Essays: Taking the week's pulse |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Taking the week’s pulse

DOROTHY SQUIRES went on Russell Harty (LWT) wearing a scuba helmet made of gold shingles. On Horizon (BBC2) wolves had Sex. Miss Squires was fighting for attention, the wolves against extinction. All week long the tube throbbed with the pulse of life.

There was drama in plenty. Here, for example, was Joby (Yorkshire), delicately directed from a script by Stan Barstow, with Richard Tolan turning in a performance of remarkable sensitivity as the 11-year-old hero. The play was set just before World War II and registered several young emotions with accuracy, including the disabling effects of callow love. Alan Garner in TV Times wrote a subtle background piece about the period. Part Two of the play goes out tonight.

And here, for another example, was a William Trevor play called Mrs Acland’s Ghosts (BBC2), in which it seemed likely that John Bluthal had been cast to measure people’s inside leg mainly because he had previously done roughly the same thing in ‘Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width.’ The plot was a decorous rigmarole about someone catching someone else’s fantasies, as in ‘Hour of the Wolf.’

Rather better value was Snooker (BBC2), a debut by Jonathan Raban. Mr Raban has demonstrated, in numerous literary articles, a distinct gift of phrase which he ought not to dissipate on ridiculous assignments for Radio Times, which involve him in sitting up till all hours with relentless French night-club hostesses and buttering them with admiration, instead of keeping a proper distance and flaying them with scorn. He would be far better off writing more television plays, since his first, although crammed with dud epigrams, was niftily constructed.

The subject, cuckoldry, was touchily probed by two youngish men playing snooker. One of them was possibly guilty of seducing the other’s wife. Two spectators, much older men, turned out to have been in the same fix years ago. The talk remained a frothy game until Freddie Jones catalytically tottered on (‘Bloody dining room full of corduroy trousers. “Been gardenin’?” I said to this chap. Herf herf herf.’) and lowered the tone. By the end of the play one felt one had got somewhere, although not far. It is to be hoped that Mr Raban will not he afraid of writing lines. It is good to be able to shape scenes, but many writers can do that. Hardly anyone, though, can write lines.

Malcolm Bradbury and Christopher Bigsby did, in a ‘Play for Today’ called The After Dinner Game (BBC1), which had the sting of Mr Bradbury’s two novels about academic life, ‘Eating People is Wrong’ and ‘Stepping Westward,’ with the additional quality of speed. The university (which looked awfully like Norwich) was a zilch-on-stilts redbrick allegedly designed by Piet van der Krank: the kind of place where you find ex-rapists writing theses on Shelley. Rupert Davies played a Vice-Chancellor in the process of modifying his original liberal dreams in the direction of industrial subsidies, to be attracted by a new appointee, the young Professor of Organisational Studies, Ben Good — played by Mark Wing-Davey with appropriate off-puttingness. Timothy West, an outstanding actor, was the liberal who still believed in the dream of independence.

The politicking among these three was interesting enough, even if the true force of liberalism was sold rather short. (It is the authors’ idea, and not the unarguable truth, that liberalism can be characterised by a ditherer.) But the thing that raised the play up was the wit given to the women. Diane Fletcher and Margaret Whiting took off on their lines and fairly flew. Such brainy bitchiness has rarely been heard outside Randall Jarrell’s ‘Pictures from an Institution’ or Mary McCarthy’s ‘Groves of Academe.’ Miss Whiting as the arty sexy trigger-fingered wife of the Vice-Chancellor, was so fascinating she was alarming.

After two episodes, it is now wonderfully evident that The Venturers (BBC1) is owl-droppings. The story-line is a tiresome struggle between the heir-apparent (Tom) and the self-made man (David). The background, merchant banking, remains unexplored, although such hints as we are given indicate that the profession is a branch of philanthropy, perhaps pioneered by St Francis of Assisi. (Geoffrey Keen as the bank’s chairman can be heard talking about ‘a new injection of wealth into a depressed area.’ No vulgar stuff about screwing the peasants.) It could be said that the concentration is upon character, but as usually happens when the milieu is a cartoon, the characters are clichés. The every-line-a-bromide dialogue, however, is good value for the coprophagist. ‘At least he doesn’t have the arrogance and smugness that often goes with inherited wealth,’ says David’s wife offhandedly. Try saying that offhandedly without spraining your tongue. David, too, has a way with words: ‘Considering she’s built such a large business empire she’s still very feminine in my book.’ The whole show has the mental complexity of a knee tapped with a hammer.

So, alas, had Panorama (BBC1), which dealt with the car industry, instead of Rhodesia as billed. We were shown ‘tens of thousands of unsold new cars’ and ‘row upon row of unwanted machinery’ as if worry could be the only possible response. But concern for the workers who have been laid off should still leave room for the realisation that prosperity has been making us poor and that an economic collapse might be an opportunity rather than a death sentence. (A member of the Hudson Institute recently wrote to tell me that only callousness about the human condition could explain opposition to economic growth.)

Pilger (ATV) went down a missile silo in South Dakota. It’s been done before, but Pilger has a trick of catching people at their most self-revealing. A jaw-flexing missileer called Colonel Crutchfield was right out of Terry Southern. Bird and Bron are on good form in After That This (BBC2), but the sketches are mainly shapeless. Bird, however, has rediscovered his blithe touch with a line: ‘Very sad. Very sad. Very sad. Very sad. Goes without saying.’

The Observer, 19th January 1975