Essays: Rugby-watcher's sob-story |
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Rugby-watcher’s sob-story

IT was a week of mystery, rugby, sex and delinquency. But above all it was a week of mystery. And the first mystery was: with tube-time more precious than radium, what did BBC1 think it was doing trying to peddle those diabolical old Abbott and Costello movies?

And the second mystery was: how does a sketch as old as the one about the innumerate accountant get passed for performance even on the drear Frost’s Weekly (BBC1)? That number has got a beard on it like a Chinese warlord. Has somebody pinched it and flogged it, or has the guy who originally wrote it succeeded in flogging it twice? Those were the mysteries which preoccupied Holmes as he gazed mesmerised at the luminous invention.

But as well as a week of mystery, it was a week of rugby. Rugby Special (BBC2), while not as consistently vivid as ‘Match of the Day’ or ‘The Big Match,’ can leave both for dead when the right contest is on the screen. This time it was Wales versus Scotland, and although the connoisseur might have deplored a certain sameness in the tactics, for the ordinary viewer — in this case, the notorious stand-off half for Sydney Technical’s third-grade side, ‘Wrong Way’ James — the show was a stunner. The Welsh passed the ball with haunting fluency along their back line, in a desperate effort to send somebody down the wing before the Scots forwards got across to (a) throw him into the crowd, (b) bury him. From both Gerald Davies and Gareth Edwards — but especially from Edwards — there were pace-changes and body-swerves off either foot that had the Scots interceptors grasping armfuls of atmosphere and brought the viewer sobbing to his knees. Rugby can be beautiful to watch, and has a tradition of literate commentating that usually makes it quite bearable to hear as well. It could be boom-time.

Helping to reinforce this impression were two plays about rugby, Dummy Run and Up and Under, both on BBC2. ‘Dummy Run,’ by Edward Alexander, was a fair-to-middling effort. The members of a famous Wales team reconvene every year to tell the television people how they scored a legendary try that beat England. This year the man who actually grounded the ball threatens to blow the gaff: unbeknownst to all at the time, the ball was dead before he hoisted it across the line.

It was the lbsenesque situation about the saving lie — his truth-telling bade fair to wreck a dozen lives. But while dissuading him from his folly, his team-mates came in for a tongue-lashing from the hero, who had failed in life but could see that their success was founded on that one, false moment. The characters of his colleagues were too easily analysed for verisimilitude, but the situation was interesting in itself. Finally they talked him out of it (‘If we kill our childhood there’s nothing left to lean on,’ etc.), and he once more faced the cameras to help perpetuate the big fib.

Alas, ‘Up and Under,’ a ‘Sporting Scenes’ episode, was not so good. A reasonable plot-line, but the dialogue was edgeless, and I went back to the clash between Columbo (Thames) and The Changeling, BBC1’s Play of the Month. Columbo is the most watchable of the scruffy, dedicated cops who tend to get popular during those periods, like the present one, when a nation flatters itself that it is being remorseful about its own past greed. Reluctantly I tuned him out, staying with ‘The Changeling’ until the bitter end, even though its inadequacies had overwhelmed it from the first scene.

When Middleton’s text spends so much time and rhetoric establishing that De Flores has a head like a burst carbuncle, it was tiresome to note that this vital element of the play’s texture had been represented by two small, rather attractive scars on Stanley Baker’s left cheek. The play’s adventurousness, such as it is, consists in showing the fair Beatrice-Joanna contracting an insatiable case of the hots for someone she loathes the sight of. It is essential, surely, that De Flores should look horrible. Stanley Baker does not look horrible. He looks fierce, like a Welsh rugby forward, but in the context of the play there is nothing unattractive about that.

Helen Mirren made up her lips in a way we have by now come to realise is characteristic (i.e., by sucking a wooden spoon laden with raspberry jam), teased her hair into a wild blonde tangle at either side of her head, and set off on a tour of the family palazzo, propping herself at intervals against the architecture in order to be overcome with lust — a condition conveyed by allowing her eyelids to acquire a heavy post-coital droop, while simultaneously applying a generous tremolo to the top lip. She is a very good, larky actress who can nip about in the English language like a rabbit through a ripe crop, but there was little she could do with the role. As Isabella, Susan Penhaligon lived up to her advance billing by uncorking a seductive screen personality. A sexy show all round, but silly.

But it wasn’t just a week of mystery, rugby and sex: it was a week of delinquency. In the last but one episode of Within These Walls (LWT) Googie Withers’s son brought home a girl called Sally. As chief screw in a women’s clink, Googie knows a lot about life, but even she is stunned when she learns that this privileged child may have been ‘smoking reefers’ to ‘get a kick.’ Inevitably, Sally gets slung into Googie’s chokey. Googie, with that intuitive command of psychology that makes her so lovable, has already deduced that Sally defies society merely in order to gain attention from her neglectful father. A heroin addict ravaged by withdrawal symptoms is cleverly put into Sally’s cell, and Sally soon sees the error of her ways.

Anti-drugs myself, I can’t see how such complacent piety can mount an effective counter-argument. The vision of normality being presented — Googie bustles home from work just in time to hear a few dinner-time platitudes from her husband who manufactures steel tubing (for prison bars?) — strikes me as a more than sufficient reason for staying coked until your nose falls off.

Good sight of the week was the railway shunter in Horizon (BBC2) who had enrolled in the Open University and with the help of a dictionary set out on the long trek to learning. As a clandestine watcher of the OU science programmes, I’m keen on the whole project. But the arts programmes aren’t as good, and when you heard one of their producers interviewed you found out why. ‘I’m not interested,’ she said, ‘in other concepts of good television except ours.’ Crap, lady. Bad sight of the week was in The World About Us (BBC2): vampire bats smiling blood.

The Observer, 27th January 1974