Essays: Supercharged Suffragettes |
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Supercharged Suffragettes

CONSIDERING the hurricanes of preliminary hoopla laid on to announce the advent of a lemon like The Pallisers, the new series about the Suffragettes (Shoulder to Shoulder, BBC2) got no advance publicity at all. It is, however, likely to be a sensation.

One’s expectations, insofar as they had been inflamed at all, were slightly dire. A solitary two-minute trailer a few days previously had assembled some of the show’s guiding lights in order to give us a run-down on what was in store. There was Verity Lambert (producer), Georgia Brown (who is to play a principal role in next week’s episode, as Annie Kenny) and Midge McKenzie (script editor). Midge was wearing her famous hat and Georgia talked about going through changes. Neither of these things increased my confidence that anything profound would he forthcoming. But when, finally, the show itself got rolling, the whole picture changed completely.

In the first place, the programme had news value. Most of us are approximately aware of what the Suffragettes accomplished, but in the ordinary course of events it is only the specialist in that period who knows who they were. So there was the fascination of finding out how the movement’s leading spirits established their first contact with one another in a society where only men were truly mobile. On top of that there was the ready-made drama provided by the Pankhursts, who were shown to be as different in character as they were united in purpose. Then, supercharging the whole business, was a marvellous sense of fight.

A recurring theme in this column, amounting by now to a litany, has been my spellbound thanksgiving for the range and quality of the actresses available for television. Here, for once, we have an opportunity to see a whole bunch of them working on material worthy of their talents. Thrilled to bits by the historic nature of the names they have been asked to incarnate, the girls are coming on like gangbusters. The Pankhursts are a splendid collection of strong-jawed faces. Eva Gore-Booth looks like a caryatid shop-steward on the Erektheon. The great names introduce themselves to one another with flashing eyes.

‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ is a medium budget job at the most, with not much money to spend on re-creating the finer visual details of its period. But it has caught the spirit of the thing. Whether the impetus can be kept up remains to be seen. The movement is the true heroine and the characters are only incidental, a fact which might make, as we proceed, for strong instruction but weak drama. At the moment, however, it’s possible to welcome the show for being unexpected, jumping with content and dripping with talent. In such a context of equality and team-work it would be insensitive of me to single out any one actress. It would also smack of sexism. For these reasons I am unable to mention Angela Down’s performance as Sylvia Pankhurst, or declare my continuing gratitude for her dedication as an artist.

Pompidou’s incipiently death-dealing illness having been the worst kept secret of the past year, it was a singular if grim diversion to find BBC News Extra frantically improvising an obituary on the night he became one with the immortals. The newsreader, who shall be nameless, was caught with his autocue down, and had awkward recourse to a hastily prepared script which sounded like the kind of thing produced at short notice by a Researcher, which is the Beeb’s name for anybody who can find his way to and from the cuttings library without using a ball of twine. Normally you’d expect the obit of a top-echelon politician to be ready-made on a roll of Ampex and all set to go, but here was a case when the faceless efficiency of the Corporation showed an engaging propensity to cock up. It never hurts, I think, for a corporate image to come unstuck.

The FBI’s came unstuck decades ago, so by now even Midweek — not usually remarkable for its radical stance — can take it for granted that Hoover’s insanely over-classified outfit spent most of its time and a lot of the public’s hard-earned money chasing wild geese. Meanwhile, organised crime, which the FBI had been formed to combat in the first place, was eating a corner out of the nation’s economy. Hoover did more damage to the Constitution of the United States than all the country’s radicals put together, yet such was his prestige that not even a President could dislodge him. ‘Midweek’ failed to quote Lyndon Johnson’s classic admission of why he didn’t dare fire Hoover (‘I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in’), but it couldn’t help drawing a convincingly frightening picture of the FBI’s grotesque and self-perpetuating giganticism.

The current chief of the outfit sounded like a Jonathan Winters character and had the grip on the English language we have come to expect from this administration’s appointees. He denied the existence of political files. There might be collections of papers in manila envelopes, but those weren’t files. If papers came your way, you had to keep them. What else could you do with them, destroy them? And the best way to keep them was to group them together under the subject or name concerned. But you couldn’t call that a file. ‘We do not have the capability of deciding what should be kept and what should be thrown away,’ he insisted. An epitaph for a civilisation.

Meanwhile, in the Bundesrepublik, Philpott (BBC2) was on the prowl. His subject city for this week was Stuttgart, where the cars come from. Apparently they call it the Money Garden, and you could see why. The screen was casket-rich with the deep-rubbed paint-jobs of Porsche sports cars purring down the belt while highly trained mechanics crooned over them adoringly. Regiments of skilled men all motivated like astronauts put themselves over assault courses to tune up for more work. Tool-makers are so in love with their products they don’t want the sales force to sell them. ‘You have the word... perfection?’ a young millionaire asked Philpott. Philpott, abashed, looked ready to admit that we had the word all right, but had perhaps lost the thing to which it applied. There was at least one serpent in the money garden, however. All the donkey-work is done by foreign labourers, who might not go on for ever content to be treated like donkeys. Another awkward aspect, which has emerged since the programme was made, is that the bottom has fallen out of the car market.

A World About Us called ‘The Year of the Green Centre’ (BBC2) showed what wonders rain has wrought in Australia’s dead heart. My small daughter thought the wild life was great, but was a trifle choked not to see any pictures of something called a Spangled Grunter. It’s a bit much to be told that something called a Spangled Grunter exists and then not be shown it.

The Observer, 7th April 1974