Essays: Sound of Julie |
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Sound of Julie

AS USUAL, most of the Christmas humour on television was no funnier than a boil in the nose. On the other hand there were some diverting films on offer, chief among which was The Sound of Music (BBC1), the famous epic about an Austrian singing family who sang even the Nazis into submission.

It appears from the titles that the film was made ‘with the partial use of ideas by George Hurdalek.’ The film stars Julie Andrews as a drop-out nun. Presumably George Hurdalek’s original idea was that she should be a drop-out nun with webbed feet, but they used only part of it. ‘Underneath her wimple she has curlers in her hair,’ sing the other nuns, shaking their heads with amused compassion. This is a partial use of George Hurdalek’s original idea, in which she was to have a whole hairdryer under her wimple, with a cable plugged into the refectory wall.

‘How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?’ sing the nuns with quizzical adoration, all unaware that the audience is singing a different question, to wit: is the Mother Superior being played by Charles Bronson? Finally Julie packs her bag and splits, joining up with Christopher Plummer, who impersonates a widowed noble naval captain with seven children — a partial use of George Hurdalek’s original idea, in which the same character was to he a widowed noble naval captain, juggler and organic chemist with 28 children and a string of polo ponies.

‘The sky was so blew today,’ overenunciates Julie, sick with love. Christopher loves her in return, but he is plagued by the attentions of Eleanor Parker, who has nothing to offer him except wealth, breeding, wit and stunning beauty. Meanwhile his eldest daughter, Diesel, or is it Liesel, is petting heavily in the pergola with a singing postman. And here come the Nazis! How to escape? Improvising brilliantly, Julie and Christopher get married, enter the children in the Salzburg Festival, and walk to Switzerland under cover of the applause.

This is a partial use of an original idea by George Hurdalek, in which they were to walk to Stalingrad, surround the entire German army, and accept the surrender of General von Paulus.

The writing credits for El Cid (BBC1) can be searched in vain for the name of George Hurdalek. Indeed it is not clear that the film was written by anyone at all. Even on the small screen the whole thing looks terrific. Cheston Heston, or Charlton Harlton, was never more handsome. Sophia Loren was never more lovely. Battle scenes were never more clangorously gripping. But the dialogue is mainly heraldic. Indeed as the heroes and the heavies bash dents in each other’s armour it becomes steadily clearer that in those days the job of herald was the one to have.

‘Do you, El Cid, champion of King Ferdinand, vow to take on Don Hernando the Homicidal and defeat him only after receiving multiple blows to your helm from the wide range of blunt instruments at his disposal?’ ‘I so vow.’ ‘And do you, Don Hernando, the extremely heavy champion of King Calvados, vow to get yourself hacked to pieces by El Cid’s sword after first suffering a severe case of mace in the face?’ ‘I also so vow.’ ‘Then fight each other, but not before I have retired to the sidelines. For know you that I am an herald, which traditionally is a cushy number.’

A few of the other big films were worth watching. The French Connection (BBC1) has stayed good, and Charade (ITV) is simply the best film Hitchcock never made. But most of the other big films were enough to make the brandy butter go cold in your stomach. Both The Battle of the Bulge (ITV) and Custer (BBC2) might have been calculated to bury Robert Shaw’s memory beyond hope of recovery, although the first-mentioned film has an unforgettable scene in which the Nazis decide that the war is lost, when they capture an American Christmas cake. This is a partial use of an original idea by George Hurdalek, in which they capture Santa Claus.

Diamonds are Forever (ITV) is a Bond film even less inspired than the average — a real hair-in-the-nose, rented tuxedo effort scripted by the kind of writers who don’t know they are mixing a metaphor when they ask an actor to say ‘the next link in the pipeline.’ Would they give a chain valves?

Big bad movies would have made Christmas a wilderness if it had not been for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. As far as films went, their late-night appearances on BBC2 constituted the blessing of the season. Even a weak picture like Carefree had the incredible golf-tee routine, while Swing Time, the miracle of the series, lifted the heart right back up from the pit into which ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ had sunk it.

One or two of the light entertainment shows actually succeeded in being entertaining. Morecambe and Wise (Thames) had a big ratings success. Something like four-fifths of the nation thought they were wonderful. Indeed they are, but in moving to ITV they have lost the benefits of the BBC’s production know-how and limitless back-up facilities. To the critical eye they were on thin ice. Routines tended to be only half thought out.

Morecambe and Wise’s ace-in-the-hole was Harold Wilson. The man has no shame. All you could do was blush for him. How could a comedian of his stature ever have lowered himself to the point of appearing in the House of Commons? Like all great clowns, Wilson clings to his established wardrobe. He has never made the mistake of cleaning up his image. He goes on and on wearing those short socks, so that the camera can get a clear shot at that winning expanse of white shin.

For an example of what the Beeb’s production values can do to enhance mediocre material, there was, or were, The Two Ronnies (BBC1). Ronnie Barker had a very good news number, full of information to help make the Common Market more confusing. ‘Here is a graph. Here is another graph. Here is the first graph upside down.’ But generally the show’s level of verbal invention was somewhere between pun and innuendo, with words like ‘commitments’ being employed to mean ‘balls.’

Yet the glossy pace of the production never faltered. The last number was one of the musical parodies in which the Ronnies have consistently set a high standard. The subject matter this time was rock ’n’ roll. There was nothing patronising about the treatment. This was a labour of love, with sensationally good lyrics, wild costumes for the Ronnies, and dancing straight out of an Alan Freed exploitation picture.

The most enjoyable programme of the season was This Is Your Life (Thames) with Muhammad Ali. When Ali twigged what was happening, he had a look of puzzled disgust, as if he were being shown a photograph of an elk’s behind. But he soon got into the spirit of the thing. Family, friends, associates and professional opponents all turned up to hail his greatness.

The marvellous thing was that they were obviously right. Ali really is a great man. If any more proof were still needed, it was forthcoming at the end of the show, when a barely comprehensible filmed message from the stricken Joe Louis was screened in the studio.

Ali has made sure that what happened to the Brown Bomber could never happen to him. It would have been easy for him to look angry, whether at the former champion’s wrecked life or at the producer’s sheer bad taste in screening such a tragic piece of film. But he kept his counsel, thereby revealing signs of a late-flowering wish to change the world by humane example rather than hatred. In the season when we are supposed to celebrate the birthday of someone else who wanted roughly the same thing, it was thus a black athlete who did most to make the small screen bulk large.

The Observer, 31st December 1978

[ An excerpt from this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]