Essays: Woman's Lab |
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Woman’s Lab

AFTER two episodes, Marie Curie (BBC2) is clearly established as an exceptional piece of work. The remaining three episodes can be awaited with confidence as well as impatience.

The series is written by Elaine Morgan, otherwise the co-author, with Brian Gibson, of the remarkable ‘Joey’, which was repeated last Tuesday night ahead of the second instalment of ‘Marie Curie’, thereby making the evening something of an Elaine Morgan festival. She is a writer who combines sensitivity with analytical power.

It would be easy for any woman writer to wax emotional about Marie Curie, who suffered and died for her science. It must be hard not to claim her achievements as a triumph of her sex, since she was in so many respects the victim of it. But Miss Morgan has resisted this temptation. She has put in all the harsh facts, but has not allowed them to lure her away from the true drama of Marie and Pierre Curie — the idealistic dedication with which he gave his talent to her genius and she gave her genius to the quest for knowledge.

They were a unique couple. Even Hollywood could see that. Casting Greer Garson as Marie and Walter Pidgeon as Pierre, it regaled a less lucky generation than ours with the kind of movie which used to be called a Garson-Pidgeon. Madame was beautiful. Pierre was distinguished. Malnutrition was conveyed with a pretty swoon by Garson, whereupon Pidgeon would look extremely concerned. They held hands as the radium glowed in the dark.

As written by Miss Morgan, produced by Peter Goodchild and directed by John Glenister, the Curie story involves the principal players in a harder brand of graft altogether. Jane Lapotaire plays Marie with no appeal whatsoever to the feminine stereotype. Thin-lipped, washed out and shaking with bottled-up intensity, she looks like tough company. To put it kindly, she lacks small talk. Yet by a remarkable coup on Miss Lapotaire’s part, what must have been the beauty of the great scientist’s mind is projected with a vividness made all the more intense by the absence of ordinary charm.

In the first episode, science brought Marie and Pierre together. The shy Pierre rhapsodised about the symmetry of crystals. Marie lit up. In the second episode there were hardships. Racked by a baby that would neither sleep nor feed properly, Marie was unable to study. Pierre suggested that she take a year off. It was his solitary moment of male chauvinism. In all other respects their communication was perfect. Nor was it just a matter of him doing what she wanted.

Since theirs was plainly a rapport beyond the ken of ordinary mortals, Miss Morgan has done a good job of putting it within reach of us. There is only the occasional awkward scrap of dialogue to recall the lingering conventions of the Hollywood bio-pic. ‘What do you call it?’ ‘We call it — radioactivity.’ Too many such exchanges are still echoing in the moviegoer’s mind. ‘That’s a pretty tune, Glenn. What’s it called?’ ‘Well, it’s moonlight outside and it’s a sort of serenade ... why don’t we call it “Moonlight Serenade?”’

The art direction on the series is highly satisfactory. All the scientific instruments look authentically in period, right down to the innumerable little porcelain dishes in which the salts were refined. In the next episode, if I remember the Curies’ biography correctly, eight tons of pitchblende will have to be delivered on the doorstep. Refining a mountain of ore down to a tenth of a gram of radium, Marie lost a stone in weight over four years. It will be interesting to see how Miss Lapotaire manages that. In the end she has to die of leukaemia. But really there was no tragedy — Marie Curie’s life was an epic.

The same can’t be said about the unwitting heroine of The Case of Yolande McShane (Yorkshire). Yolande’s mother had not done very much with her life except grow old. Nevertheless it is hard to quarrel with the law of the land, which declares that if people want to go on living nobody should try to stop them. Yolande, however, apparently had other ideas, quietly suggesting to her mother that on the whole it might be more convenient if she knocked herself off. I suppose it happens every day, but what was strange about this particular instance was that the police secured a videotape of the suggestion actually being made. Yolande slipped her mother eighteen Nembutals in a Jelly-tots packet and urged her not to hang about.

As so often happens in these cases, the central issue is less interesting than the fuss made about airing it. There was nothing surprising about Yolande requesting her mother to take the high jump. You didn’t have to listen to Yolande for very long before realising that from the moral viewpoint she was no more discriminating than a falling girder. Ethics came into it only when you started considering what the police thought they were up to.

Even here, it seemed to me, we were faced with nothing more sinister than a policeman’s desire to play television director. Interviewed about his activities as a television director, he also got a chance to play television star. He must have thought all his Christmases were coming at once. If Yolande’s mother had actually swallowed the barbiturates he would have got the chance to play Dr Kildare. You can bet that he would have jumped at it. As for Yorkshire Television’s large talk about the public’s right to know, it is hooey. They just had a red-hot stretch of tape showing some bitch talking her mother into snuffing herself. One way or another they had to get it on the air.

Harold Evans smoothly presented the first of a new series called Other Voices (BBC2), devoted to examining four famous publications. The first of these was Rolling Stone. Jann Wenner, 31-year-old founder and editor, volubly assured us that his brainchild is still at the centre of the action. ‘People say Rolling Stone’s gone soft,’ he prattled. ‘I just don’t believe it.’ Wenner has published a lot of good stuff, despite his ignorance of the difference between ‘flaunt’ and ‘flout.’

But speaking as one who read the magazine faithfully from early days until he found a recent issue largely occupied by a long article about Diana Vreeland, I can only say that things have come to a pretty pass. I have to say that because Harold Evans didn’t say anything. All he did was present the programme. The fact that he is at least twice as good on the box as any of its regular presenters ought to be enough to keep him clear of it, unless he is given leave to speak his mind. One of the insidious evils about the tube is that it tempts people to be less than themselves.

In Portrait (BBC2) Peter Blake spent several days attempting to capture Twiggy’s likeness. He failed miserably. While creation was in progress, artist and model reminisced about the allegedly golden sixties. ‘It was like a complete Renaissance event,’ opined Peter. ‘Yeah, that was it,’ concurred Twiggy, ‘It was just like a Renaissance.’ Except that in the Renaissance the artists knew how to draw.

Is The XYY Man (Granada) the most incomprehensible series since ‘The Prisoner’? This is only one of the questions it leaves unanswered. Why are all the characters so angry? Is it because they cannot understand their own dialogue? ‘I’m just a piece in a jig-saw puzzle,’ someone says. But how can he be sure, if he has not seen the rest of the puzzle?

The Observer, 28th August 1977

[ A shortened version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]