Essays: Hail to the Hall |
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Hail to the Hall

JUBILEE fever infected the entire population. On It’s A Knock-Out (BBC1) Stuart Hall had it like rabies.

Fronting the show on location at St Albans, Stuart naturally dressed himself up as a Roman emperor, with toga and laurel wreath. The costume got to him. As the contestants desperately grappled with their Sisyphean tasks, sepulchral voice-overs were heard to emanate from Stuart, whose qualifications appear to include a gift for Shakespearean pastiche. ‘Fly to the tribunes!’ he intoned. He referred to ‘the agony of carrying water-filled balloons.’ For years I have been misjudging Stuart Hall. He is not an obnoxious pest. He is a national treasure, like Eddie Waring, whom he greets with many a jubilant cry of ‘Oh no! It’s Eddie!’

Provided the events are so foolish that nobody normal could seriously care who wins, ‘Knock-Out’ makes wonderful television. There was a period when the format threatened to kill itself off by turning into the kind of serious competition which people start training for. The Germans, in particular, began fielding teams of suspiciously well-muscled ladies whose shorts bulged in strange places. But lately the emphasis, in this country at any rate, has swung back to where it began, and undignified involvement with ridiculous props is once again the rule. The Tweedles are a big hit. There is no keeping your aplomb inside a Tweedle costume. Why people should be so keen to lose it is another question, which I don’t presume to answer.

Something of the ‘Knock-Out’ spirit carried over to Royal Windsor Big-Top, one of several large entertainments which the Beeb laid on specifically for the delectation of the Royal Family. Actually this consisted largely of Billy Smart”s circus transferred to the grounds of Windsor Castle, with Bruce Forsyth to link the numbers. Famous telly faces eked out the compilation, which worked surprisingly well, considering the distance by which the circus performers outclassed the famous telly faces.

Already familiar to circus fans, the Veterans once again put in a crazed appearance. They are a Swedish team of clown vaulters who get everything wrong, at terrifying speed. One of them is dressed as a cavalry officer. The Flying Terrells were also there: three girls who look like Playboy centrefolds and who can actually do the kind of trapeze act that Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis only pretended to. One of the girls can even throw the triple somersault — a notorious crippler which in the course of circus history has reduced several great male fliers to the status of roustabout. An even sexier act was provided by Judy Merton, who ties herself into knots at high altitude. Why the Royal Family was supposed to be interested in these Freudian mid-air fantasies remained a conundrum, but all in all it was a real nice night’s entertainment, as Edna Everage’s friend Sandy Stone might put it. Edna was there, looking fully as regal as the Queen.

For The Queen’s Silver Jubilee Gala (BBC1) I took my courage in both hands and deserted the television set in order to see what the reality looked like. Covent Garden was packed to the rafters with grand ladies, their tiaras nailed to their heads. The performance could not hope to be as fascinating as the audience, but had its moments. Placido Domingo gave us a taste of his forthcoming Otello. It was apparent that while Otello had been visiting Cyprus, Desdemona had been visiting the refrigerator.

In the ballet half of the programme Ashton’s ‘Hamlet Prelude’ was the main event. On this showing, any attempt to body forth Hamlet’s troubled mind must necessarily demand more physical expressiveness than even Nureyev possesses. In compensation, however, Fonteyn’s Ophelia was the revelation of the gala. Her movements were so sweetly young, I’m bound to say she threw me for a loop.

At the end of the evening the Queen’s face betrayed an overwhelming urge to be somewhere else — at the Derby, for example. Perhaps she looked different to you: you were closer. What a strange country it is that contains, in one society, the Queen, Margot Fonteyn, Bruce Forsyth and Eddie Waring. But it would be a bold thinker indeed who could convince himself that things would be better if ordered differently. It struck me, as I applauded the Queen, that if the monarchy did not exist I would have been applauding Mr Callaghan — a much less enticing prospect.

Yet there was a time when only radical solutions seemed possible, even to the kind-hearted. That, at any rate, was the assumption behind Granada’s excellent Philby, Burgess and Maclean. The three traitors were given the benefit of the doubt and presumed to be fundamentally serious types. Actually there is no problem about fitting this interpretation to Philby, who was obviously a formidable character, but on Burgess and Maclean it sits less well.

It was a tribute to the script and the acting that these two weaklings were made to suggest some kind of underlying strength. Michael Culver as Maclean came apart at his well-cut seams in messy fashion, but the implication was not entirely implausible that he was being unmanned by concern for the world, and not just a yen for the bottle. As for Burgess, Derek Jacobi got his proverbial flakiness exactly. You could practically smell the Camembert between his toes.

But the spine of the show was the characterisation of Philby. Anthony Bate made him look and sound as durable as a concrete pill-box. The stutter was just camouflage. Not even the insidious interrogator Skardon (David Markham — another spot-on performance) could shake him. You were left with the impression that there was some excuse for the first-rate minds of British Intelligence being fooled for so long. As it happens, there are good reasons for thinking this impression false, and that the first-rate minds were really second-rate at best. The programme did not leave itself room to tackle the questions raised by the awkward fact that Philby was left free to work his wiles for a further eight years after being rumbled. The old-boy circuit seems to have gone on looking after its own. As Skardon insinuated, ‘curious how it keeps coming back to Cambridge.’

In City of Dreams (ATV) the subject was Oxford. Hugh Lloyd-Jones and A. L. Rowse did their statutory zany number, while Francis Warner was shown rehearsing one of his plays, in which undergraduettes are persuaded to take off their clothes. Here was reason enough for despairing of an entire culture. What chance has a society which puts up with such poltroonery got against, say, the Chinese, who in The World About Us (BBC2) were to be seen cramming 19 of their number on to the peak of Everest? ‘Be resolute! Fear no sacrifice! Surmount difficulties!’ they cried. ‘Ardent hopes steel our determination! Just wait for tidings of our success! Now we march onward with steady strides!’ Ecstatic angels on the head of a pin, they left even Stuart Hall sounding apathetic.

The Observer, 5th June 1977