Essays: The true artists |
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The true artists

IN HIS father’s paintings of the family, the infant Jean Renoir can he identified by his fat face. Of homely aspect, in his great masterpiece ‘La Règle du Jeu’ he cast himself as the awkward friend whose love for the beautiful lady goes unrequited.

It was typical of him to face facts. It was also typical of him that everything he touched turned to poetry. Tom Milne contributes a full obituary on Page 34, but perhaps I can start this week by observing that even when these art-princes live to a ripe old age, it is always sad when one of them leaves the world. Bemused by a constant uproar of talentless fakery, we depend on people like Renoir and Buñuel to remind us of what real creativity is like.

Magritte was such another. Even at his most abstruse he had the child-like clarity of vision which has been the unmistakable sign of the true artist throughout history. In screening David Wheatley’s cleverly reverent film on Magritte, Omnibus (BBC1) did something to haul itself out of the pit of iniquity it had thrown itself into by making programmes about such posturing bores as Hunter S. Thompson. One of the low moments of 1978 was the spectacle of the self-confident jackass Thompson pointing a cine-camera at his dreary friends and announcing that he would like to ‘play with film,’ since the full possibilities of the medium had not yet been realised. Can you imagine Jean Renoir saying anything like that?

Magritte proved that to be child-like is not to leave any of the world out, but to get the whole world in — including its erotic aspects, to which he evidently gave a lot of thought. Surrealism is an almost impossibly demanding aesthetic, since only a genius can be free without restrictions. Tiswas (ATV) is a surrealist television programme. It ought to be a flop. Happily it is quite the opposite — i.e. a thumping hit.

What keeps ‘Tiswas’ on the rails is the task it sets itself of making children laugh. Extraordinary lengths are gone to in order to achieve this aim. Buckets of water feature prominently. Anybody on the programme is liable to be hit by one at any moment. For the benefit of small viewers, there are solemn lectures on how to throw a bucket of water. There has to be a back-swing, or the water will have no momentum. There has to be a forward tilt, or the water will not come out. But the back-swing has to occur before the forward tilt, and not vice versa.

Despite the always imminent risk of being drenched, the presenters remain calm. Sally James reads an autocue as if it were the Rosetta Stone, but otherwise she can handle anything that comes along, which is lucky, because the second half of the programme is apparently written while the first half is in progress. Behind the presenters, children are crawling all over the set, sticking their heads through holes in the flats. The whole screen is so busy that it makes Multi-Coloured Swap-Shop (BBC1) look arid.

Parody figures largely. ‘And now, one of Sally James’s Almost Legendary Pop Interviews.’ Identifiable by cardboard mouths two feet across, Donny and Marie Osmond, or team members purporting to be them, suddenly appear. ‘High kids. Oh gosh willikens. Yukkee. We just love your Queen. Gum gum.’ It is taken for granted that the audience is media-wise. Sometimes it should be taken even more for granted than it is. Most of the film-clips are naked plugs for current movies that only a very stupid child would want to see. Nor is there any use pretending that the majority of the punk groups which appear on the show are anything other than unappetising.

Sylvester Stallone made an ideal guest for The Muppets (ATV). Partly because of his strange voice — all volume and no loudness, so that you still can’t hear him even when he shakes the room — Stallone is a natural comic. Overcome with admiration, Link Hogfroth loaned him some body talc. The latest instalment also featured an appearance by Otto the Automatic Entertainer, a robot Jokester rather like Max Bygraves, only with transistors instead of valves.

Vaudeville never died. It turned into the Muppets. The whole show is saturated with show-biz lore. ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen,’ cries Kermit desperately, comedy magic with Fozzie the Bear!’ Such last-gasp scraps of patter have the hollow ring of theatrical authenticity. The same applies to Fozzie’s cry for help. ‘I’m dying out here, Kermit.’ Similarly, everything the pit musicians say to each other is spot on — the words are as rich as the melodies, which is saying a lot, because nobody in the Muppet orchestra can blow a note without reminding the adult viewer of the lost days when jazz was a language, not a statement.

Virginia McKenna. playing Portia, spoke better than anybody else in Julius Caesar (BBC1), the latest instalment of the Bardathon. When there is already a good film of a Shakespeare play, half of a television director’s energy must inevitably he wasted on avoiding echoes. There was only one scene, I thought, in which Herbert Wise achieved something really fresh, instead of something that was merely not like the movie. When Caesar was about to he assassinated, Wise held Charles Gray in a steady full-length shot while the conspirators circled him, passing in and out of frame. Half out of focus, Brutus drifted close across the camera like a shark.

In all other respects the production was satisfactory at best. Keith Michell achieved some stature as Antony, but he was working hard not to call up the memory of Marlon Brando — an effort that was instantly undone when he snuck a look at the rabble he was rousing. Brando did the same thing in the movie. Something else the movie had, of course, was powerful casting for Brutus and Cassius. Of all the males in this television version, only Octavius, I thought, came close to getting it right. Which left Brutus’s wife as the noblest Roman of them all.

Panorama (BBC1) reported from the Maze prison. The heavens did not fall. It is to be hoped that the BBC and the IBA will take courage from this fact and cease being mealy-mouthed about Northern Ireland. American Short Stories (BBC2) is a good series. The latest author, John Updike, gained rather than lost by having his prose trimmed down.

John Lowe took the title from Leighton Rees in World Championship Darts (BBC1). The Colemantator was beside himself. ‘Deadly! Leighton Rees going for the jugular! Concentration and determination! What can you say?’ Meanwhile the drunks in the audience shouted helpful slogans, such as ‘Yaagh waagh NAAGH faagh!’ Lowe’s winning throw elicited from the Colemantator an utterance which should finish high up in any competition for the Dumb Line of 79. ‘There’ll be a reception in Clay Cross as if the Ayatollah Khomeini had walked into town.’

The Observer, 18th February 1979