Essays: Snap judgments |
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Snap judgments

A FIRST class two-part documentary about photography called Snowdon on Camera (BBC2) could well serve as a model for fledgling TV producers of how these things should be done. It was closely argued, richly filmed, tersely cut.

Above all it was quick. Without hurrying, the presenter did not hang about. He is shy on camera but gets a lot said, often by implication. Independent observers have suspected him for some time of being a severe sufferer from chronic honesty. Here was further proof. While being professionally scrupulous to a high degree, he is plainly sceptical about the pretentious talk which tends to attach itself to his subject. His conclusion, reached at the very end of the two programmes, was that photography has become inflated in every sense. On the way to this deduction a lot of territory was taken in, much of it beautiful to look at.

Kodak processes 85 million rolls of film a year, the overwhelming majority of them exposed by amateurs. Some amateurs carry $4,500-worth of equipment. Snowdon was shown examining a Nikon motorised camera the size of a Teasmade. If you pressed it in the right place it sounded like a machine gun. If you pressed it in the wrong place it would probably run you over. It was clear that equipped with one of these things even the most abject tyro might create a work of art by accident. So where did that leave the avowed artist?

Madame Harlip was the first artist to be interviewed. She does portraits. Snowdon was very respectful of her, which was generous of him, since it soon emerged that she thought his sort of thing was just taking snaps. What she did was paint with light, like Rembrandt. Helping to quell your mental image of Rembrandt blazing away with a Hasselblad was Madame Harlip’s accent. ‘And now I will giff you more artistic picture ... giff me more feelings ... keep zer mood on ... I love zat very much ... look at my rink.’

Her rink was on her finker. She defined her aesthetic philosophy as ‘telling zer truce. Flattery is cheap. I personally couldn’t do it.’ Jesting Pilate would have had good reason to ask what zer truce was when some of Madame’s portraits came swimming into view: if they weren’t flattery, they were certainly fantasy. Karsh of Ottawa was a more formidable prospect. With the patina of memory, his portraits of the great are beginning by now to look monumental, an effect reinforced by those plain metallic backgrounds which echo Titian’s Ariosto in thrusting the subject heroically forward, and which Snowdon echoed throughout the programme, regularly setting his talking heads against clean planes of cobalt and deep sea green.

Karsh was everything but funny. Terence Donovan is one of the funniest men in the world. Those who know him usually despair of the full effect ever being transmitted to those who don’t, but Snowdon’s editor trapped some of the torrent. ‘Male jewellery,’ sneered Terence, engulfing some Japanese device in one giant paw. ‘They’re for people to hang round their necks. You sure you’re still a schoolgirl?’ This last remark was addressed to a reclining fashion model, who warmed to the air of complicity, whereupon Donovan clicked away, while assuring us that the mood was what mattered – the machinery meant nothing.

Snowdon obviously sympathised with Donovan’s approach. Nevertheless he gave the self-consciously dedicated American giants their due. Ansel Adams was shown making a few new prints from one of his classic negatives. Here was photographic art if such a thing was anywhere. Nor could there be any doubt that the carefully produced limited-edition prints of photographers like Penn and Adams are worth at least some of the high price they fetch at auctions. But once again Donovan’s seemingly flippant attitude contained more of zer truce: the way to get rich, he averred, was to get into the authenticity business. Snap a few Portuguese birds in nineteenth-century peasant gear, hand the prints to a Frenchman with a Gauloise clinging to his lower lip, and send him into an auction room...

The Beeb has long wanted its own ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire,’ one of the all-time ITV ratings triumphs. Now at last they might have come up with something sufficiently rancid to stand the comparison. Called Goodbye Darling... (BBC1), it will be in eight parts, of which the first part suggested that the three dots in the title portend a steadily accelerating build-up of tension in the viewer, possibly leading to migraine. There is a limit to how much drama the brain can take in before the cerebral cortex starts to boil. Who else, for example, is the heroine Anne going to get into bed with after she exhausts her current lover?

The moustached wimp of a lover lives in a caravan and waits wiltingly for Anne’s visits. A Junoesque number whose hairstyle sometimes creates the impression that she is being impersonated by Benny Hill, Anne is the wife of a famous husband incapable of satisfying her demands. The caravan looks fairly light on its springs when the lover is in there alone, but Anne has only to join him and the suspension hits bottom. Meanwhile Anne’s son, who is in love with her, is in rebellion against his father, whereas the daughter, who loves the father, has been traumatised by the sound of the caravan’s shock-absorbers giving up the ghost.

Baroque casting among the peripheral characters ensures plenty of subsidiary interest, not to say fascination. There is a lesbian aristocrat called Lady Brett, who has a voice like a diesel locomotive and a wan companion called Maude. These two are either resting up for the next Fassbinder movie or else they are due to move centre stage, perhaps even into the caravan. Tune in soon or you’ll never catch up.

Rod Stewart (BBC1) has an attractive voice and a highly unattractive bottom. In his concert performances he now spends more time wagging the latter than exercising the former, thereby conforming to the established pattern by which popular entertainers fall prey to the delusion that the public loves them for themselves, and not for their work. In Rockstage (Thames) Elkie Brooks looked to be some way down the same dreary road: if she had saved some of the energy she expended on strutting and put it into singing ‘Lilac Wine’ on key, she would have been fulfilling her promise instead of dissipating it.

Loretta Lynn’s show was called just Loretta (Thames) and demonstrated that country music, for all its rhinestones and sentiment, is a real tradition that holds its performers within fruitful limits. She sang melodically, articulated cleanly, gave value for money and left you wanting more. How rock stars ever came to think that self-indulgence was a superior way to behave is one of the great conundrums.

Roy Hattersley was the latest subject of The Pursuit of Power (BBC2), a chat series in which Bob McKenzie gives politicians such a rough time they must start wondering whether the pursuit of power is really worth the aggravation. ‘I know no moment in the history of the Labour Party in modern times,’ gritted Bob, ‘when it has got so near rock bottom as now. How have you managed it?’ Hatters coped, but only just.

The Observer, 31st May 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]