Essays: Shadows in Ulster |
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Shadows in Ulster

IN a rich week, Shadows on our Skin (BBC1) stood out, mainly because it was that rarest of television events, a play about what is going on in Northern Ireland.

What is going on in Northern Ireland has been going on for a long time, but has lately reached such a pitch of intensity that people can be excused for demanding a more extensive television coverage. This subject, it has been pointed out, ought logically to be inspiring a whole stream of television plays. So why aren’t the television companies putting them on? Scarcely anybody has dared to suggest that the reason why there are so few television plays about Northern Ireland is that good playwrights don’t want to write them, and that the reason why they don’t want to write them is that the subject is not inspiring — merely terrifying, monotonous and grindingly sad.

Nevertheless, ‘Shadows on our Skin’ turned out to be the best television play about Northern Ireland since ‘I’m a Dreamer, Montreal.’ The fact that it was the only television play about Northern Ireland since ‘I’m a Dreamer, Montreal’ was of minor importance. Adapted by the poet Derek Mahon from the novel by Jennifer Johnston, the script economically explored the distorted childhood of a Bogside eleven-year-old boy called Joe, impersonated with admirable precocity by Macrea Clarke.

Nobody except Joe came out of the play particularly well. It was also hard to avoid drawing the conclusion that Joe’s own adulthood, when it arrived, would not be very admirable either. Joe’s house was loud with hatred and stupidity. Nobody but an Irish playwright would dare to paint his countrymen in such harsh colours — a fact which drastically cuts down the number of possible playwrights at the start. Nor is it much use asking the Irish writers to make clear where they stand. What if there isn’t anywhere to stand? The troubles in Ulster aren’t the Trojan war. There is nothing stimulating about them. Any good play on the subject is likely to leave you feeling depressed, and doubly depressed for feeling that there isn’t anything you can do. The only, small consolation is that a bad play on the subject would leave you feeling all that and cheated as well.

An entertaining instalment of Omnibus (BBC1) featured Roger Corman and his low-budget film empire. ‘Roger’s operation’, explained one of his pupils, ‘is an exploitation operation on almost every level.’ Corman’s pupils are glad to be exploited because it gives them an opportunity to make a movie, whereupon they will graduate to the status of alumni and become madly famous like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Corman’s requirements — that the film be shot in five days, use sets left over from ‘Invasion of the Crab Monsters’, and contain at least 12 head-on collisions between naked go-go dancers riding Hondas — are seen as an invigorating disciplinary framework.

Corman’s acolytes are far from dumb. Most of them talked well and all of them were interesting to watch as they went about their frenzied work. There were immensely diverting excerpts from an all-purpose Corman movie called ‘Hollywood Boulevard’. I never enjoyed an ‘Omnibus’ programme more. Nevertheless somebody should have pointed out that most Roger Corman movies, whether by the master himself or by an exploited tyro, are not just cheap but truly lousy. There is also the consideration that even the most famous Corman alumni, when they run out of real ideas, revert to making Corman movies, only this time they do it on a multi-million dollar budget and stink up the whole world instead of just the local drive-in.

China (Thames) glumly recounted what has been happening to the Peking Ballet Company during thirty years of revolution. The dancers were seen trying to recapture the secrets of ‘Swan Lake,’ which they have not been allowed to perform for the past 16 years. Instead they have been obliged to concentrate on such masterpieces as ‘The Red Detachment of Women.’ Mrs Mao came in for plenty of vilification from the dancers, as well she might. A ballerina, her hands ruined from eight years’ hard labour in the fields, said that what was done to your body would have been less unbearable if they had let your mind alone. ‘They would criticise you in front of everyone.’ There was a campaign called ‘Three famous, three high’ in which the three most accomplished people in any area of creativity were reassigned to a decade or so of carting night-soil.

The dancers blamed most of this on the Gang of Four. Apparently it is still not possible to lay the blame where it belongs — i.e., squarely on Mao. ‘Mao always believed in the power of art to educate and change people.’ Art has large powers to do both those things, but on its own terms. All Mao accomplished was the destruction of art. ‘His people, by and large,’ said one of the dancers, ‘have never stopped loving, even worshipping him.’ But where else did the Cultural Revolution come from, if not directly from Mao’s great brain? And here were the witnesses to what the Cultural Revolution was actually like. Most of them are still crying at the memory. Shirley MacLaine, a dancer herself, might like to reflect that these people were being driven like cattle at the exact time when she and her gullible friends came back from their visit to China squealing, ‘Why do they all look so happy?’

Having slagged Frederic Raphael on several occasions, I am duty bound to declare that his episode of Writers and Places (BBC2) was excellent. Revisiting Cambridge, he had more to say in propria persona than as the author of ‘The Glittering Prizes’, or anyway he said it better. His epigrams sound more convincing coming from him than from his characters. Perhaps he is his own best character. As Gerry Mulligan played ‘Walking Shoes’ on the sound-track, Raphael donned his junior intellectual’s outfit and sloped off into the past. Billing himself as ‘the thinking man’s undergraduate of the early Fifties,’ he once again took up residence in the Whim. ‘I sat here on publication day and waited to be famous overnight.’ He did a good job of evoking Wittgenstein’s cleansingly austere spirit. He did a good job all round, thereby proving once again that nothing beats a talking head for action, if the head talks well.

In the second episode of Thérèse Raquin (BBC1) Camille’s corpse returned to haunt the guilty lovers. Whether the corpse was played by a gruesomely made-up actor, or by a real corpse of the right size and state of decomposition, was difficult to determine, especially if you had your hands over your eyes and your head under the couch. Camille’s remains undoubtedly constituted le mauvais spectacle de la semaine, despite strong competition from James Burke, who launched a new series of science waffle called The Real Thing (BBC1). ‘Look!’ cried Burke. ‘Watch! See?’ There is almost nothing that can’t be made uninteresting provided it is approached with sufficient fervour.

The Observer, 23rd March 1980
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]