Essays: Set and match to Miss MacLaine |
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Set and match to Miss MacLaine

‘IT’S a film about Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan,’ said Shirley MacLaine, talking about a forthcoming role to Russell Harty. ‘And you play Amelia Earhart,’ said Russell helpfully. ‘No, I play Fred Noonan.’

While scarcely as fast as light, Miss MacLaine is a good deal faster than Rita Hayworth, who had suffered at Russell’s hands the previous week, in a programme of which I could bear to watch only the first two minutes. It was good to see Russell contending with someone who had to slow down to keep up with him. Miss MacLaine ranks high among show-biz interviewees through being able to string a few words together. Russell ranks about upper-middling among interviewers, behind Derek Nimmo (whose Just a Nimmo on BBC2 isn’t as terrible as you might expect) and ahead of Parky.

Of the gladiatorial contest between interviewer and interviewee, Miss MacLaine was the clear winner. It was her week all round, since she was also a hit in the theatre, with a show which apparently included the song she gave us on Russell’s programme — an extremely awful piece of extended cuteness from ‘Irma la Douce,’ all about being a Person. But it has always been amazing what the world of show-biz will accept as profound.

This truth was in evidence, although for a mercy not too flagrantly so, at the Evening Standard Drama Awards (Thames), the annual self-congratulatory get-together of theatre folk. The proceedings were conducted with more dignity than on most similar occasions, being free of dance-troupes, fanfares and all that nonsense about opening sealed envelopes. If you didn’t mind the compere Rex Harrison’s dud jokes, there was little to object to. Nevertheless the air of unreality was all-pervading. Thespians always look weird when there are a lot of them socialising in one place, as if they were in a big-budget movie with a bad director.

Still, the presentations were something to watch while The Glittering Prizes was running on BBC2. I switched away from the latest episode of Frederic Raphael’s masterpiece at a point when the amorous hero was quoting Wittgenstein in his underpants (that is, the hero was in his underpants and Wittgenstein was dead) to his beautiful consort, who was stretched tail-to-camera like the Rokeby Venus. When I switched back she had had the baby. The telephone rang to tell the hero that he had won an Oscar. His consort stared tragically at the ceiling, knowing that she must soon lose him to a higher world. It is lucky there is no connection between Mr Raphael and his central character, otherwise we would think such a parade of sensitivity and superior intelligence beyond a joke.

The two-part Aquarius (LWT) celebrating Artur Rubinstein’s ninetieth birthday could have gone on for a month, as far as I was concerned. Rubinstein is a marvellous talker, making critical and aesthetic points sound as vital as personal anecdotes. In the second part he touched on the subject of Chopin’s classicism — the formal strength which Rubinstein reasserted when he rescued Chopin from the hands of Paderewski, whose ‘every phrase was one big weep.’

It was a shame that the programmes had no room for Rubinstein to expand on such remarks. Admittedly most of his opinions are already enshrined in his autobiography, but they are not too fulsomely gone into even there, being jostled by his stories of the high life on the concert-circuit of old Europe, when the eternally young pianist was sowing his wild oats by the acre.

The reason why the programmes left so little space for Rubinstein talking was that they contained a lot of Rubinstein playing. Especially in the second show this raised the question of whether the proportion of chat to performance had been correctly worked out. It depended on what you thought might be achieved. To perform the whole of the Second Piano Concerto is not as good an introduction to Chopin as talking about him for half an hour — if it’s Rubinstein doing the talking — and interspersing the observations with a few examples of those miniature pieces which constitute Chopin’s true achievement. If to make converts was the aim, that would have been the way to do it — and would equally have benefited those of us who admired Chopin already, since Rubinstein could hardly fail to be fascinating when talking about details. As it was, we spent a lot of time watching André Previn conduct, which is a brave sight, but readily available throughout the year.

I labour the point only because Chopin has given me some of the greatest moments of my life and Rubinstein has given me my greatest Chopin. Rubinstein playing Chopin is like Horowitz playing Schumann, the composer’s ideal conception made concrete. There are times when I have to discipline myself to leave the records of Rubinstein playing the Mazurkas and the Nocturnes untouched in the cabinet, since of listening to them there is no end. It would be a churl who, having once learned to love such music, did not want everybody else to love it too. Hence the tendency to judge such programmes as these on their efficacy as lessons.

The ‘Aquarius’ connection with Rubinstein is a hangover from the days when Humphrey Burton ran the show, the ability to make and keep high-level contacts being one of his great virtues. Burton is at his best when ushering the whole of a Verdi opera into your living-room after a humble piece-to-camera in which he pretends to have heard only recently of the chap who composed it. As an administrator assigning lesser men to bread-and-butter coverage of the arts he is possibly a bit underwhelmed by the magnitude of the task. Arena (BBC2) was better than usual last week, but scarcely an earth-shaker. It was concerned with Alan Ayckbourn, who protected his creative centre by giving the same interview he has given a dozen times to the posh papers and the glossies. The scenes from his new play, however, were very funny.

On Panorama (BBC1) Hubert Humphrey unveiled his new personality. The idea, it seems, is to present a reverse-Nixon image, in which far from suggesting that you have never done anything wrong, and more than simply admitting you have done things wrong, you insist that you done things wrong: ‘I’m not infallible,’ bleated Hube the Cube, ‘I’m fallible.’

His feet of clay dripping proudly beneath the desk, Hube spieled to camera with an aggressive humility which reminded you of Dr Johnson’s dictum that a man who impugns his own virtue is only telling you he’s got a lot of it to spare. In addition, Hube has been reading Plato, or someone who has read Plato. Playing the reluctant ruler, he told tales of folk who had come up to him and begged him to run for the Presidency. ‘That’s hard for a man in my position to know what to do,' he lied.

The Observer, 8th February 1976