Essays: Santa and the Seed |
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Santa and the Seed

IF SANTA was wondering what entertainment he was missing out on as he pursued his annual giant slalom through the television aerials, the answer was that he wasn’t missing much. When all you’ve got to watch on Christmas Eve is The Tamarind Seed (Thames) you might as well be driving reindeer.

'The Tamarind Seed' was ITV’s big movie on the magic night, playing opposite The Go-Between (BBC1), a Pinter-Losey collaboration of no small merit, but which I had seen already. Presumably Santa had too, but he had something else to do with his time. The rest of us had to settle for Julie Andrews, Omar Sharif, and whatever was signified by the said seed. Very believably playing an English secretary, Julie fell for Omar, who had been cast as a Russian spy because there was no role available as a date-picker.

Every day of the festive season the channels attempted to clobber each other with old movies. It was the viewer who ended up stunned, especially if he had seen them all before. Some of them, especially the Gene Kelly musicals, gained from a second or third viewing. Cleopatra (BBC2) was spread over two days, like a small golf tournament. The first half of the film once again revealed itself to be pretty good, mainly because Rex Harrison is highly credible as Julius Caesar and the part is well written. The second half revealed itself to be even worse than one remembered, there being nothing except Richard Burton’s concussed Mark Antony to distract your attention from what Elizabeth Taylor gets up to in her doomed attempt to incarnate the title-role.

There was more Rome in Ben-Hur (Thames), an epic film which people tend to think of as a chariot race wrapped in miles of spare celluloid, but which has in fact a lot to offer the discerning viewer. Ben-Hur’s mother and sister become lepers. Ben himself does time as a galley slave. Eyeing the muscular Ben as he toils at the oar, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) is plainly boiling with suppressed lust. Is Quint a queer quaestor? Perhaps he is a poofter praetor, soon to become a camp consul. ‘Hail Jupider!’ cries Stephen Boyd, who is either playing a particularly bad Roman or else playing a Roman particularly badly. Rather than stick around for any more of this, Jesus takes the easy way out.

Richard Burton was back again in Where Eagles Dare (BBC1). So were the Romans, although this time they were dressed as SS officers. They had no chance against Richard. Playing a British spy dressed up as a German officer, he added to the confusion by sporting a page-boy hairstyle and giving his usual impersonation of a Welsh rugby forward who has just been told that he has been dropped from the team. Thus disguised, he was able to slip through the German lines, accompanied only by Clint Eastwood, Mary Ure and Miss Ure’s hairstylist. This last interloper wasn’t actually visible, but must have been there somewhere, since the lady’s coiffure remained in tip-top condition even when the Germans, recovering from their amazement at Burton’s appearance, started throwing grenades.

Leaving their fair companion at the beauty parlour down in the village, Richard and Clint hailed a passing cable-car and rode up to the castle in which Cleopatra and Ben-Hur were incarcerated. Could they complete their mission before the Germans forced Julie Andrews to tell them the secret of the tamarind seed? Clint shot everyone except Richard with a silenced pistol. Fighting their way back through several divisions of the German Army, our two heroes had the advantage of being equipped with real ammunition, whereas the Germans, apparently, had made the mistake of issuing their men with blanks.

Though at first it might appear to be an ordinary story about a luxury liner turning upside down and killing all its passengers except a handful of actors, The Poseidon Adventure (BBC1) has a solid connection with Christmas. The actors climb a Christmas tree in order to reach the floor of the inverted ballroom. I watched the film all over again just to count the number of times that Gene Hackman assisted the girl with the pretty behind by holding her hand, putting a protective arm around her shoulders, firmly gripping her waist, or all three simultaneously. He copped 1,247 separate feels.

Staying natural takes effort. In a way it is to the Beatles’ credit that they became less and less bearable on screen. To stay as sweet as they were would have taken a great deal of artifice. Instead they did the honest thing and gave way to the Sixties fashion for self-discovery, ending up with selves no more interesting than anybody else’s. The before-and-after effect was cruelly on show during the Christmas season, since the BBC screened all the Beatles films right through to Let It Be (BBC2). The first films bubbled with high spirits and good songs. The last was a sullen, portentous compendium dogged by the baleful presence of Yoko Ono.

But not every programme was a movie. My Fair Lady (BBC2) should not have stopped the alert viewer watching The Knowledge (Thames), a play by Jack Rosenthal about what taxi-drivers have to learn before they get their badge. What they have to learn is London. It drives some of them crazy. I know this because some of them have driven me crazy telling me about it. Nigel Hawthorne did a bravura number as the examiner who quizzed would-be drivers on the Knowledge, testing their nerve by laughing hysterically during their answers, while doing violent calisthenics with an inhaler jammed up his nose. Jonathan Lynn, Maureen Lipman and other members of Rosenthal’s salt-beef stock company were also present. Some of the acting was nearly as unsubtle as some of the writing but the thing worked.

Christmas with Eric and Ernie (Thames) was opposite the Beeb’s blockbuster Christmas Day movie The Sting (BBC1), but it was well worth watching, even though they did little that was new. David Frost interviewed them. Obviously Frost’s aim is to speak a language equally unintelligible on both sides of the Atlantic, but for the moment it is possible to understand him, especially if your wits are as quick as Eric’s. There was an old ATV clip showing Eric and Ernie in full dance — a laugh a second. Des O’Connor turned up to receive the benefit of his usual million pounds’ worth of free publicity. Getting goosed by Eric and Ernie is the best thing that ever happened to him and he is smart enough to be grateful.

On The Dick Cavett Magic Show (BBC2) Cavett introduced his voluptuous girl assistant as Retired Rear Admiral Harvey S. Beeswanger, USN, master of disguise. Interviewed by Parkinson (BBC1), Tommy Cooper was still distraught after losing £200 on a horse. (He backed the horse at twenty to one and it came in at twenty past four.)

Cooper also made an appearance on This Is Your Life (Thames), helping pay tribute to Eric Sykes. Cooper made an entrance that showed every sign of going on all night. Sykes feigned apprehension while Spike Milligan wept with laughter in the wings. It was a gathering of the giants, among whom Eamonn stood bemused, nervously clutching his book. For a few minutes there was enough good will about to make it feel like Christmas.

The Observer, 30th December 1979
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]