Essays: St Vitus's gospel |
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St Vitus’s gospel

‘It could be argued,’ argued Kenneth Griffith while fronting his programme A Famous Journey (Thames), ‘that I am out of my mind.’ But viewers familiar with Kenneth’s mannerism knew that he was merely being intense.

During the course of his career as a maker of documentaries, this compact but variously gifted Welsh actor has been intense about such figures as Napoleon and Cecil Rhodes. Now he was after even bigger game — Jesus Christ. Retracing the journey of the Magi, Kenneth landed in Iran. Immediately he was thrown out. As usual Kenneth interpreted this rejection as an Establishment plot. Kenneth is convinced that the Establishment, everywhere, is out to get him, stifle his voice, ban his programmes, etc. ‘I certainly have automatic high velocity RIFLES!’ he shouted sarcastically.

Nothing daunted, Kenneth joined the Magi’s trail at another point. Ruins of ancient cities trembled in the heat. A stage Welshman darting abruptly out of doorways, Kenneth blended obtrusively into the scenery. He has a high visibility factor, mainly because he is incapable of either just standing there when he is standing there or just walking when he is walking. Standing there, he drops into a crouch, feet splayed, arms loosely gesticulating, eyes popping, teeth bared in a vulpine snarl. Walking, he makes sudden appearances over the tops of small hills.

Kenneth can ask you the time in a way that makes you wonder how he would play Richard III, so it can be imagined that when discussing Jesus he was seldom guilty of underplaying a scene. ‘Jesus,’ he whimpered, ramming his hands deep into his pockets and staring sideways into the camera, ‘was ... a Jew.’ In possession of this and much similar knowledge that the Establishment would like to ban, Kenneth kept moving through the desert, aiming the occasional slow karate chop at a rock. ‘Of course all truth,’ he confided to the camera and a surrounding mountain range, ‘is dangerous to all Establishments.’ But even while saying this he was positioning himself on top of a particularly inviting mountain.

Kenneth’s version of the Sermon on the Mount was delivered to all points of the compass. Spinning, jerking, ducking and weaving, he made you realise just how it was that Jesus attracted so much attention. As the son of a Nazarene carpenter Jesus would have remained unknown. It was by carrying on like a balding Taff actor with St Vitus’s dance that he got his message across. ‘Blessed are the MEEK!’ shrieked Kenneth, climaxing a programme to which I unhesitatingly award, for the second time in the history of this column, that most rarely conferred of all television trophies, the Tin Bum of Rangoon.

The rules for appearing on television are all don’ts. The first thing you don’t do is project. A close-up makes the performer’s head about the same size as it would be in real life, so he should use no more emphasis and gesture than it takes to make a point across a small living room. As Kenneth Griffith has inadvertently proved, it you talk any louder than that you instantly become inaudible, while every meaningful gesture simply renders your message more meaningless.

On television the spectacular wide shot yields rapidly diminishing returns. The television version of Trevor Nunn’s production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was an important event because it concentrated on close-ups and suggested the scenery. In all television productions of classic drama which have since been mounted, good can be divided from bad according to whether or not they learned that lesson. Most of the productions in the BBC’s Bardathon have at least half-learned it, and so attained the level, if not of inspiration, then of reasonably satisfactory humdrum. There has so far been no attempt to equal, for instance, the Brian Large production of Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’, an earlier and very strong contender for the Tin Bum.

Henry IV, Part 2 (BBC2) was like the previous week’s ‘Henry IV, Part 1.’ It was never worse than dull and at its best gave you a straightforward presentation of the characters in their full complexity, with no tricks of interpretation. In other words, the writing was allowed to do most of the work. The actors delivered it the same way it had been composed, as blank verse. Playing Hal, David Gwillim had the advantage of a face out of a Renaissance portrait, but more importantly he had an ear for rhythm. When Hal becomes the King his words put on gravity as surely as his shoulders put on ermine. Reading out what’s there is not the only thing an actor must do, but it’s certainly the first thing, and Gwillim did it well. ‘How ill white hairs become a fool and jester.’ Falstaff (a quietly excellent impersonation by Anthony Quayle) was crushed.

As for the second part of the South Bank Show (LWT) devoted to the RSC’s technique of verse-speaking, it continued the gripping story unfolded in the first part, but did not always carry conviction. Ian McKellen gave a thoughtful account of how he prepared his rendition of ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ in ‘Macbeth.’ The number and subtlety of the points he set himself to bring out stunned the mind. But the finished product, though worthy of respect, was intelligible as everything except verse.

It was notable, in this respect, that Alan Howard, preparing one of Achilles’s speeches in ‘Troilus and Cressida,’ carefully rejected most of the advice he was given and concentrated on picking out the driving impulse of the verse, which thereupon yielded up its meaning of its own accord — the exact effect Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote it that way in the first place.

On World of Sport (LWT) American trucks slowly raced while the commentators flogged excitement into the proceedings by saying things like ‘Some race!’ Variations on this theme were ‘Talk about racing! Talk about your wheel to wheel!’ and ‘Really driving those trucks!’ The man who won leaned out of his cab to say, ‘I just thank the good Lord that we were able to pull this thing off.’ Another truck, in which the good Lord was evidently less interested, fell apart.

This year’s instalment of the World Disco Dancing Championship (Thames) was better value. Not even the zombie commentating of David Hamilton and Pete Gordeno (‘How about that!’ ‘Fantastic!’ ‘Something else!’ etc.) could blunt the excitement. Setsuo Yamakuni, a Hiroshima car-parts salesman with interests in the martial arts, represented Japan. He favoured suicidal dives over his own right shoulder. Lydia Loo from Malaysia was almost as interesting as her name. But Julie Brown of the UK very properly took first prize.

Lynn Seymour was among the judges and must have been patriotically delighted by Julie’s inventive energy. Wearing pants sticking out at the side as if she had winged thighs, Julie bounced around doing kill-a-bee kicks in double-time and looking as if she was about to burst with joy. You would have had to be dead not to be thrilled to bits by her.

Not to be confused with Kenneth Griffith, the hero of Robinson’s Travels (BBC1) reached Simla. Robert Robinson is an observant traveller with a lot of confidence. Not even India can baffle him, but I must confess that even after two episodes of his programme, and three episodes of Before the Monsoon (ATV), it was still baffling the hell out of me.

The Observer, 23rd December 1979
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]