Essays: Soap-operatic splendour |
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Soap-operatic splendour

LIKE MOST people, I had my expectations of what the David Bailey programme on Andy Warhol would be like: i.e., an earnest but incorrigibly gullible feather-head helping a cold-blooded hustler to hype himself. That the programme has gone missing isn’t likely to be of the least aesthetic importance.

The manner of its disappearance, though, is of great concern. There’s a vigilante crouching behind every bush, and unless the IBA can secure to itself a predominance of A we’ll have some klutz asking for an injunction against Two Old Dears (Thames).

Back to the land of the living, with the wonderful The Brothers (BBC-1), the most engrossing sudser of 1972 and now returned looking more neurasthenic than ever. The key requirement in a really first-rate soap opera — which ‘The Brothers’ is, its pink footlights shining bravely through a four-foot drift of foam — is that the writers should be so out of touch with the nominal subject that they must rely on pale recollections of movies, plays and other series, thereby involuntarily dredging up from the primordial sludge of the folk memory an eerily reminiscent kit of characters and situations which first occupied the stage before the time of Aeschylus.

Jean Anderson plays an archetypal tragic mother who monkeys with her sons’ lives in a way that can only be dictated by the Furies, since ordinary common-sense would long ago have instructed her to retire with all speed to the Côte d’Azur. Her fanatical resentment of her dead husband’s mistress (Jennifer Wilson), who is now a director of the firm, shows some signs of abating, but from the quavering desperation of her telephone manner we can be sure it will mount again. Meanwhile, her sons continue to run what looks to be the least employable trucking enterprise in the British Isles. By my count it has only one driver, and since he spends a large proportion of his time having labour/management clashes with the Brothers, it’s a fair guess that the goods are rotting in the loading bay.

Presumably the series has been off the screen so long in order to lull us into unpreparedness for a change of actor: Edward, the eldest brother, is now played by Patrick O’Connell. On the evidence of one episode, it seems abundantly clear that he is fated to inherit the character’s overweening arrogance — a truly crippling pig-headedness that heads the list of all the reasons why you’d be insane to hire the firm. Meanwhile the second Brother’s wife has left him.

Temporarily, we hope, since her bra-less impatience with his weedy concerns was one of the elements that undoubtedly boosted the male ratings on the last series. He’s responded to this betrayal by undernourishing his haunted features to the point of death and making errors in executing the firm’s financial policy.

We’ve been taught by every media commentator since Robert Warshow that these mad games conceal piquant social assumptions. It’s certain that ‘The Brothers’ implies a disabling lowness of morale. The disbelief in British abilities is palpable. At the moment the Brothers are actually — not just metaphorically — losing ground to an Australian, that new bogy-man threatening home-grown self-esteem. All one can do is cry Not to Worry: nobody has the smallest idea of what he’s talking about.

More self-aware are the creators and executants of a trilogy called Conjugal Rights (Yorkshire), two thirds of which has by now flowed over the weir. This I’ve found fascinating, for the gaping void between the professionalism of its presentation and the glib diffidence of its conception. Three couples run through the permutations and combinations of semi-adulterous canoodling — it’s a West End comedy, with all the comfortably vacuous moralising the term implies.

In the first episode Michael (Ian Holm), the stud psychiatrist, did Alan (Julian Holloway, very droll) a service by laying his wife, Rosamund (Ann Bell, with her dimple at full tilt). In the second episode he was after Paula, played by Sarah Badel, and if we look closely at her performance we can see what a luxurious situation we enjoy in this country — the acting talent available is impossibly far ahead of the material it is asked to enliven.

The BBC-1 Play for Today, Land of Green Ginger, deserves a mention for its casting: Gwen Taylor and John Flanagan breathed some life into a pretty ordinary story. The event of the week was a repeat — the Jack Gold/Nicol Williamson Arturo Ui, which I am more than ever convinced is one of the greatest things ever turned out for television. Monty Python ended, on a high note: Eric Idle as Richard Attenborough shedding tears through a stirrup-pump. The high average they maintained was hard to believe.

The Observer, 21st January 1973