Essays: Champagne and subtlety |
[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]

Champagne and subtlety

WOULD that I were gifted like Bernard Levin. Fain would I praise Penelope Wilton in The Norman Conquests (Thames), calling her performance a mixture of moonbeams, caviar, champagne and — what was it? — monosodium glutamate. Alas, I am limited to the English language.

The other ladies were good too. So were the men, on the whole. If Tom Conti was still mannered, he was at least less so than in ‘The Glittering Prizes,’ where his performance was greeted with such enthusiasm that he won’t mind my saying his abundance of nervous energy strongly recalled the famous Hollywood starlet who would have been a nymphomaniac if only they could have quietened her down.

Gratuitous rhapsodies about actresses are usually the first sign that a critic is going potty. But it is one thing to drool over beauty, and another to give a measured appreciation of technical subtlety. Well then, Penelope Wilton is very subtle, always letting the camera come to find her. Only a few young actresses, and very few young actors, are capable of such repose.

Francesca Annis, another subtle actress, was the unbalanced lady laboratory technician in Stronger than the Sun (BBC2), a ‘Play for Today’ written by Stephen Poliakoff and directed by Michael Apted. Working wonders of emotional analysis with a text which never really knew what it was up to, Miss Annis and Tom Bell (her equally concerned lover) gave you something to think about. They were the play within the play. The play itself was all about our nuclear future. It was a worthy effort, but most of the issues it attempted to raise were left lower than before.

This is not to say that Mr Poliakoff is the same sort of obscurantist as some of his contemporaries. Indeed his confusion on political matters is encouragingly different from their certitude. He delivers confident lectures, but negative capability creeps in. He starts off to instruct us about the imminent annihilation of mankind by fast-breeder reactors, and about how scientists should protest against such a thing. Then he finds himself getting interested in what would happen if one of the protesting scientists turned out to be a little bit nuts.

One viewer, at least, has never been in doubt that the fast-breeder reactor will be a catastrophe for Britain. My scientific training is about on a par with Mr Poliakoff’s, but I am a keen enough student of the history of technology to know that the fast-breeder is in clear breach of Finagle’s First Law of Engineering, which states that if anything can go wrong, it will. One’s sense of justice revolts, however, when a young playwright, or even an old playwright, dolls himself up as an oracle.

In soothsayer’s attire, Mr Poliakoff felt himself entitled to fudge a scene whenever thinking it through would have been inconvenient to his thesis. He couldn’t be consistent even within his own terms: his heroine discovered that all the operations in the plant were monitored by television and then heisted the plutonium without bothering about being spotted. Even Francesca Annis couldn’t make sense of such an anomaly.

Nor could Michael Apted, who did a good job as far as the script allowed him, matching the author’s bleak enthusiasm for the poetry of crud. Poliakoff is good at the awfulness of works canteens and cardboard boxes full of horrible fried food. Apted is good at screwing a long lens on to the camera and capturing a depth-squeezed landscape of industrial blah. The two of them got together nicely, up to a point — the point where the ideas ran out.

Mr Apted once announced that he read critics only for entertainment, since they could tell him nothing about his craft. It should have occurred to him that it wasn’t the critic’s job to tell him about his craft, which he had clearly mastered down to the last sprocket. It was the critic’s job to test his creations against life.

Even the best directors would like to avoid that test if they could. So would even the best writers. People would rather judge themselves. Such is the unspoken wish underlying the brouhaha currently being kicked up by John Osborne and his mafia of militant playwrights. Correctly identifying most theatre critics as abject hacks, they neglect to mention that most playwrights are similarly devoid of competence. Only a handful of playwrights can actually write.

Alan Bennett, who is definitely one of them, gave us A Little Outing (BBC2), directed by ex-cameraman Brian Tufano. Speaking a northern version of English which to my ear was so regional it was practically dialect, a working class family went to visit Granddad at the Residential Home. Hardly anything happened except the old man peeing himself, whereat his son, known as Dad, reminded his family that they, too, would end this way.

Here was familiar ground for Bennett — he has already ploughed this field and now he is going over it with a rake. But the finer his touch gets, the more detail he comes up with. His vision of death is as terrifying as Philip Larkin’s. It is not a view of life I share, but you would have to be a chucklehead not to admire the way Bennett handles it. It was only a temperamental quirk, then, that made me want to celebrate the end of the programme by rushing down into the Underground and biting a piece out of the third rail.

‘Across the Andes’ ** was the latest instalment of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns (BBC2). Like previous episodes it sort of half worked. ‘Murder at Moorstone House,’ the latest yarn but one, was the best to date, but foundered through trying to take ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ a step too far. Even when the script falters, though, Palin is still funny in himself. He has an eye for the absurdity of traditional British costume. He crossed the Andes in pith helmet, safari jacket, Sam Browne belt, shorts and puttees: a garb as impeccable as it was useless.

The ‘Lively Arts’ presentation of Fidelio (Unitel-BBC2) was just about the best television production of an opera I have ever seen — forceful and tactful at the same time. The composition and selection of shots in the ensemble singing was marvellously appropriate. Karl Böhm conducted. The producer — let his name be praised and work studied — was Gustav-Rudolf Sellner.

The Observer, 23rd October 1977

[ ** “Across the Andes by Frog” ; “Murder at Moorstones Manor” ]