Essays: Wuthering Depths |
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Wuthering Depths

The latest but not the best in the Beeb’s long line of classic serials, Wuthering Heights (BBC2), is the blithering pits.

There is a good case for restoring to the tale some of the romantic tempestuousness it must have generated in the minds of its original readers. But tempestuousness is one thing: a tornado is another. Every time Heathcliff opens his mouth to scream, a geyser of rain hits him in the face.

There is a famous short film by W.C. Fields called ‘The Fatal Glass of Beer’. Purporting to be in Alaska, Fields establishes this fact by repeatedly going to the door of his cabin, opening it, saying, ‘It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast,’ and getting hit in the face with a bucket of snow. Perhaps that is what Heathcliff is trying to say. ‘It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast, Cathy.’ Pfwoosh.

As a reporter, John Pilger usually comes under the heading of blunt but effective, stronger in viewpoint than memorable for phrase. But with Do You Remember Vietnam? (ATV) he attained a kind of eloquence. Pilger has got on my nerves in the past and doubtless will again in the future, but this time his gravity and the subject’s matched each other. The result was a good programme: unglib, awkward to handle, hard to ignore.

Tom Mangold of the BBC had already been back to Vietnam, so Pilger was obliged to cover some of the same ground, up to and including a tour of the war museum in Saigon. But he has been reporting Vietnam for most of his adult life, so it was not surprising that what he had to say about what he was seeing carried the implication that he had seen plenty more.

Indeed the most telling image was a blank. Pilger said that he had had the idea at one stage early on of keeping in touch with a Vietnamese family to find out what would happen to them as the war progressed, but one by one the members of the family were killed or just vanished, so that eventually he had to give up. You can’t get film of something like that: you have to say it, and Pilger found a way of saying it.

Like Mangold, Pilger evinced a certain amount of worry about what the North Vietnamese might currently be doing to some of the people they had liberated from the Imperialist yoke. The Viet Cong, for example, have disappeared. After doing more than their share of the suffering, they seem to be wielding less than their share of the power. It could be said that Pilger didn’t make enough of such anomalies, and that he was too quick to discount the horrors of forced labour by praising the compassion which the conquerors are undoubtedly showing towards the abandoned children of American soldiers.

But on the whole Pilger’s message wasn’t only clear, it was manifestly correct. If the Americans had stayed out of Vietnam, Vietnam would have stood a better chance of becoming what the Americans wanted it to be. The North Vietnamese never had any intention of being dominated by China. The domino theory was wrong. Millions of innocent people were killed or maimed to no purpose. Unrhetorically and believably, Pilger called this ‘the saddest truth of my time.’

There was tape of Kissinger referring to ‘occasional difficulties in reaching a final solution.’ Like the effects of defoliant, such language still lingers, but plain speech must eventually prevail, if only because Vietnam is no longer a vital issue to anyone except the locals. So they can count their blessings as far as one, at least.

Against my expectations, I enjoyed No Man’s Land (ATV)**. Ages ago I had read the text and decided there was not very much in it, but it turns out that one’s friends were right when they said — usually at explanatory length — that the piece plays like a dream. It is only a step from conceding that to conceding that form equals content and that the play is therefore a profound work.

Certainly it is an amazingly skilful one. No wonder actors and directors love Pinter. He knows so much about what they would like to do. Actors love drinking on stage. During the course of ‘No Man’s Land’ the two leading characters are obliged to imbibe at least a hundred glasses of Scotch each. Meanwhile the two minor characters are required to make exits and entrances. Actors love doing that, too, and directors love telling them when and how. At one point Terence Rigby took almost a minute to go through a door, doing about 65 double takes and slow burns.

‘No Man’s Land’ is like a chess game being played out long after a draw should have been declared, since there are only two knights and two pawns left on the board. As the pawns, Mr Rigby and Michael Kitchen rose voraciously to the opportunities provided by Pinter’s scatological dialogue. Actors love such lines because the sting is always in the tail, never in the nose. ‘A stitch in time saves nine.’ ‘What?’ ‘I said a stitch in time saves nine, scout.’ ‘I suppose so.’ ‘You suppose so? You suppose so? Did you hear that? He supposes so. Listen snot-nose, this is a proverb we’re dealing with, not some half-arsed tentative philosophical speculation ...’ Something like that, only better.

The two knights, of course, were beyond criticism. They were probably also beyond being convinced that they were mainly engaged in making something out of nearly nothing. Gielgud spoke with superbly dignified seediness, while Richardson did drunken falls that would have taxed the courage of Evel Knievel. No two literary men in history have ever talked less about literature, but it didn’t matter.

There was only one moment of real wit. (‘Lord Lancer? He’s not one of the Bengal Lancers, is he?’) Everything else sounded like wit. Consisting entirely of its own technique, the play is so decadent that it might as well be called innocent, so sophisticated that it might as well be called naïve. I lapped it up with disgust. What a con. And what a gift.

Fearless Frank (BBC2), by Andrew Davies, was a good play about Frank Harris, with Leonard Rossiter rampant in the title role. The discrepancy between fantasy and reality in Harris’s love-life was firmly pointed out, although even now the full sordidness of the means by which he attained satisfaction can apparently not be faced. There were no enemas or irrigations on view.

The Italian Marxist composer Luigi Nono (BBC2) proclaims the necessity for contemporary music to ‘intervene’ in something called ‘the sonic reality of our time.’ Apparently it should do this by being as tuneless as possible. There were shots of Nono’s apartments to indicate that he is even better off than the usual run of Italian Marxist composers. There was also footage of his fellow Venetians performing alienated tasks, such as selling fish to one another. The implication was that it would need Nono’s music to give such tasks meaning.

It was painfully evident that Nono lacks the mental equipment to take in the suggestion that his job is not to make selling fish as interesting as his music, but to make his music as interesting as selling fish. Among artists without talent Marxism will always be popular, since it enables them to blame society for the fact that nobody wants to hear what they have to say.

The Observer, 8th October 1978
[ ** Granada ]

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]