Essays: Keeping the weenies quiet |
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Keeping the weenies quiet

BAD SIGHT of the month has been Donny Osmond delivering ‘The Twelfth of Never’ on Top of the Pops (BBC-1). There’s nothing eerier than hearing the old hits of Johnny Mathis and other schlock illuminati of the fifties re-emerging as the raw material of this ghastly new movement, trainer-pants rock.

Nothing eerier than hearing it, and nothing nastier than seeing it. The styrofoam features of the Osmond siblings put another turn on the screw already driven flush with the outer limit of pain by the unutterably lovely Marc Bolan, who now finds himself slightly outdated (his fans are out of trainer-pants) but who nevertheless, or perhaps consequently, swans through his own ‘Top of the Pops’ spot with undiminished fervour and monotony.

Camera technique with Bolan consists of cranking up the star-filters and catching every delicious highlight given off by the sequins appliquéd to the area where his eyeballs would be if they were not cutely hidden behind dense hedges of mascara-sodden lashes. With Osmond the gimmickry is more hieratic, as befits his beatitude: his milk-fed outlines are surrounded by a nimbus and corporeally repeated all over the screen, like a chow-line of bacteria queueing up to infect a narrow wound.

Despite this superabundance of stimulus, the weeny-boppers present in the studio remain sedate, manifesting no disturbing characteristics apart from the usual evidence of gliosis and the occurrence — on the third seven-year-old from the left — of a staggering pair of breasts. The somnolence, however, would undoubtedly be replaced by frenzy if Donny were there in person instead of on videotape. Suspecting his adored presence in Television Centre recently, a weeny assault squad on round-the-clock alert apparently bounced over the riot-fence, using the tops of Minis as trampolines, and rampaged through the labyrinthine corridors covering everything with regurgitated Farex.

Granada’s ‘Playhouse’ presentation was written by Brian Clark and called Operation Magic Carpet. Taruna (Karan David) is an East African Indian telling a fib to get into Britain and join her parents. Catching her in the lie, the Heathrow immigration officers are obliged by the regulations to send her back. There’s an appeal, conducted by an adviser (authoritatively played by Rowena Cooper) and listened to by a patently impartial judge. It fails, and as the titles roll we see Taruna heading back to nowhere.

That’s the play in bare outline. What made it a superlative piece of drama was the sensitivity of its fine detail, from Brian Clark’s accurately tuned writing all the way to the invisibly brilliant camera technique of June Howson, who provided a chastening object lesson in how to send the zoom lenses on a set of EMI 2001/1s sidling through groups of actors to settle in fine focus on a chosen face doing a delicately interiorised — and therefore properly directed — piece of acting. It was class like this from all concerned that helped you forget the deck was stacked. The immigration officers were uniformly nice, helping to make the point that these little tragedies happen out of kismet and not bastardry. Taruna was beautiful, thereby defeating our expectation that beauty is always to be forgiven. If she had been less lovely, however, the play would have had to work harder to make us feel the tragedy — a deeper expectation and well worth defeating, but here merely dodged.

No, it was a manufactured piece, even if exceptionally well put together. What stuck in the mind was the sense of being at a still point, banishment from which would inevitably involve you in travelling on a world-sized circle until you got back again. One family sat in a corner resting from having been around the planet twice in the previous week. Soon, perhaps, the pregnant wife would be far enough gone to be granted entry on compassionate grounds. The name of this place was the Detention Suite.

Sequels are rarely as strong as the originals, but Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC-1) is currently breaking the rule. The lines are acted out with engaging clumsiness by Rodney Bewes as Bob and James Bolam as Terry. With his large featureless head, Bob is the perfect visual complement for Terry, who has a small set of headless features: the chums can fluff, miss cues and just plain forget without even once looking like strangers to each other. But it’s the writing that stars: Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais are plainly having a wonderful time raiding their own memories. Rilke once said that no true poet minds going to jail, since it leaves him alone to plunder his treasure-house. Writing this series must be the next best thing to being slung in the chokey.

Back from the forces, Terry has spent the last couple of months trying to pull birds. Bob, however, is on the verge of the ultimate step with the dreaded Thelma, and last week felt obliged to get rid of his boyhood encumbrances. Out of old tea-chests came the golden stuff: Dinky toys, Rupert and Picturegoer Annuals, all the frisson-inducing junk that Thelma would never let weigh down the shelf-units. ‘I need these for reference,’ whined Bob, with his arms full of cardboard-covered books. There were Buddy Holly 78s — never called singles in those days, as Terry observed with the fanatical pedantry typical of the show. Obviously Bob will have a terrible time with Thelma.

Just as obviously his friendship with Terry will never cease: Damon and Pythias, Castor and Pollux, perhaps even Butch and Sundance, but never — not in a million years — Alias Smith and Jones (BBC-2), which is typical American TV in that the buddies have no past.

Rapidly, these. My Father Hokusai (Mainichi Broadcasting System, pp BBC-2) was an appropriately worshipping wrap-up of one of the greatest artists who has ever lived, but the surroundings were more Run Run Shaw than Ozu or Mizoguchi. Rattan wall-hangings strobed fiercely, and the stylised geography looked like ordinary studio tat. Equally worshipping was Bryan Forbes’s special on Edith Evans (Thames), which succeeded in remaining watchable despite being well-nigh unhinged with showbiz gemütlichkeit. ‘I can’t see meself dead,’ Dame Edith said as the credits came up, and she might just be the one who beats the system.

Much as I hate to say it the frightful Whicker has been bringing some good stuff back from a place called Whicker’s South Seas (Yorkshire). Last week he was in Auckland, evoked by its mayor as the Babylon of the South: riding naked from the waist up beside Whicker in the back of a limousine, the mayor looked pretty interesting himself. Of two sisters interviewed, one had been driven bonkers by the insensitivity of New Zealand men and the other liked the idea of the blokes having ‘proved themselves on the rugby field.’ The mayor offered Whicker some phone numbers.

The Observer, 11th March 1973

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]