Essays: From Levin to Leakey |
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From Levin to Leakey

TWO theatrical faces met nose to nose in the first of The Levin Interviews (BBC2). John Osborne’s was the face with the beard.

Levin had the black ice-cream haircut and the big questions. ‘Twenty-five years ago you looked back in anger. What do you look back in now?’ Osborne explained what he nowadays gets up to. ‘I suppose, hunting out cant. Smoking out the prigs.’ This would have sounded like cant itself if Osborne had looked more like a prig. But his transparent sincerity helped him blunt the edge of Levin’s rapturous encomiums. ‘You’re not preaching in any of your plays.’ ‘No, I’ve never been a preacher.’

‘Nobody could ever accuse you of having a cold heart,’ snapped Bernard, with the air of one hard to fool. ‘No, not my worst enemy.’ Having softened his victim up, Levin sent in a wave of questions designed to leave his interlocutor sobbing with remorse. ‘How come you hated so many members of your family so much?’ But Osborne rallied, ‘It wasn’t very difficult.’ This was an enjoyable enough interview, but Osborne talked less than Levin, who in turn talked less than sense. His questions about ultimate spiritual values might be answered by his fellow mystics, but never by artists. Meanwhile Osborne might have had plenty to say about contemporary Britain, the country in which he, Levin and the rest of us are currently leading our corporeal existence while preparing ourselves for life in the beyond.

The Making of Mankind (BBC2) is a new series about the evolution of man. As the programmes unfold we will find out how our early ancestor gradually transmogrified into the narrator, anthropologist Richard Leakey. Later on there will presumably be plenty of film and photographs. But in the early stages there is nothing much beyond the occasional fossilised footprint to go on. Umpteen million years ago one of our forebears stepped in some mud on his way to the delicatessen. Here is his foot-print, fossilised. Take a look. Take another look. Now take another look from this angle. Yes. What you’ve got there is a footprint. Time for some commentary by Richard Leakey.

Early man probably had a smallish ego, since there was not a lot of room behind his low forehead. By the time you get to Richard Leakey the sense of self has increased considerably. ‘Not just a bone to me. This is a bone of one of my ancestors. And one of your ancestors. This to me is interesting.’ Richard is not one to fight shy of first person singular personal pronouns. As far as he is concerned, something isn’t interesting enough if it’s just interesting. It has to be interesting to him. Nevertheless he had a sure-fire interesting subject. All of us are interested in hominoids. Did early hominoids have haemorrhoids? From the fossils it is hard to tell. Not even Richard can be sure what a petrified pile looks like.

The sad end came for Bread or Blood (BBC2), the best thing of its kind for a long time. The machine-breakers were hanged or transported. There was a grey stillness over the chill landscape. The whole tragedy had worked itself out with scarcely a raised voice from the actors and not a single nervous shot from the film camera, which dealt with the story as if it were a living legend. Ruth Caleb and Peter Smith were the producer and director respectively. As in all such successful collaborations it was impossible to tell who did what.

The series, if I may borrow Richard Leakey’s usage, was not just interesting, it was interesting to me. The brave men who were sent into exile after disasters like this were the same men who built the country I came from. There is some reason for a colonial to have doubts about the British Empire, but there can be no question that the mother country’s savage penal policy was lastingly beneficial. Hence the futility of quarrelling with history.

John Pilger’s Heroes (ATV) were Vietnam veterans who had been let down by their country. It was a grim tale which merited the fine fury he told it with. The one factor diminishing Pilger’s approach is your gradual realisation that fine fury is the only tone he commands. Some of the veterans were better than he was at driving home the point, perhaps because inexpressible physical suffering had taught them the occasional necessity of understatement. A paralysed vet said it was not necessarily heartwarming to find that the government which had once been able to send the battleship New Jersey to fire salvoes in support of you could not now afford to look after your shattered body. A vet without legs explained how he had accumulated $7,000 worth of parking tickets.

Lord Beeching appeared on Hindsight (BBC2) to tell us how closing down all those railway lines had been not just a good thing, but a good thing for him. ‘Got me in the public eye in a way which stood me in good stead thereafter. I was almost immediately transformed into a public figure.’ In Arms and the Man (BBC1) the actors ranted, as if they were in a large theatre. A look at Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (BBC2) might have reminded them of how much the camera sees. Brando scratched his chest when the camera was in front of him. He scratched his back when :the camera was behind him. He ate with his fingers in the sense of putting them into his mouth along with the food. But he knew that his audience was no further away than the lens. ‘I guess I strike you as bein’ the unrefined type, aargh?’ He had so much presence he gave other people absence.

Three letters have poured in asking why, after promising the week before last to say something about Nigel Williams’s play ‘Baby Talk’ I didn’t say anything about last week. The easy answer is that I had my head in the sand. The play told an uncomfortable amount of truth about the way comfortable, sensitive, middle-class people make themselves unhappy. Being sensitive, however, they realise that their unhappiness is relative, and thus feel guilty, which makes them unhappier. Nigel Williams has a special ear for catching the inflexions of the insufficiently expressed emotion. His heroine wore a Burberry scarf and really had no time for her own baby. The working-class girl next door would have made an ideal nanny, but might have fed the baby sweets and taught it the wrong accent.

Eventually the baby got beaten up by its loving mother, as the last link in a chain of logical consequence that scared you in such easy stages it was hard to switch off. The girl next door was too good to be true, but otherwise everything was well observed, right down to the baby noises. ‘Ptht!’ said the little darling. ‘Brfft! Pharth!‘ Mummy cracked up like a dream coming apart. ‘I’m sorry I’m sorry it’s all my fault.’ Meanwhile her husband was writing compassionate articles for The Guardian. Produced and directed without a point missed, the play showed something of what Nigel Williams is destined to give us in the years to come, provided he stays out of heavy traffic, Hollywood and — dare I say it — the Theatre.

The Observer, 10th May 1981