Essays: Mere mortal Mans |
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Mere mortal Mans

START the week right with Giuseppe Verdi. But first, a fond farewell to World Snooker (BBC1 and sometimes 2). Eddie Charlton didn’t make it to the final, but otherwise the tournament had everything.

Charlton — surfer, footballer, snooker champion, philosopher, poet — is the complete Australian hero. Unfortunately he was present in the final only in the role of assistant commentator, but typically he made a good fist even of that. By telling us something about Ray Reardon’s positional sense, he did a lot to explain why Perrie Mans, the superior potter, was nevertheless headed for defeat.

John Spencer took up, indeed harped on, the same theme. You began feeling sorry for Mans, a mere mortal tangling with a demi-god. Reardon embodies in its highest form snooker’s heady combination of requirements: he has uncanny physical skill and a subtle mind to go with it. Watching him and the other champions battling it out over hundreds of frames was an experience to souse the eyes. One became visually blotto.

And now back to Verdi, whose Falstaff (Southern) came to us in the form of the full Glyndebourne production, to the greater glory of the television company and everyone concerned. Verdi, of course, no longer needs the break, but he would have been pleased anyway. Bad staging, even of his minor works, used to make him hopping mad, and this opera, though small in scale, was the last great flower of his art, the culmination of a lifetime.

Southern takes big risks with its no-compromise policy on opera. The approach pays off, but it must need nerve. By the time he got to ‘Falstaff,’ Verdi had pretty well abandoned arias altogether, so there are no standout numbers to catch the casual ear. Uninstructed viewers, no matter how well disposed, must have been wondering when the songs would start.

But the sheer look of the thing probably allayed any initial puzzlement. This was the way to do opera on television — i.e., find a good stage production and point cameras at it. The recent BBC assault on Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ was an example of how not to do it — i.e., re-create the work in television terms, which invariably turns out to mean wide open spaces and funny hats. Nothing re-created in television terms is likely to match the fertile but unpretentious integrity of a Glyndebourne production at its best, and on television you can see it without struggling into a dinner jacket, being chased around an ornamental lake by swans, or sitting among ladies who count their pearls like rosaries throughout the performance.

Glyndebourne productions have the additional merit of underlining the utter craziness of what is currently being palmed off as an artistic policy at Covent Garden. I happened to see the Covent Garden ‘Idomeneo,’ as produced by Götz Friedrich, and it only confirmed my theory that producing operas is nowadays what Germans do instead of invading Poland.

But enough about the weekend, except to say that the Sunday night screening of the English National Opera’s Carmen (BBC2 **), though it was a stage production rather than something re-created in television terms, was nevertheless, alas, not so hot. Singing operas in English almost invariably screws them up. Especially does this rule of thumb apply in the case of ‘Carmen,’ since when you let in the English language you let in the English character and the English weather. By an inexorable process of rising damp, the fiery inhabitants of Seville come to resemble the Bootle ‘Knock-Out’ squad during a February training session: there is plenty of energetic posturing, but you can practically hear the fibrositis.

And so, at last, to the week proper. The reason I am being so conscientious about getting to the week proper, instead of wittering on about the weekend, is that last week I got my whole column upside down, devoting thousands of words to the Eurovision Song Contest and only one short paragraph to ‘Cold Harbour,’ the best play I have seen on television in ages. ‘Cold Harbour’ was the first play in a new series called ITV Playhouse (Thames), which has since given forth with yet another commendable effort, ‘One of the Boys,’ written by Anita Bronson and directed by Moira Armstrong.

Not that ‘One of the Boys’ was easy for the male ego to take. Here were drunken, hearty rugby players seen through the eyes of the women who have to live with them. One could scarcely exempt oneself from the general indictment by pointing out to the unyielding screen that one does not play rugby. We were all on trial. This was women’s liberation talking. Seldom has it talked with so much wit, sympathy and good humour — all of which made the argument even harder to dodge.

Diane Fletcher, a brainy actress whose work is always worth seeking out, played the central character, Maggie. As a school-teacher and head of a one-parent family, Maggie was wearing herself out coping, but would have been able to hold her head up if her boyfriend had been less of a bastard. Not that be was a real bastard. He was just a thoughtless bastard. He and the rest of the lads reserved their understanding and sensitivity for each other, with nothing left over for their women.

‘Ya randy bastard,’ they would shout at each other in the pub. ‘He’s a helluva fella when he’s wound up, this one.’ It was obvious that the bastard was far from randy and the fellow was not helluva. There was nothing to any of them. ‘It’s a man’s game, is rugby’ was the general cry, but in the playwright’s view they were just shouting to keep their courage up: they weren’t, in any real sense, men at all.

Staggering home pissed long after the evening meal had gone cold, the lads became rapists without even realising it. The special virtue of the script was that the women were not all that much more comprehending than the men. They were slow to analyse their plight. Plausibly, anger led to inarticulacy rather than eloquence. But the light was dawning all the time. Friendship between the women deepened at the same rate as the men’s stentorian camaraderie revealed itself to be pulsing with barely repressed aggression. All that the men could be with each other was helluva. At least the women could talk about realities.

Moira Armstrong’s direction was fully up to the standard she established in ‘The Girls of Slender Means,’ which is the highest standard in television. Her technique is too subtle ever to be hailed as an innovation, but in the long run hers is the only kind of originality that counts. Certainly her unassertive but all-seeing cameras made an important contribution to a play which was, on every level, genuinely radical. Most of our committed young male playwrights are writing about things they only think they care about. This was a play about something that the people who created it have lived through.

[ ** BBC1 ]

The Observer, 7th May 1978