Essays: That old sinking sensation |
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That old sinking sensation

BAD SIGHT and Bad Sound of the Week were twin titles both won by Love from A to Z (BBC1), a river of drivel featuring Liza Minnelli and Charles Aznavour. Right up there beside the Tom Jones specials in the Bummer Stakes, this grotesque spectacular was fascinating for several reasons, none of them pleasant.

To begin with (and to go on with and end with, since the phenomenon was continuous), there was the matter of how Charles had contrived to get himself billed above the normally omni-dominant Liza. Not only was his name foremost in the opening titles: but the between-song lectures, instead of being delivered by Charles on the subject of Liza’s talent, were mainly delivered by Liza on the subject of Charles’s genius. ‘Hi!’ Liza would yell intimately, her features suffused by that racking spasm of narcissistic coyness which she fondly imagines looks like a blush, ‘I’m Liza.’ (Such a coup is supposed to stun you with its humility, but in the event it is difficult to choke back the urge to belch.) She would then impart a couple of hundred words of material — supplied by someone going under the name of Donald Ross — on the topic of Charles Aznavour, with particular reference to his creativity, magnanimity and vision.

This would he followed by a lengthy and devastating assault on ‘My Funny Valentine’ by Charles himself, in which the song’s subtlety would be translated into the standard emotional intensity of the French cabaret ballad, leaving the viewer plenty of opportunity to note how the tortured singer’s eyebrows had been wrinkled by hard times, lost loves and the decline of the franc. Or else, even worse, Liza in person would pay tribute to Lorenz Hart by singing ‘My Romance’ as if her task were to put significance into the lyric instead of getting it out. ‘You know,’ she announced at one point, and I had a sinking sensation that I did, and didn’t agree, ‘the most that you can ever hope for an entertainer is to touch people.’

Liza, who can’t even walk up a flight of stairs sincerely (a flight of stairs was wheeled on for the specific purpose of allowing her to prove this), is more touching than she knows. She began her career with a preposterous amount of talent, the shreds of which she still retains, but like her mother she doesn’t know how to do anything small, and, like almost every other young success, she has embraced the standards of excellence proposed by Showbiz, which will agree to love you only if your heart is in the right place — where your brain should be.

Liza can’t settle for being admired for her artistry. She wants to be loved for herself. Charles, to do him the credit he’s got coming as the composer of the odd passable song in the relentlessly chromatic French tradition, is less innocent. In fact he’s so worn by experience he’s got bags under his head. He knows the importance of at least feigning to find his material more interesting than his own wonderful personality — a key trick for prolonged survival, which Liza well have to learn or go to the wall. The show was recorded at the Rainbow. It was pretty nearly as bad as anything I have seen in my life, and deepened the mystery of why it is that it is always the BBC, and not ITV, which brings us these orgies of self-promotion by dud stars: package deals which consist of nothing but a wrap-up.

This week’s episode of Olivia Newton-John’s mini-series Moods of Love (BBC1) was, by comparison, a breath of fresh air. The same would have applied to a cloud of sulphuretted hydrogen, but let’s be generous: Olivia, though she has just as little to do with what’s important in pop as Liza, has a watchable sweetness which for a brief span wards off the naughty world. Her terrible little raps between songs are pronounced with engaging faith. The studio audience, she assures us, consists of 50 young couples in love. She is all unaware that there is not that much love in the world. She is pleased to welcome, as guest artist, Labi Siffre, ‘a gentleman who has written more beautiful love songs than I could possibly remember.’ Labi favours us with a few of his excruciating offerings while Olivia smiles adoringly. Even if her song wasn’t, she herself was an ideal choice for the Eurovision Song Contest. She is utterly a Euro-person, powered by the infallible enthusiasm of an ‘It’s a Knockout’ score-girl — and Knockout is tho look of the new Europe.

This last point was proved all over again by the preliminaries to the World Cup final, in which ‘the wonderfully gay and happy atmosphere these choirs have produced’ (David Coleman) was elicited and marshalled by bustling Euro-men all dressed like Eddie Waring. It was a Knockout happening, right down to the 16 buses which drove on to represent the qualifying countries, each bus conducted by a girl in national dress. (A good number of the counties had at one time or another been invaded by Germany, but there’ll be no more of that in future.)

The Race for the Double Helix (BBC2) was consuming viewing, although not as good as the book. Crick, Watson, Wilkins and Pauling were all on hand. Crick and Watson were filmed in situ at Cambridge, in the bar of the Eagle where so much of their thinking was done — the very same bar at which, between 1964 and 1969, I conducted my own vital researches into lager. It was all very cosy. Rosalind Franklin’s role was handled in a gentlemanly fashion. Ronald Fouracre, the director, did not, I’m told, escape so lightly. The show was originally all his, but apparently the BBC cut his footage to 15 minutes and substituted their own narration, all without letting him in on the secret. Perhaps this was the reason for the programme’s disjointed fudging of its own potential drama. The attempt to sum up X-ray crystallography in 30 seconds was doomed from the start, and the magic moment when the model clicked together somehow didn’t happen, although replication was illustrated with beguiling neatness.

Poor Panorama (BBC1) got its plugs pulled again. It was going to be about inflation. Comedy Playhouse (BBC1) did a style-less production of a Wodehouse story, but Julian Holloway catching sight of the inspiringly orchidaceous Madeleine Smith was the funniest image of the week. Miss Smith, with her dotty pedantry of elocution, was the only one who knew how to play her lines. Interviewing Adam Faith on The Old Grey Whistle Test (BBC2), Bob Harris said ‘It’s hard to know where to start in terms of talking to you.’

Granada did an adventurous dramatisation of the Watergate transcripts called I Know What I Meant. Nicol Williamson and Jack Gold, a pairing with previous experience of making the craft of television an art, starred and directed. Williamson captured Nixon’s appearance marvellously, without aid from make-up. He overdid the guilt, I think: Nixon often looks worried but rarely looks guilty, since he can’t conceive that he might have done wrong. Bernard Williams obligingly assisted Lord Hailsham in a largely fruitless search for his Convictions (BBC1).

The Observer, 14th July 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]