Essays: The smell of seaweed |
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The smell of seaweed

‘I THOUGHT you were rather ... in sympathy with the discrediting of religion through science,’ said Marina Warner to Bamber Gascoigne on The Question of Faith (Granada), a religious discussion programme of which Bamber is the breezy chairman.

Bamber cheerfully admitted that he couldn’t believe in the supernatural claims of Christianity. This confirmed the impression most of us had already gained from watching him front ‘The Christians.’ ‘A lot of us making the programme were not actually Christians,’ he explained. Marina, who is actually a Christian, was too polite to do what the occasion clearly demanded — namely, to lean over, grasp Bamber firmly by the throat, and wring from him a clear account of what, in that case, he thought he was doing as the chairman of a religious programme called ‘The Question of Faith.’

When Matthew Arnold looked out over Dover Beach and thought of faith’s decline, he heard a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. The tide having continued to go out for another century, there is not much left except a distant whisper and the smell of seaweed. From the rational viewpoint, rationalism ought to be a good thing, but in the event it seems to leave people with all the same capacity for belief and nothing worth believing in.

Consider Gideon Sams, a 14-year-old punk-rocker who appeared on Nationwide (BBC1) to plug his new book ‘Punk.’ Gideon quoted extracts from his own prose. ‘Yeah, I want death. I’ll kick you in the head. Then you’ll be dead.’ But Gideon’s appearance gave the lie to his professed attitudes. Far from being a spotty oik with razor-blade earrings and a bolt through his neck, Gideon was a fresh-faced, clean-cut youth with a nice smile which failed hopelessly at trying to look wicked. Only 14 and already on ‘Nationwide’! His ambition, it transpired, is to be a brain surgeon.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that the urge to be on television is incompatible with a sincere commitment to evil. Baader-Ensslin fans were in the news programmes on all channels, crowding to the graveside of their departed idols. Most of them wore masks to conceal their identities from the cameras. But it seemed likely that far fewer of them would have turned up if it had been known that the cameras would not be there.

It is hard to know what Dickens would have written about a society so uniformly well-off that its children have nothing to do with their sense of justice except to kill innocent people on behalf of vague causes far away. Dickens lived in a society where injustice screamed from every street. How he responded to it is embodied in his work. How television can best respond to him is embodied in Hard Times (Granada), whose first episode I found quite literally stunning. The greatest creative imagination in English after Shakespeare is a hard man to be worthy of, but here was proof that it can, up to a point, be done.

Beyond that point, of course, it can’t: there are things in Dickens’s tone of voice which can never be matched in another medium. But ‘Hard Times’ is more available to the dramatist than most of his bigger books, being so much of a parable. Arthur Hopcraft, the adaptor, has had the wit to make his points as simply as they are made in the original, where the ethical issues are so strongly put that they would sound like a tract if the story lost its grip on you.

But on the page it doesn’t. Nor, for a mercy, does it now, on the screen. The designs, by Roy Stonehouse, are miraculously busy, teeming with detail. Director John Irvin’s cameras track and zoom through streets boiling with horror. Everything has a grainy look, as if registered on a magic film stock which, though developed now, had been exposed then. In the middle of all this, the principal roles are cast with perfect appositeness.

Patrick Allen’s Gradgrind was ideal from the first frame. He was suitably crushing in the great scene about the description of a horse. You could see him censoring the oxygen out of the air his children breathed. But he made a sound performance doubly strong by the subtlety with which he let slip tiny signs of humanity, as if Gradgrind were not merely a monster, but a man holding down his own better feelings by an effort of will.

As for Timothy West’s Bounderby, it is on the way to being unforgettable. His way of talking with his mouth full made at least one viewer resolve to eat more daintily in future. The screen was full of flying crumbs. And there I had better leave ‘Hard Times’ for now, except to say that it makes Anna Karenina (BBC1) look pretty thin. It is not just a matter of budget, but of how the budget is managed. At the race-track where Vronsky crashed his horse, not only were there about 16 extras representing the entire Russian aristocracy, but the fact was emphasised by having the principals talk across them, without the extras noticing. Impossible to believe.

Shooting the Chandelier (BBC2), David Mercer’s play about the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, survived some strange casting. The excellent Edward Fox pretended to be an NKVD officer and almost managed it, if you could accept the idea that NKVD officers were educated at Harrow. Kilvert’s Diary (BBC2) could prove interesting, especially when Kilvert starts to chase the girls, some of whom were very under age. Timothy Davies, a droll actor who can make you laugh even in commercials, is just right for the title role.

The BBC2 link-man announcing the film ‘Harold and Maude’ called Harold ‘a boy with a fascination for death.’ Presumably he did not mean that death was fascinated with the boy. He must have meant that the boy was fascinated with death. Then why not say so? Why does the BBC, of all institutions, continue to let its link-men propagate bad grammar? Nor is it easy to see why the IBA puts up with the latest commercial for Bounty chocolate bars, in which the eating of chocolate shows remarkable affinity with fellatio. While one of these activities may be perfectly harmless, the other is very bad for the teeth.

The Observer, 30th October 1977