Essays: Satirical shots |
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Satirical shots

A REVIEWER, instructing me once on the art of satire, told me and the rest of the world that what I wrote was not savage enough, and that there had been more true satire in the action of a woman who had recently pointed a dummy pistol at President Ford, thereby shaking his lamentable complacency with regard to the foreign policy of the United States.

It occurred to me at the time that if a properly savage satirical attitude entailed overlooking the inherent violence in pointing a dummy pistol at someone who spent most of his working day expecting to be shot with a real one, then I had been right to eschew a properly savage satirical attitude. The same point occurred again this week, when a young man fired off six blank shots at the Queen, who was obliged to react with the whole world watching. She contented herself with merely turning pale, instead of doing what I and my savagely satirical reviewer would probably have done — i.e., bale out of the saddle and hide behind a policeman.

The same savage reviewer was back again recently, to inform me and the world that my newly published long poem about Prince Charles was a thinly disguised monarchist tract, and no true satire, having no savagery in it. Such an opinion perhaps looks less good this week than it did a fortnight ago. A fortnight ago it was possible, without arousing much argument, to contend that the Royal Family symbolised Britain’s obsolescence and was thus responsible for the economic depression of the country. This week, with thousands of hysterical Americans holding Prince Charles responsible for British colonialism in Ireland, the same idea looks at least marginally less plausible. After all, even subscribers to Time Out are dimly aware that things aren’t quite as simple as that.

Anyway, there was Prince Charles on screen, staunchly shaking hands with American mayors while pretending to be interested in what their wives had to say, or staunchly shaking hands with American mayoresses while pretending to be interested in what their husbands had to say. If he was wondering when somebody would step out of the crowd and fire a satirical gun at him, he didn’t show it. In the same circumstances I and my satirical reviewer would have insisted on being enclosed within a large suit of armour or a small tank. Of course a merely symbolic figure should not have to be so brave. Merely symbolic figures should be phased out. Satirical reviewers are full of shoulds. They think Britain should get rid of its outmoded institutions, thus to be reborn as a successful industrial nation. As a mere tourist, with the most imperfect touch on the national pulse, I can only say that their confidence is impressive. Standing on an ice-floe, they propose making repairs with a blow-torch.

Having small faith in the perfectibility of states, and still less in the perfectibility of man, a primitive innocent such as your reporter must take his pleasure where he finds it. During the past week I have had the satisfaction of helping to present my soft-hearted and unsatirical West End recital of ‘Charles Charming’s Challenges’ to those gratifyingly appreciative bands of citizens who have managed to fight their way into the theatre past squads of heavily armed critics.

This satisfaction has been doubled by A Town Like Alice (BBC1), an episode of which has been waiting at home on the VCR machine each night, like a hot, nourishing supper. It had its occasional sentimentality and its more than occasional awkwardness, but there has not been a richer story told on television for some time by anybody, and never by Australians, who with this production suggest that they might become as formidable a source for television drama as they already are for films.

If they were to do so, they would bash a large dent in my theory that any country’s film industry flourishes in inverse ratio to its television, but that would be just another theory discredited. For now, the chief critical task is to praise merit — never an easy thing to do when the merit has been brought about by collaborative effort. It would be easy to praise the central performances by Helen Morse and Bryan Brown, and indeed there is no point in not doing so, since if your central theme is about a great love then it certainly helps if the lovers look greatly lovable.

Helen Morse has been a natural film star from the first day of her career. There are beauties who are photogenic as long as they don’t express anything. There are actresses who can express anything but they are not photogenic. Helen Morse is photogenically expressive. As for Bryan Brown, his emergence into full stardom is simply the inevitable consequence of having been the one actor in all those Australian movies who never looked as if he was acting.

In the same role once taken by Peter Finch, Bryan Brown had two distinct advantages. When Finch made the film version of ‘A Town Like Alice’ he had already turned himself into an English actor and had to turn himself back into an Australian one. The second advantage was that the television version was careful to supply itself with a distinctly better script. Rosemary Anne Sissons was called in to help. If a certain element of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ incongruously accrued, this perhaps had less to do with her than with the presence of Gordon Jackson, whose unenviable job was to convey lonely regret while the heroine fell in love with someone else.

When Jean and Joe fell for each other in Singapore it was like two cultures colliding. As a writer, Nevil Shute had everything except style, which means that his plots translate to the screen without a hitch, as long as the adaptors trust his extraordinary, almost hallucinatory narrative gift. In this production no short cuts were taken. The Asian locations were the real thing. The Japanese were real Japanese. Above all the Australia on show was the real Australia, with all its colours uncorrected. You could hear Jean’s skin drying as she stood outlined against the red earth.

Shute thought that Britain was dying of its own civilisation and that the Australians, unhampered by the past, would own the future. A deterministic notion too romantic to be true, but it made for strong parables, and as far as the screen industries go he might well prove to be correct. ‘A Town Like Alice’ proved all over again that real complexity is simple at the core. Producer and director respectively, Henry Crawford and David Stevens can work out for themselves how to divide the laurels.

John Keats (BBC2) had a good story too. The influence of Ken Russell was sometimes detectable. ‘This is good, John!’ ‘No!’ ‘You must write more!’ ‘No!’ Keats delivered this last line while running around in a small circle. ‘Spends his time writing verse,’ said a scornful acquaintance. But Leigh Hunt recognised Keats’s talent. ‘John Keats,’ chortled Hunt, ‘Ye-he-he-hes. You mu-hust be John Keats!’ The person addressed looked like a rock singer coked to the eyeballs but that might have been not far from the truth. All we can be sure of about the real poet is that he didn’t look the part. The great artists rarely do.

A late word for Big Blonde (BBC2), an American one-off starring the marvellous Sally Kellerman as Dorothy Parker’s round-heeled, booze-sodden heroine of the 1920s. Clowns should not be given too many points for playing Hamlet. Comedy is harder than straight drama to be good at and Sally Kellerman is very good at comedy, so it was no surprise to find her being very good indeed in this. The only thing wrong was that the thing was too long. Dorothy Parker was economically suggestive. Add water and you don’t get mash — you get mush.

The Observer, 21st June 1981