Essays: The Great Weariness bogy |
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The Great Weariness bogy

ON Film 72 (BBC-2) Frederic Raphael interviewed Jane Arden, recently responsible for a flick called ‘The Other Side of the Underneath.’ As Miss Arden rabbited relentlessly on about the invisible world, the normally eloquent Mr Raphael could be seen, by those keeping a careful watch, to have made a separate peace. Into his eyes crept the Great Weariness, which in laboratory conditions can be produced by forcing an intelligent man to watch model cars racing for nine hours.

Primarily conducive of ennui in these concentrations is the phenomenon of recycled experiences within a predetermined range: to the extent that this salient condition is fulfilled, even tragedy can produce the effect. Take, for example, The Price of Violence, which was Tuesday’s documentary on BBC-1. This should have been terrifying, and in fact was. It also aroused uncontrollable waves of boredom. Revulsion and boredom are thus demonstrably not mutually exclusive.

When the Americans attacked along the north side of the autobahn in the battle of the Teutoburger Wald in 1945 they ran into anti-tank units composed of boys 12 years old. Since then the world has never run out of child soldiers. A couple of weeks ago, on Panorama, we saw hundreds of them attending fanaticism classes in the Arab countries. In ‘The Price of Violence’ they turned up again, an enchantingly loquacious Dennis-the-Menace type explaining how he and his mates in Ulster dashed through the middle of a battle to salvage rubber bullets (floggable for five quid to German and American TV reporters), interspersing this activity with bouts of high-intensity stone-throwing at the English troops. Corrupted children, like terrorism and torture, are an inescapable by-product of the situation in Ireland: of how much use is it to shed a tear?

Similarly with the maimed ladies who movingly argued that the bombers should be made to look their victims in the face: isn’t it better simply to confess one’s sad impatience that these heart-rending victims should have missed the point — which is that a sense of outrage, unfairness and disgust is precisely what terrorism aims to cause? Tony Broughton produced this programme, presumably with the taste of vomit in his mouth. He did a good job, but couldn’t have been expected to make the material interesting. It lies beyond the interesting, in the area where the man forced to look at it becomes too tired to sleep.

Having watched both parts of Felix Greene’s One Man’s China (BBC-1), I now find myself subject to the falling sickness — known in the east as the Great Dive Forward On To One Ear. My psychiatrists, Dr Weisskranz of Düsseldorf and Dr Düsseldorf of Chicago inform me that the malady is mainly due to a Great Weariness consequent on perceiving the programme’s close resemblance to the Webbs’ long-forgotten ‘Soviet Communism — A new Civilisation?’ As the people’s T-54’s roared across the people’s training-ground while the people’s infantry shot the bejesus out of the people’s pop-up targets, the viewer couldn’t help wondering about the extent and ferocity of the repressive apparatus that kept the people’s will ticking over with the enthusiastic unanimity Mr Greene so obviously admired.

As with the encomiums brought home from Russia, however, the Heat were not in evidence — and again the natural conclusion is that they don’t exist. A further tiresome factor here was the point-for-point resemblance between the Chinese workers’ discussion groups (‘Should we plant early?’) and corresponding symposia in the early Soviet documentaries by Dziga-Vertov. The tedium, I hasten to add, doesn’t spring from the spectacle of workers speaking their piece. It springs from the fact that in the Russian documentaries the spectacle of them speaking their piece was so precise an inversion of the actuality, in which they got their heads blown off for uttering a word.

It’s to be hoped that Alistair Cooke’s America (BBC-2) will be more multi-faceted than Mr Green’s China: certainly Cooke has more time and money at his disposal. The first episode retraced Cooke’s first steps in America, when H. L. Mencken was still the Baltimore oracle and the piano players in the New Orleans sportin’ houses were turning out the music Cooke still loves best. Plainly this series will be a characteristically elegant, painstakingly barbered job. Unfortunately, one also expects it to exhibit the patrician irascibility which has disfigured Cooke’s radio and newspaper reporting in recent years — years in which Cooke has been decreasingly ready to forgive young Americans for rubbishing the land he adores. Still, perhaps it won’t: it’s always a mistake to start experiencing the Great Weariness in advance.

Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent was on BBC-2, in an accomplished production by Stockton YMCA. The programme could well start a Fry revival, although it’s unlikely that the brouhaha will ever again rise to its initial level, when the revival of theatrical blank verse shone through the post-war austerity like the stars on Lady Docker’s Daimler. Nowadays the poetry sounds fatally clever, but the two leading players generated a pulsing head of erotic steam, to the point where one became convinced that Stockton must be the place where they let it all hang down.

On BBC-1 there was a marvellously depressing contemporary play called Better Than the Movies, written by John Elliot with the same poster-colours once employed to slap up mene, mene, tekel, upharsin on that other fellow’s parlour wall. This time the condemned man was an ex-working-class businessman incapable of grasping financial realities, the message being that his energy and hatred were no substitute for the ability to read a balance sheet. About to leap Into the cot with his best friend’s wife, he helped her fold the chenille bedspread and spread out a blanket specially brought along for boffing purposes. The emphasis on cleanliness was an inspired touch. By the end of the show, though, you wondered how he got his antiseptic luxury together in the first place, no matter how flush the times and eager his beavering. As he crashed in a welter of writs and was buried by a document from Lord Hailsham, the viewer found himself furiously occupied with relating this poor, doomed schmuck’s problems to his own.

On Mastermind (BBC-1) Dr Edgar Ernstbrunner, a research chemist, chose chemistry as a subject and did quite well. Another surprise this week was to discover BBC-1’s Nine O’Clock News being delivered by two men, bringing it into line with ITV’s News at Ten. Next step will be a two-man weather report with a bloke at each end of the pointer.

The Observer, 19th November 1972