Essays: Power-house Frank |
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Power-house Frank

DID you see Liberace’s Valentine Night Special (Thames)? It was like being forcibly fed with warm peppermint creams.

Frank Sinatra gave yet another farewell performance. This time it was called Frank Sinatra — the First Forty Years (Thames), although really it should have been called ‘Frank Sinatra — the First Four Hundred Years,’ since it must have taken him at least that much time to meet all those people and do all that philanthropy. The people were present to congratulate him on his decades at the top and to remind him of the philanthropy in case he had forgotten it.

The venue was Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It was jammed with celebrities, many of them still alive. The death rate during the course of the evening must have been fairly high, because it was obligatory to clap at every mention of Frank’s outstanding qualities. During Stalin’s speeches to the Praesidium the first delegate to stop clapping was routinely hauled off to be shot, but at Caesar’s Palace peer-group pressure was enough to keep everybody clapping indefinitely. Even the comedians were inundated with applause, instead of being greeted with the yell of abuse that their material deserved.

Sadat and Begin both sent representatives. There could be no doubt Frank is a force for peace in the Middle East. Indeed, to hear Orson Welles tell it, Frank is practically the light of the world. Orson was clad in a black barrage balloon cleverly painted to look like a dinner jacket. He was equipped with rhetoric to match. Frank, he averred, manifests ‘something of the dangerous glamour of a great bandit chieftain’ who ‘makes us a present of his great vulnerability.’

A cut-away to the man thus described showed that he was taking all this pretty well. But Orson wasn’t finished: ‘... this complex, hugely gifted, multi-faceted human being ... a power-house, a pussycat ... and ultimately and forever he is undefeated.’ The audience rose to Orson as it would rise to a ton and a half of hickory-roast ham.

Milton Berle confidently announced that Frank thinks of John Wayne every day and prays for him every night. Sammy Davis outdid even Dean Martin in suggesting by his manner that he knew Frank better than anybody else did. The mother of the President of the United States showed no sign of wanting to shut up. Finally only Frank himself stood a chance of saving the evening from a permanent first place in the annals of sentimental banality.

He did it with his sense of rhythm, which remains unimpaired under the hair-transplant. The lyrics came out with all the old bite and swing. He really is a great entertainer, even though all the not-so-great entertainers say he is. Being unusually public-spirited as well, he has every right to bask in glory, even to the extent of saying goodbye more often than Sarah Bernhardt. But really, aren’t Americans strange? They are the new Japanese, living a life of ritual, with every evening an occasion and no one allowed to be alone.

Back at the start of the week, The Enigma (BBC1), adapted by Malcolm Bradbury from a story by John Fowles, was a play about a rich Tory MP who went missing. Since this was a work of art instead of an ordinary thriller, the mystery remained unsolved. Instead of casually watching as you might have done if the thing had been a run-of-the-mill whodunnit, you found yourself heavily committed. I, for example, when it became obvious that we were never going to find out exactly what had happened to the missing man, gave a very loud cry of ‘Bloody hell!’

But there were compensations. The Special Branch man assigned to the case was granted several interviews with Nigel Hawthorne, brilliantly playing a club bore. Hawthorne was terrific with the menu and at signalling waiters. ‘Interesting crowd here. Well, not today.’ The MP’s awful son had a marvellously intuitive and beautiful mistress, played by Barbara Kellerman. The Special Branch man ended up in bed with her, which was some consolation for not being allowed to solve the mystery.

As the titles rolled, we were led to believe that the missing MP might possibly have been in the ornamental lake of his country house. But nobody wanted to look, because of the embarrassment, and because the play would have then become a forgettable armchair thriller, instead of lingering in the mind as an Enigma.

Another alienated man of affairs was the hero of Very Like a Whale (ATV), a play by John Osborne. Alan Bates played Sir Jock Mellor, captain of industry. Sir Jock had a strange temperament for a captain of industry. He was just like a playwright. He had built himself up to wealth, a title, a divine-looking secretary/mistress and an equally divine-looking wife, played by Gemma Jones. Yet he was not happy. Something about all this material splendour left his spiritual propensities unfulfilled. Perhaps he should have been a playwright all along.

Frustrated, Sir Jock behaved abominably. He was rude to everyone he met. Among even the most intelligent playwrights, such as Pinter and Osborne, it is always taken as axiomatic that a sensitive man, when suffering from mental turmoil, will behave rudely. This is a dramatically useful convention but is the exact reverse of what happens in real life, where a sensitive man, when suffering from mental turmoil, usually behaves more politely than ever up until the moment when he keels over. In fact Osborne’s heroes are less sensitive than histrionic, and Sir Jock was no exception.

Alan Bates did his best. Starring in the plays of Simon Gray has given him plenty of practice at looking sensitive, alienated and superior, like a playwright badgered by the petty concerns of ordinary people who have not studied the critical writings of F. R. Leavis. Gemma Jones was very good at being the bitchy Osborne woman who shouts, ‘I haven’t finished my drink!’ I’m bound to say I was wowed by the secretary (Myra Frances). If Sir Jock still felt alienated after having his every need tended to by a dish like her, he had a case of alienation that not even becoming the author of ‘Look Back in Anger’ could have cured.

The Observer, 17th February 1980
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]