Essays: Taking it below the chin |
[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]

Taking it below the chin

HARRY CARPENTER was your commentator as BBC1 threw a grappling iron up to the satellite and hooked itself into the World Heavyweight Championship — otherwise known, in Harry’s mortal words, as ‘Ten Million Dollars-Worth of Violence.’

In so far as I could understand Ali’s dazzling new technique, it consisted of lying so far back in the ropes that Foreman couldn’t reach to hit him in the head without (a) climbing out along his body, or (b) leaving the ring, hiring a ladder, and slugging him from the other direction. Any punishment directed below the chin (and several roundhouse punches seemed to be aimed at Ali’s knee) was absorbed mainly on the arms, a manoeuvre made possible solely by the challenger’s extraordinary reflexes.

Meanwhile Ali worked on Foreman’s eyes with a left jab still fast enough to pluck a humming-bird. Nothing as exciting as this had been seen in what Harry called ‘the Dark Continent’ since the Siege of Rorke’s Drift. The old man (32) was wearing down the youngster (25, and 40 wins in 40 fights, few of them longer than four rounds) by letting him clobber him! Gawd.

With Harry’s hyperbole miraculously lived up to by the action, Ali drained Foreman dry in eight rounds, dumped him on the canvas, and smoothly capped the act with a 110-decibel follow-up number — a Ciceronian rigmarole of contempt aimed at his critics, accompanied by impassioned exhortations to the faithful. ‘Go to your Muslim temple,’ he yelled, seeming momentarily to run out of ideas, but from camera-left, with shrill cries of ‘Super, Muhammad!’ there irrupted the straight-man of Ali’s dreams — David Frost, fresh from his triumphs at Snake River Canyon, where he had farewelled Evel Knievel (a louder mouth than Ali and a lot less charming) on his short flight to safety. With Frost as a feed-man, Ali was inspired to embark on a thunderous discussion of his own prowess, and the kind of money it would need to lure his perfect beauty back to the square ring. Another $10 million were being mentioned as the ambulance men pressed an ice bag to Harry Carpenter’s forehead and the titles rolled.

In Leeds — United! (BBC1), a fine new documentary play by Colin Welland, the sum in contention was an extra shilling an hour on the tiny wages of the Leeds clothing workers. In 1970, 30,000 of them struck for that amount, and, as the play records, they didn’t get it. This two-hour programme has been four years in the works, and presumably there were delays in finding it a slot. since, if it had gone out before an election the Tories would have screamed blue murder. Last week, with some Labour heavy doing his censorious routine, was just the right time. I need hardly add that while it retains the capacity to commission and screen a play as serious as this, the BBC is in a solid moral position, and would be justified in asking for the licence fee to he doubled.

Personal circumstances dictated that I should see the play at a preview, which I don’t like doing, since free sandwiches fog the judgment. Two scenes were screened out of synch, the houselights went on and off at 30-second intervals throughout, and Mr Welland, who was sitting just in front of me, sank into his seat with his hands over his eyes until only his knees were showing. He had no need to worry. The show had the elemental force of first-generation political dramas like ‘October’ or ‘Kameradschaft’ — there was no way of being distracted from it.

The opening sequence set the tone, ably combining the humanist touch with the analytical glance. As the girls left for work on the early morning buses, their company contracts were read out in plummy tones on voice-over. ‘The company has no contractual pension arrangements covering your employment.’ Which meant that you work for half a century and they scrap you.

In the factories at one minute to eight there was the lull before the barrage. Then the clamour started and the action started with it. Po-faced union men lost the sympathy of the workers. A Communist led the workers out, then ratted on them — he was interested in an abstract revolution in the future, not a concrete one here and now. The masters gathered on the golf course for some Hooray-Henry dialogue on the subject of cheating the swine back to work, Some of the women found themselves, some of them lost themselves, as the strike dragged on. Finally, collapse. A difficult play to summarise, since it was already a summary — of a complicated historical moment.

Welland’s great merit is that he can work with precision in poster colours, sacrificing subtlety while retaining delicacy: his people can talk slogans at one another and still sound human. Except for some members of the Welland rep company it was hard to tell the professional actors from the amateurs. Production/direction (Kenith Trodd/Roy Battersby) solved the logistical problems with seeming ease.

Made necessary by lack of funds. BBC2’s ‘Globe Theatre’ season of imported plays oversubscribed its norms by starting with a superlative NBC production of The Country Girl. This was in every way superior to the 1954 film version, in which Bing Crosby, although acting well enough, favoured us with some supererogatory songs; and the future Princess Grace of Monaco, by rubbing some dirt on her nose and climbing into a dowdy cardigan, swanned off with the very Oscar which Judy Garland knocked herself out to win in ‘A Star is Born.’ Here Bing’s part was taken by Jason Robards, who has 10 times the range. The wife’s role was given to Shirley Knight, and she was beyond praise, reading Clifford Odets’s dialogue as the planed-down, shapely stuff it so often is. ‘The Country Girl’ is a melodrama. So is most of Odets. But as the impurities of his plays become self-evident, their qualities become obvious too.

I never liked The Pallisers (BBC2) very much, but am unbitchily glad to see that the final episodes have been made and screened — it would have been a pity to leave the thing hung up. Glencora has succumbed to senility at the advanced age of what appears to be 23, and Planty Pal, with his shtrange shpeech impediment, has had good cause to lament his shon Shilverbridge’s shtupidity. On Thames the chintz-opera Jennie goes from strength to strength. A two-parter on Schoenberg is half over on BBC2. The so-called easy music was last week. The hard stuff is tonight. Gripping, but for my own part I’m still only halfway through Haydn’s Opus 76 quartets. Omnibus (BBC1) did an utter bummer on Conrad. Aquarius (LWT) did better with Augustus John.

The Observer, 3rd November 1974