Essays: The sandwich-man |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

The sandwich-man

The new Aquarius (LWT) is very Peter Hall, very Sanderson.

With a distinctly royal air (very Peter Hall, very Sandringham) the show’s new moderator hands down instruction to the natives (very Peter Hall, very Sanders of the River) concerning the contents of his sack of cultural goodies (very Peter Hall, very Santa Claus), revealing himself the while as perhaps deficient in humour (very Peter Hall, very sanctimonious) yet tireless in plugging the National Theatre (very Peter Hall, very sandwich-man). In short, the Peter Hall Glorification Virus is once again raging unchecked: vowing not to abet its activities even inadvertently, I have already mentioned his name seven times in two paragraphs, so insidious is the disease.

Hall is a man of great abilities, but needs more often to be told that he is mortal. At the Pope’s coronation a man walks in front scattering dust, reminding the new prince that the glories of this world will come to nothing. It was a bit ex cathedra for Hall to disown the rather funny tour of Rome contributed by Russell Harty and Gore Vidal: the programme is supposed to feature items that don’t reflect his views — it isn’t necessarily a matter for universal alarm when somebody says something in his presence that he doesn’t agree with. On the other hand, there was an impressive reading by Seamus Heaney: the show promises to retain all its familiar mixed blessings.

Meanwhile the Old Aquarian Humphrey Burton is managing Arts at the BBC, where his new policies are by now showing effect. He fronts Omnibus (BBC1) in person. Since the first episode of 'Aquarius', which he linked from a script falling apart in his trembling hands, Humph has come all the way across the galaxy, until he is now a consummate talking head. Chin in chest and peeking winningly upward through the top rung of his horn-rims, he is both boyishly tentative and internationally clued-up. The new presenters on Film Night (BBC2) should watch him in action and learn how to relax on television: two guys and a gal, they look (especially the guys) as if they are facing a firing squad.

Not that the old hands on Arena (BBC2) are doing much better. In the first instalment Kenneth Tynan read the autocue as if it contained a threatening letter from somebody else instead of a script written by himself, and in the second instalment — devoted to the visual arts — George Melly was stuck square in a tight head-shot and gave his usual impersonation of a man whose body, while he talks, is being slowly devoured by tiny fish. Melly needs to be stretched on a divan with a bunch of grapes in his hand before he gives full value on the box: he must have room to rave, and be encouraged to speak the unspeakable.

The new Tonight (BBC1) is not really that much more trivial than the old one. Programmes get idealised in retrospect, but even the dewiest-eyed would probably admit that the lovely Sue Lawley and her team, though barely adding up to a single authoritative personality, are nevertheless models of gravitas compared to Cliff Michelmore. What rankles is the extent to which all concerned with the new programme lack the talent for trivia. The secret of treating the kind of story which Murray Sayle immortalised under the headline HEN LAYS 4” EGG is to draw out its implications, connect it to the world.

But to want all that is to want the moon. What we mostly get is the opposite capacity: instead of minor items becoming stories, major stories become items. Still, there is the odd bon-bon. The show got lucky last Monday night when it happened to have a long compilation on the Caterham bombing all set for the screen on the very day when two men were picked up in Northern Ireland to be questioned on that very topic. Methods of detection were gone into in some, although not exhaustive, detail: we never did learn the exact characteristics proving that various bombs were built by the same dab hand. But it was interesting to see how the miniature reconstruction of the pub (Action-Man and Barbie-Doll puppets placed according to scores of patiently elicited memories from the survivors) revealed the presence of two strangers.

Everybody seems to be pro-police again now that the Evil One is so patently on the loose. The Philpott File (BBC2) has devoted several highly watchable programmes to the fuzz, who emerged as a body of men so reassuringly staunch that it was hard not to burst into tears of gratitude. Aspirants to the rank of Inspector had their minds broadened by being told that although ‘public order problems are going to get bigger’, things like soccer hooliganism and ‘the flying picket situation’ had a social basis. Whether telling or being told, all concerned looked a lot smarter than Harry the Hawk. In the latest episode we saw the top men. The Chief Constable of Surrey came across as a superbly groomed, inspiringly capable father-figure — a combination of Peter Hall and God, without the latter’s limitations.

Celebrating Kenneth More’s 40 years in show-biz, A Little More, Please (Thames) was a classic. The luckless guest of honour at the adulatory feast was first of all shown journeying nervously towards the venue in the back of a large car, while his own voice-over gave us his thoughts in a stream of semi-consciousness. ‘Forty years in show business. And I have to face them all today. An ego-trip, I suppose... What have I done with my forty years? I’ve made some mistakes. Six months in India with David Lean, the greatest director in the world...’

In position at the site, luminaries, queued to endorse Pete Murray’s paean for ‘Kenny’s happy-go-lucky personality.’ Dilys Powell was intent on conveying that Kenny was ‘very English. He’s always been a very English actor.’ This dispelled any lingering doubts that he might have been a very Chinese actor, but aroused the suspicion that he might not be remarkable for range. ‘He’s always been the same,’ said Geoffrey Keen, meaning it as praise.

Pete asked Douglas Bader how it had felt to see Kenny impersonating him in 'Reach for the Sky'. ‘Totally unreal,’ Bader replied, and this also was meant as praise. A speech from Harry Secombe, however, managed to inject a note of intentional humour. And since Secombe is a man incapable of dissimulation, it followed that More must really be as nice and kind as everybody said, despite the way they chose to say it.

A wall of corn from Cornwall, BBC1’s new thriller serial Poldark is aptly branded with a title which turns out to be an anagram for Old Krap. I rest my case.

The Observer, 12th October 1975

[ This piece also appears in Visions Before Midnight ]