Essays: Wishing you welcome |
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Wishing you welcome

SINCE Dennis Potter, in his New Statesman TV column, frequently evinces a loathing for yours truly which it would be pusillanimous not to reciprocate, it gives me some pain to announce that his four-part adaptation of Angus Wilson’s Late Call (BBC2) was really rather fine.

One had allowed the thing to slide by in the hope that it would work its own way to oblivion, but finally the leading actors were too good to ignore — a fact logically consequent on Potter’s success in giving them opportunities too good to miss. Michael Bryant’s umbrageous Harold (‘I shall intervene from the floor!’) and Leslie Dwyer’s very dreadful Arthur were character portrayals of superb flakiness — charmless to the roots. As Sylvia, the third triumvir, Dandy Nichols drew upon rich inner reserves of niceness: she was the earth-sweetie, a madonna flanked by creeps.

The near-subliminal, Resnais-style flashbacks to her terror-stricken childhood worked well, gradually but not tediously preparing us for the moment in the last episode when she admitted that her father used to beat her bloody. That Sylvia could emerge from such an upbringing and still be Dandy Nichols was the neo-Dickensian message Wilson-Potter was obliged to convince us of without recourse to sentimentality. There was some ropey playing from the younger actors, but the project remained intact. Dudley Simpson’s music — Satie and soda — was just right.

Most of the music in the Eurovision Song Contest (BBC1) was quite the opposite, and need not detain us long. This year’s host nation being Sweden, our own and fabulous Katie Boyle was replaced, in the role of interlingual chatelaine, by Karin Falck. For fans of the majestic Katie this was a clear loss. Nothing against Karin, whose scattiness was disarming enough, but for a fandango like this you need someone in command whose poise is a study in itself.

‘Happy to wish you very welcome,’ said Karin in fluent Martian. Pete Murray’s voice-over informed us that ‘certain countries with political problems have been set apart in special hotels. So you can imagine it is all fun and frolic here at St. Eriksmässan Alvsjö.’ If you couldn’t imagine, the first song on the bill was a copper-bottomed certainty to help you out. The Dutch entry, and fated to emerge the winner, it was called ‘Ding-Dinge-Dong,’ was performed under the baton of one Harry van Hoof, and required, according to Pete, no explanation, since it is going to be sung in English.’

By my dazed reckoning, seven entries were sung in English. All seven (including ours, a pale echo of the Beatles noisily put across by the Shadows) were nakedly aimed at the anonymous panels of judges whose ears have annually proved to be composed of cloth. The first requirement for winning votes from these half-witted ciphers has always been to field a song with overwhelming first-strike capability and no aftertaste. The new and extra requirement is to do all that in English.

The three good songs were sung in their original languages — French, Spanish and Italian. The Italian song had a witty melody, the Spanish song had an interesting structure (it was prettily sung, too) and the French song — called ‘Et bonjour à toi l’artiste’ — was first grade. Any contest in which three such numbers do not fight it out for top spot can’t be worth entering. As it was, only one of them made a showing, and ‘Ding-Dinge-Dang’ got the maximum 12 points from country after country, including Great Britain. The Shadows came second and looked cast down, but if they were to put on a few of the tracks from their old Columbia LP (SCX 3414) and compare them to the load of tat they took to Stockholm, they would soon get their disappointment in perspective. And so we say a very goodbye to Sweden, with the strains of the German entry (‘Ein Lied kann eine Brücke sein,’ sung by a Valkyrie hipped on the Everly Brothers) lingering rancidly in our memories. Who needs it?

Jonathan Miller’s production of King Lear (BBC1) clashed neatly with Buddy Can You Spare A Dime? (BBC2) — dozey scheduling, since anybody who wanted to watch the one would have wanted to watch the other. I chose ‘Lear,’ planning to switch away if it turned out that Miller had decided to cast the play with delayed-drop parachutists and film it in free fall, or set it in the Minoan civilisation with Cordelia (Olga Korbut) dancing before the bulls. But for once he had quelled his fancifulness, leaving imagination room to move — the bulk of the imagination, naturally enough, belonging to Shakespeare. Miller’s contribution was restricted to some interesting handling of the actors (Michael Hordern’s madness showed the benefits, I would guess, of clinically accurate instruction) and a down-beat visual concept economical as to means and evocative of the whole painterly (as opposed to linear) tradition from Titian, Tintoretto and Caravaggio through to Velasquez and Rembrandt, though I suppose the costumes were meant to suggest La Tour.

Such an approach, though eclectic, was to some extent coherent and always a luxury to look at. Whether spot-the-painting is a game the spectator should have been encouraged to play is another question. The girls, on the whole, were great. Penelope Wilton fluted voluptuously as Regan, and Sarah Badel is quite simply the best speaker of verse imaginable. As one bewitched by Angela Down I find it difficult to criticise her, but her Cordelia would have gained from some of Goneril’s celerity of elocution.

Panorama (BBC1) screened a CBS interview with Bob Haldeman, straight-arrow zombie and erstwhile finger-man for Nixon. ‘I readily confess,’ he confessed, ‘to a serious failure of judgment.’ Watergate, the patois which Haldeman and his ex-boss both speak, has no words for guilt. A language void of ethical content, however, at least has the merit of implying, by its obvious failure to deal with more than a narrow range of experience, that the good exists. World About Us (BBC2) covered a Kon-Tiki-type international expedition aiming to sail an ancient Chinese junk from Hong Kong to South America and thereby prove that the ancient Chinese could have colonised South America. What was proved was that with an initial tow of 400 miles, a rescue service, full radio equipment and massive air support, the ancient Chinese could have colonised Seattle.

The Observer, 30th March 1975