Essays: Coward's tinsel classic |
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Coward’s tinsel classic

‘YOU know what’s happened, don’t you?’ Richard Burton asked Sophia Loren in the retread of Brief Encounter (ATV), and for a moment I thought his flies had come undone, or that he had slipped a disc. But he went on to advance the theory that they had fallen in love.

Hull-down over the horizon, an orchestra of brass and strings loudly agreed with him. The evidence that so ill-assorted a couple must be in the grip of an insane passion had been mounting for some time. Why else would an Italian beauty queen with a wardrobe of exotic if badly chosen clothes pretend to be the humdrum wife of a British solicitor and make goo-goo eyes at a raddled Welsh thespian trying to pass himself off as a promising physician by dying his hair with black boot-polish? To clinch the matter, they had linked hands and run through a field. You have to be crazy to try a stunt like that in street-shoes. If they had kept running all the way to the airport and caught a plane to somewhere where Lew Grade couldn’t find them, it would have been a different matter.

A tinsel classic but perdurable because it so unfalteringly evokes its period, the original ‘Brief Encounter’ would be difficult to up-date even under ideal circumstances. In fact John Bowen’s adaptation was not that bad, granted that it was wise to alter the piece in any substantial way. But there is no reason to grant this, since it should have been obvious that Noel Coward’s script had no substance: the characters played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard were cartoon-like in their abstractness, while the heroine’s drear husband was merely a concept.

Bowen’s reworking altered the emphasis fatally towards realism, adding the kind of detail which made you think of alternatives instead of inevitabilities. The drear husband became watchfully taciturn instead of merely passive. As played by Jack Hedley he had small trouble being 10 times as interesting as Richard Burton. Since the hero’s wife, played by Ann Firbank, was patently 10 times as interesting as Sophia Loren, a different gloss was put on the central affair, to the extent that you wondered if perhaps the leading characters weren’t meant for each other through being so clearly not meant for anything better. Perhaps the show ought to have been about the respective spouses, starring Jack Hedley and Ann Firbank.

But no, it was about Richard Burton and Sophia Loren — and about them, rather than about the characters they were playing. Distanced from the material by their celebrity value, they had the effect of spot-lighting its thinness. What else is the morality of the piece except a tissue of melodrama about two ciphers who are thwarted from sleeping with each other by a friend coming home, and who are scared off trying again by the threat of scandal? It is an idea of right action based on fear of what people will think, and rang true when what people thought was all that mattered. Things are different now — perhaps to our loss, since everybody being conventional was certainly a more edifying spectacle than everybody being original.

Finally what undermines the whole idea of bringing ‘Brief Encounter’ up to date is the self-evident absurdity of making a love-affair dependent on the punctuality of British Rail. The trains would neither arrive in time to deliver the heroine into her lover’s arms nor depart promptly enough to save her virtue. It might have been all right for Trevor Howard to be given lines like ‘That’s my train. I must go.’ But Burton should have said: ‘My train’s been delayed three hours, darling. Isn’t it marvellous? Why don’t we book into the Rose and Crown for a quick one?’ Autres temps, autres mœures.

British Rail also starred in Panorama (BBC1). Subsidised at the rate of £1 million a day and still sinking fast, the ailing institution declared itself worried about dissatisfied customers switching their allegiance to cars. Worried, but not worried enough. It’s the little things that get you. I could stand the BR cup of tea getting dearer if the cup didn’t get smaller. I could stand the Muzak in the main-line termini. But I can’t stand the announcer at Cambridge station where I live. ‘This is Kembrardge. This is Kembrardge. We Apollo-jars to passen-jars...’ It is remarkable how completely her voice demonstrates the conviction that she should have gone to RADA.

Just as BR announcers want to be actresses, ‘Panorama’ panelists want to be sociologists. One of them drivelled to David Dimbleby about a ‘high cost fare situation’ as opposed to a ‘cheap fare situation.’ The difference between cant and jargon is that jargon is functional. BR no longer speaks the jargon of trains: it speaks the cant of situations. As always, linguistic decay is a certain sign of wrecked morale. One of the several nice things about Warship — back with us again on BBC1 — is that everybody in it speaks jargon. On its first appearance I thought this series a bit of a joke, but by now am grateful to be watching a show about people doing something difficult well, without bleating about situations. Of course it all might be a myth, and the frigate on the screen might be one of the only two the Navy possesses, but at least everyone looks and sounds purposeful. Soothing to eavesdrop on a situ... on a set-up where the distinction between innovation and novelty has been preserved. The Navy changes its equipment but keeps its procedures, aware that the little things matter.

Tomkinson’s Schooldays (BBC2), written by and featuring Mike Palin and Terry Jones, split my sides. Graybridge, a compound of Waugh’s Llannaba Castle and Beachcomber’s Narkover raised to the nth power, was the worst school in the world: prefects nailed juniors to the walls and the school bully (addressed as School Bully) was carried about in a litter. Defectors were hunted down by the school leopard. It would have been the funniest thing any of the Pythons have done since their last series, except that ‘Fawlty Towers’ is running again.

The Observer, 11th January 1976