Essays: The Britting of Rod |
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The Britting of Rod

BAD sight of the century was in TV Times: Magnus Pyke eating fried locusts. One glimpse of the relevant page was enough to kill a cow.

‘I think I can speak for both of us,’ said Britt Ekland in Rod the Mod Comes of Age* (BBC2), a profile of Rod Stewart. On the few occasions when Rod succeeded in speaking for himself, he came over as a touch more simpatico than you might have expected. But most of the time Britt spoke for both of them.

It was no contest, really. For all his vulgar pugnacity, Rod is humble at the pith. He is a good singer and nobody can be a competent artist without a capacity for self-criticism. But Britt is more image than accomplishment: she can no more stop selling herself than cease breathing. Eager to establish her status as a Star in Her Own Right, she was to be seen buckling down with ostentatious dedication to the task of rehearsing a song in which Rod did the actual singing and she contributed some kind of spoken voice-over. Her air of concentration was wonderful to behold.

The Ford-Carter debate (BBC2), screened in its entirety as a Newsday special on Sunday afternoon, was no contest either. The two contenders were all too evenly matched, neither possessing the slightest skill in dialectic. We knew that about Ford, but it was a bit of a surprise to learn it about Carter. For myself, I picked Carter as a con-man very shortly after he sprang to world prominence, simply on the linguistic evidence: anyone who uses the words ‘compassion’ and ‘love’ with such mechanical frequency is bound to be a hustler.

But Carter’s acceptance speech after winning the nomination was such a painstakingly rehearsed appeal to mob affections that one could be forgiven for thinking he was at least a con-man of exceptional skill. It was the economy of his demagogic technique that inspired awe. All he had to do was say the word ‘Welfare’ and smile, whereupon he would be cheered to the echo both by the people who were for it and the people who were against it. Here, surely, was a man destined to be President, if only because he had been built for no other purpose than to win elections.

The acceptance speech had suggested that Carter knew how to take the advice of his media-experts: he did a good job of projecting himself to the convention audience without overprojecting to the camera, and never used one of his six gestures twice running. But if he took expert advice in the debate, it was the wrong advice. He should never have tried not to smile. Carter not smiling was under as great a facial strain as Harold Wilson smiling — the muscles around his mouth were fairly twitching with the unaccustomed effort to keep his teeth covered.

Similarly, his experts should have spotted that the camera to his left, which picked up his reaction shot when Ford was talking, was low on its pedestal, so that when he looked across at Ford he seemed also to be looking up, as if in worship. It will be understood that I speak of the contenders’ contrasting media-styles only because that was the sole point at issue.

The rag-bag mini-series Summer of 76 (BBC2) continued on its stimulating course with ‘The Return of Paul Slickey,’ a profile of the Daily Mail gossip columnist Nigel Dempster. ‘My face is known,’ claimed he, all unawares that at least one viewer had never lost any sleep over being unable to tell him from Adam. On examination, however, Dempster’s appearance proved quite genial. He is vain about his hair (I shall soon have to draw up a list of all the media personalities, from Bobby Charlton and Yevtushenko through to Giscard d’Estaing and Robert Robinson, who are bent on waging doomed campaigns against baldness) but otherwise looks normal.

Dempster was keen to put himself across as an investigative journalist, even a man with a mission. But there was a dead giveaway. He kept breaking into an involuntary low-pitched snigger, like a masturbating mandrill. Thus it became apparent that his hostility to the Beautiful People was really just a frantic urge to belong, on any terms. Nor was Dempster very revealing about his methods. It took Brian Walden, MP, to observe that invasion of privacy turns out in practice to mean just what it says.

The Duchess of Duke Street (BBC1), despite some good writing, has failed to maintain its high level of drama, principally because Trotter deteriorated into a stock role. Rosa Lewis, the real-life Louisa, was a flaring snob. If the later episodes can face up to this awkward fact, the story might spring to life again. But for the moment I, Claudius (BBC2) is the series to be plugged in to. Brian Blessed doesn’t really look wise enough to be a credible Augustus — one of the few despots in all history who ever set limits to empire — but he rants something fierce, and Jack Pulman has provided a lot of good Gravesian speeches for him to rant. As for Livia, Siân Phillips is everything that could be desired, if that’s the word.

It used to be fashionable to deride the Claudius novels, but I noticed that few ever derided them without devouring them first. They are the kind of good read that makes even better television, provided the atmospherics are well handled. Here they are excellently done — especially the decor, which takes advantage of the claustrophobic reality of Roman architecture by providing a multitude of short perspectives at comparatively low cost, with not a wide open space in sight. The occasional orgy is no more Roman than a ‘Seaside Special’ with Aristarchus filling in for Tony Blackburn, but otherwise — Credite posteri. You’d better believe it.

Less credible is The Water Margin (BBC2), an incomprehensible Japanese sword opera about ancient China, dubbed by the same team of geniuses who gave you ‘Six Scenes From A Marriage.’ The voice-over is rich in quasi-Confucian profundities. ‘The ancient sages said, do not despise the snake for having so many horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon?’ Whether the ancient sages were punished for saying such things has never been made clear.

Anyway, Lin Chung, famed swordsman, has been taken prisoner by Chung Lin, feared tyrant, and imprisoned in the castle of Chung Chung. Lin Chung’s betrothed, Lin Lin, in order to spring Lin Chung from Chung Chung, offers to have a fling with Chung Lin, but Lin Chung, coming on strong, won’t hear of such a thing. Etcetera. Or as some of the dubbed voices would have it, etcetela, since whereas half the British actors involved have played it straight, the other half have gone in for what they fancy to he Japanese accents.

The lesulting soundtlack is a lich mixture of both apploaches. ‘Hwat’s or that noise?’ asks one hairy man with a sword. ‘Now that you’re in our virrage.’ says another hairy man with a sword, ‘this cores for a cereblation’ The sword-fights are the usual slow-motion trampoline routines, making up in boredom for what they lack in plausibility. Not even the sadism is convincing, which considering the quality of expert advice the Japanese must have on tap is a bit of a wonder. As the ancient sages apparently also said: ‘Better to feel winter’s wind than the tiger’s breath upon you.’

This week Clive James starts a tour of Britain on which, with Russell Davies, he will be reading his new epic poem ‘Britannia Bright’s Bewilderment in The Wilderness of Westminster’ (extracts on Page 19 of today’s OBSERVER). The tour starts at Birmingham Polytechnic on Thursday and ends at the Shaw Theatre, London. on 24 October. Kingsley Amis will he writing the television column for the next four weeks.

[ * “Rod the Mod Has Come of Age” ]

The Observer, 3rd October 1976

[ Read Britannia Bright's Bewilderment in the Wilderness of Westminster ]