Essays: No joking matter |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

No joking matter

ON Did You See (BBC2) Kate Adie said all the right things about the soldier who had been ignited by a petrol bomb only a few feet away from her in Ireland.

Representing the clueless punters, Ludovic Kennedy asked the big question to which he already knew the small answer: why hadn’t Kate and her team dashed forward to help? Because, Kate patiently explained, their help would have been useless and unwanted. All they had was cameras and microphones, not fire extinguishers, and the Army gets impatient when amateurs interfere. Nor had the presence of her crew exacerbated the tension. The petrol bombing had been going on for three hours before she arrived.

Sincerely put by a good reporter who has had her eyebrows well singed in the cause of truth, this was convincing talk. Unfortunately it made the image of the burning man no easier to get out of your head. It will be a welcome day when the question of Ireland is far enough in the past to laugh at, but some things demand a lot of past between you and them before the pain they exude grows less alarming. My own view is that this necessary distance has not yet been established between us and the Nazi era, and that a supposedly comic series like Private Schulz (BBC2) would be an offence even if it were funny. In fact it is no funnier than a cold sore on the lip, so the point is hardly tested.

The great German historian Golo Mann has pointed out that the Nazis were opportunists: their destruction of the European Jews was not a matter of belief so much as a crime encouraged by bad literature. As cynical opportunists they were legitimate comic targets in the immediate pre-war years, when the great atrocity they were to commit was still in its first stages. But even then it took somebody as sophisticated as Ernst Lubitsch to raise an intelligent laugh, and even his wonderfully funny ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ now seems imbued with as much pathetic innocence as dry wit. Subsequent history made the laughter hollow, and Carole Lombard’s divinely frantic footsteps now echo through horrible long buildings in which ghosts still cry all night.

Anyway, ‘Private Schulz’ is full of allegedly risible SS men, whose chief function is to have rings run around them by Schulz, an amiably feckless character who has been put in charge of forging £5 notes in order to wreck the British economy, which activity was in those days thought to require the intervention of an outside agency.

The series, written by the late Jack Pulman, gains what piquancy it has from the fact that the SS did actually get up to that very trick. A straight account of it might have made an informative and even funny documentary. Drawn out as a saga about a holy fool bamboozling the wildly saluting fanatics, it goes on and on like ‘Parsifal’ but without the music, while constantly reminding you of ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ but without the humour.

But ‘Private Schulz’ is merely bad comedy, which is easy to achieve, since hardly anybody is capable of the kind of concentrated effect needed to turn reasoned agreement into laughter. People From the Forest (BBC2) was bad drama — more difficult to forgive. Drama can be devoid of inspiration and still attain a level of elementary competence, but this production, although indefatigably artsy, somehow contrived to miss out almost entirely on the dignity of its subject, which was Sakharov and his heroic witness for freedom of expression. Sakharov was played by the excellent John Shrapnel, a fine-spoken actor with a noble head who in a better dramatisation would have made memorable casting as the scientific genius at war with his own Government. Alas, this time he was also at war with the script, the production and the direction.

I am sorry to sound peevish, but Sakharov is an important man whose cause deserves a better fate than to be made tedious by clumsy help. The dramatised political documentary is a dubious tradition which had its first big efflorescence in the 1960s, when scarcely a week went by without some pundit reinterpreting the recent past in terms of his own dullness. The form featured then, as it features now, direct addresses to the camera eked out with comatose dialogue scenes, heavy-handed symbolism and creaking epic devices. ‘People From the Forest’ had all this and more, or to put it another way all this and less, because it wilfully threw away a dramatic plus which it had been handed on a plate, namely Sakharov’s brilliance.

Sakharov’s challenge to the Soviet Government went far beyond ordinary dissidence. Anybody brave enough — which means hardly anybody, but let that pass — can refuse to co-operate with tyranny. Sakharov told tyranny not only that it needed to change, but how that chance could be brought about. He told the Soviet Union that it would have to either liberalise or else forfeit its status as a first-rate power.

Solzhenitsyn’s moral condemnation of the Soviet past is comparatively easily dealt with inside the Soviet Union itself, where the Government controls the flow of information. But Sakharov’s analysis of the Soviet future presents the regime with a real problem, since it becomes clearer all the time that he is right. This issue is of such towering historical significance that you would have thought it unlikely to be disregarded in a programme devoted to Sakharov’s intellectual and moral stature. You would have been wrong.

Barry Norman on Broadway (BBC1) did what its title said. Barry amiably manifested a good deal of obviously well-justified scepticism about the Great White Way’s pretensions. Right Royal Company (BBC1) was so reverent about the Royal Ballet that you would have been excused for thinking it had never had a flop. Nevertheless the show made entrancing viewing, and not just because of the pretty girls. I warm to ballet as my joints grow stiffer. By the time arthritis arrives I will probably be collecting old books by Arnold Haskell.

Personal Pleasures (BBC2) features Sir Hugh Casson in some of the most adroit pieces to camera I have ever heard. Grand Prix (BBC2) showed us a fine old shambles in Belgium, where the race was started while a mechanic was still on the track. A racing car scythed him down. ‘That was the most terrible thing,’ said James Hunt accurately. ‘I hold the organisers responsible for total incompetence.’

The Belgian camera zoomed in to show the stricken mechanic lying there in convulsions, caused by the fact that the front wing of the car had smashed both his legs low down. ‘Crass irresponsibility performed by an idiot,’ James added. His well-chosen words were too late to retrieve the starter’s blunder. Nor could they soothe the mechanic. But they did something to make the viewer feel less reprehensibly detached.

The Observer, 24th May 1981
[ A shorter version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]