Essays: Wet lips |
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Wet lips

‘YOU were tired, that’s all,’ said Mrs Perrin consolingly. Reginald Perrin, hero of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC1), lay glumly beside her, having failed to rise.

Impotence, paranoia, inadequacy, Weltschmerz — the troubles haunting Reginald are real enough. Yet he is an exceptionally diverting comic creation. His show is written by David Nobbs and comes in seven episodes, of which two have already been screened. I tried to resist the first one, mainly because there is nothing fresh in the idea of a harried mediocrity seeing his wishes fulfilled in fantasy: from Walter Mitty through to Billy Liar and beyond, the line stretches on. When Reginald is stimulated by his wife with the word ‘mother’ he visualises a trotting hippopotamus. Amusing enough, but if that were the whole show it would not be much.

There is, however, much else in addition: after two episodes I was hooked through the stomach. First of all, Reginald is played by Leonard Rossiter, an actor who can bring life to anything. (He almost succeeded in bringing life to ‘Barry Lyndon,’ a creation to which the term ‘moving picture’ could only very loosely be applied.) There is a good deal of saliva in Rossiter’s acting. He is a wet lip actor. (Actors divide into wet lip and dry lip. There are all kinds of other subdivisions too: Mexican heavies, for example, divide into good teeth and bad teeth. But more of that on some other occasion.) He spits, pops his eyes, flares his nostrils, and generally comports himself like a crazy ugly. I still haven’t worked out why he is funny, but he is.

As with Basil Fawlty, much of Reginald’s aggro is directed at himself. He hates his job as a marketing executive. He is bored limp by his wife and family. Yet he rarely neglects to blame himself for what is happening to him. ‘I’m a failure. Everything I plan’s a failure.’ He states these things as axioms. Reginald, like Basil, is being eaten up by his own bile — he doesn’t just disgust himself, he digests himself.

Jack Rosenthal’s back-to-the-roots play Bar Mitzvah Boy (BBC1) was likewise far from dull, although finally it didn’t have the wild suggestiveness of some other Rosenthal inventions. The English Jewish family couldn’t help being like a Philip Roth Jewish family, because Jewish culture is international. But equally you couldn’t help feeling that you had seen some of this before.

There was a Jewish mother (‘My son Eliot, he gets bar mitzvah tomorrow’), weepily portrayed by Maria Charles. There was a Jewish father (Bernard Spear) who said things like: ‘Can’t be more than five minutes since I bought him a scooter for being vaccinated,’ to which his wife replied: ‘That was Lesley.’ Lesley being the daughter, the deepest role in the play, delicately brought alive by Adrienne Posta. (‘Delicately’ is an adverb I had never thought to use of Miss Posta.)

And there was Eliot himself, who plot-wise was a bit of a problem, since it was hard for the camera to get inside his mind. He ran away from his bar mitzvah, explaining to his sister later on that if his father and grandfather were men, he didn’t want to become one. This was a good point, but we would have profited from knowing more about the interior workings of his rebellion. Like Alexander Portnoy he hid behind the closed door of his tiny room. But we didn’t find out what he got up to in there, apart from playing with model aeroplanes and dreaming of Pan’s People. So the central character was a bit of a cipher.

Luckily one of the ciphers was so rounded out he almost became a central character. This was Lesley’s suitor, Harold, played by Jonathan Lynn. His protruding top lip permanently trembling with anxiety, he strove to curry favour by washing up. Nobody noticed him at work except Eliot, who found Harold just another good reason for not becoming a man. Harold got into trouble with Lesley for apologising. When he said he was sorry for apologising, he got into trouble again. ‘Don’t apologise, Harold.’ ‘Sorry.’ ‘HAROLD!’

A Panorama (BBC1) on the Cruise Missile had a strange moment of humour in amongst all the doomy information. It having been established that the Cruise could deliver a punch equivalent to 15 Hiroshima bombs, Tom Mangold asked one of the technicians behind the weapon: ‘What effect would that have on the city of London?’ The technician said: ‘Well, it could ruin someone’s entire day.’

Other participants were easier to mock, being less well armoured with wit. Elmo Zumwalt, the strangely named ex-US Navy Chief of Operations, did his usual James Cagney act. A salesman for the missile, asked whether the thing could be brought back once it had been sent off, talked opaquely about ‘dialogue capability,’ which apparently meant that you could talk to the missile, but it wouldn’t necessarily listen, since there was only ‘a certain amount of recall capability.’ He signed off by saying, ‘I would not like to comment on someone else’s war scenario.’

Made for French television and screened by BBC2 as a mega-obit for the dead Chinese supremo, The Rise of Mao Tsetung took most of an evening to wind by. Judging from internal evidence, the programme was designed to be screened on two separate evenings. Crammed into one, it taxed the attention, despite being full of extraordinary footage.

There was film of Sun Yat-sen’s rebellion against the Manchus; of the War Lords conducting their pointless battles; of Sun Yat-sen’s catafalque palanquin swaying through the streets of Shanghai; of Shanghai in the riots of 1927; of tortures, mutilations and executions. The delectable Chiang Kai-shek, surely high up on the list of Great Bastards of All Time, figured largely, moving from disaster to disaster with unruffled inscrutability, the poisonous Madame Chiang forever at his side. Her sinister fur coats were a recurring visual theme. It wasn’t hard to see why the old order — the old disorder — had to go.

‘Tibet suddenly became the centre of controversy’ was the commentary’s way of saying that China invaded Tibet. The programme took a rosy view of Mao’s China, but didn’t need to tell any lies about the continuous stupidity of American policy in Asia. It never worked and was self-defeating even from the viewpoint of economic imperialism. If Roosevelt had listened to the Dixie Mission there might be Kentucky Fried Chicken and Almonds parlours all over China today.

The Observer, 19th September 1976