Essays: Undying Hope |
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Undying Hope

ON Nationwide (BBC1) there was an oriental skipping expert who could triple-skip non-stop for 6 hr 12 min. His skipping rope made such a noise that I didn’t quite catch his name. It was something like Hwan Dum Man.

Hwan came fully equipped with an English manager, who did the talking. ‘He skips 170 different ways.’ Hwan then showed us all 170 different ways one after the other. Shrieking like a high wind through a television aerial, the rope moved so fast that it was invisible. What if it wasn’t there? The whole thing might be an elaborate con. But no: here came some slow-motion to show that the rope really did go around five times while Hwan was up in the air with his legs tied in a reef knot.

Marcus Aurelius was not the first to suggest that there is a decent time to make an exit from public life. Entertainers, unfortunately, have always been apt to stick around long after the appropriate moment. Having grown used to being loved for what they do, they end up imagining that they are loved for themselves, and so feel impelled to carry on out of a duty to their public. Thus egotism and altruism are fatally compounded, giving off a gas which corrodes the entertainer’s reputation as fast as it goes to his head, while the critical onlooker falls unconscious.

None of the above paragraph, of course, applies to Bob Hope at the London Palladium (ATV). Apart from having a bit less memory to be thankful for, he is just as good now as he ever was. But there is no need to go overboard about how good that is. Standing up and delivering one-liners that somebody else has written takes more nerve, but less skill, than might appear. Of all the comic forms it is the most limited. The comedian who never gets beyond wisecracks is bound to stunt his own growth.

That was how Hope appeared on this show: a stunted giant. It is less easy to describe Richard Burton, who flew all the way from Mexico in order to help Hope be less funny. Working together with the practised ease of two Scottish football supporters in a revolving door, they delivered the kind of patter which only those with their brains eaten away by fame can imagine they are getting away with. ‘Don’t forget, Bob, London is still talking about all your triumphs too. I mean ...’ ‘You know, Richard ...’ ‘Seriously Bob ...’ The biggest joke of all was supposed to be when Burton quoted scraps of Shakespeare, thus emphasising that the man doing all this slumming was really an actor of unquestioned stature. The inevitable comparison was with John Barrymore in his cups.

Hope spent most of the evening introducing the supporting acts, thereby illustrating the principle that in the final stages of fame you no longer have to do very much of whatever it was that made you famous in the first place. Leslie Uggams, who is not quite that famous yet, actually did some singing and dancing. (It is notable that Diana Ross, a comparably beautiful and talented black entertainer, is more famous than Miss Uggams and therefore nowadays spends the best part of her act talking instead of singing.) Raquel Welch was also among Hope’s guests. She is the exception to the rule I have just outlined. By now she is famous enough to do nothing. Instead, she gives us her all.

Raquel was involved in a lengthy comic routine which required that she should pretend to sing and dance very badly. This she accomplished with ease. The trouble started when she reappeared in propria persona and tried to convince us that she can sing and dance very well. Thousands of pounds’ worth of feathers, each plume plucked from the fundament of a fleeing flamingo, could not disguise the fact that she sings like a duck. As for her beautiful body, she has taught it to move in time, but the whole strenuous effort has been a triumph of determination over an invisible pair of diving boots. Hope looked on proudly. He had got what he came for, whatever that is.

Envious of The Word (ITV), the Beeb has imported a blockbuster American serial of its own. Called Centennial, it is adapted form a novel by James A. Michener and is destined to run for months on BBC1. In the early stages a fur trapper came splashing out of the untamed wilds in order to pitch hairy woo at Raymond Burr’s daughter, played by the marvellous Sally Kellerman. ‘If you survive de Indians,’ said the trapper, describing life in the unknown, ‘dere are de animals.’ Miss Kellerman did her best to look lovelorn. What a comic actress of her stature was doing in an epic bore like this was a conundrum best left ravelled.

Crime and Punishment (BBC2) is better value than ‘Centennial,’ although it need not necessarily have been so. Television can add psychological depth to writing like Michener’s. From writing like Dostoyevsky’s it can only take it away. On the page, Raskolnikov’s face does not reveal much. On the screen it belongs to John Hurt and it reveals everything. His performance is a brilliant job of exteriorising interior turmoil. He is as expressive as the décor, which evokes Old St Petersburg in all its teeming squalor. But the dialogue, by the late Jack Pullman, is necessarily flat, simply because dialogue can do only so much.

Half of the South Bank Show (LWT) was devoted to the painter Allen Jones, whose tastes, you will recall, run to ladies with their toes crammed into high-heeled shoes. It transpired that in weighing down and screwing up his anonymous lovelies with shackles, manacles, chains and rubber knickers, Jones is merely exploring a ‘new possibility for restating the figure.’ These were the artist’s own words. He had several hundred more just like them. He was passionately insistent that ‘the lengths you have to go to in order to get a pure response ... are extreme.’

What a pure response might happen to be was not defined. Presumably it is an unequivocal willingness to be stunned by the paintings of Allen Jones. I admire his dedication but can give only an impure response. As the author of the only Pirelli calendar that nobody bothered to look at twice, Mr Jones should realise that his females are competing for attention, not against other images, but against real females, and that this is a fight they are bound (if you will forgive the pun) to lose.

For England v Scotland (BBC1) the chief Colemantator was David Coleman himself. ‘The experienced international mind of Jock Stein’ was only one of the pearls that spilled from his experienced international mouth. ‘The whole pitch surrounded by Scottish flags and Scottish supporters. Where have the English gone?’ Home, if they had any sense. David defined the ‘Scottish task’ as ‘to find Joe Jordan, with his power in the air.’ Those with memories of Ally’s Army might have imagined that this mysterious power in the air had evaporated for good, but David is not one to let go of a bad idea just because it has been done to death,

The Observer, 3rd June 1979

[ An incomplete version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]