boris looked imposing, to say the least. His presence was so overwhelming that anyone else was lucky to got a look in, but Marina and Grigory still managed to bring the house down with their duet, which must be one of the loveliest stretches of music in all the world. There was something tremendously wrong with the fit and colour of Grigory’s wig, but the intensity of his singing pinned you to the sofa.

Mussorgsky, like Tchaikovsky, set words with a natural, conversational stress that makes them available for anybody to sing them to himself, even if he has no voice with which to sing them to other people. Whenever someone says that great works of art are popular in Russia, it is always worth remembering that they are very accessible great works of art. ‘Boris’ has so many sing-along tunes it’s practically Tsars on Sunday, just as ‘Eugene Onegin,’ the greatest Russian poem, has such a good story you can’t put it down.

Unfortunately the same does not apply to The Nutcracker (BBC2), the second ‘Lively Arts’ presentation of the weekend. Once again piped from Moscow, once again fronted by Robin Ray. this was full-scale classical ballet at its most lethal. I can’t believe that it was ever worth a whole evening out even in its original form. Here the choreography was up-dated just enough to lose touch with tradition, without being original enough to get in touch with anything else. The decor and costumes had the standard Soviet cheap magic, half way between Disney and tat. The ballerinas were muscled like gymnasts. No expert on ballet, I am interested enough to wonder if Soviet standards are really all that high, compared to what is going on in New York and London.

But if Russian ballerinas lose from looking like gymnasts, Russian gymnasts still gain from looking like ballerinas. In the absence of the top Romanians, the Soviet girls cleaned up at the World Championships (BBC1) in Spain. So did the Soviet men. Soviet strength was everywhere. Where Karpov is King (BBC2) showed the strength of Soviet chess, personified by Anatoly Karpov, a hard-eyed mastermind whose Krypton Factor is plainly right off the scale.

Only the Book Programme (BBC2) rocked the boat hard enough to bring some water aboard. By dint of dawn filming, they secured an interview with a writer who was a non-member of the Writers’ Union. Actually the interview with the Writers’ Union official would have been enough by itself to blow the gaff: he was aridity incarnate.

Still, things looked bad for capitalism. Sir James Goldsmith didn’t help. In the second, live part of a two-part Money Programme (BBC2) devoted to his enterprises, he punished his interviewers for their alleged laxness in the first part. For the first 10 minutes his tirade sounded like justified outrage, but as he went on he sounded like a bully, and as he went on further he sounded hysterical. It was a thoroughly repulsive performance indicating deep insecurity beneath the bluster.

Dummy (ATV) was a more-than-you-can-take documentary drama about a deaf girl’s decline into prostitution and murder, the moral being that handicapped children should choose rich parents. The programme left me helpless, teeth chattering — which I presume was the idea. Don’t miss A Prime Minister on Prime Ministers (Yorkshire), a new series starring Sir Harold Wilson. It’s a scream.

The Observer, 13th November 1977