Essays: Christmas treats |
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Christmas treats

JESUS CHRIST Mastermind! Who else could have rated against the aggregate of major talent booming from the tube? As Spike Milligan said on For This Christmas Only (HTV), ‘the staying power of this kid in the manger is immense.’

Stellar competition was of prime quality. For instance, there was Rock Hudson in Ice Station Zebra (BBC1). On the other hand, you could see Rock Hudson, in The Undefeated (ITV). Shoulder to shoulder with Rock Hudson strode big John Wayne in The Undefeated (ITV). Failing that, there was big John Wayne in True Grit (BBC1). There were old planes (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, ITV), old cars (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, BBC1) or old cars (The Great Race, ITV). Laurel and Hardy either received a mention on, or actually appeared in, every programme except Return to the River Kwai (BBC2).

An Omnibus (BBC1) on Laurel and Hardy was an object lesson in how not to make a documentary about comics. A regiment of living practitioners, including some of the least funny in the history of the art, were rounded up and asked their opinions on Laurel and Hardy. Never were they encouraged to get down to the basics of how the pair got laughs. Instead, they were allowed to waffle in the empyrean of theory, as thespians will unless nailed to the floor. Jerry Lewis, who is so ravaged by pomposity he no longer even knows when he is being insincere, talked about ‘a pressure valuation moment’ being the secret of their work. As punctuation to the chatter, Laurel and Hardy film clips were shown, but seldom were allowed to run for an appreciable length of time, lest we start enjoying ourselves and forget the programme’s seriousness of aim.

Despite every effort, laughter prevailed. We were shown enough of ‘Towed in the Hole,’ for example, to evoke the inspired mayhem of the remainder. The full length Laurel and Hardy feature Way Out West, which BBC1 screened on Christmas Day, was one of the very few genuinely festive things about the season.

Provided, of course, that you don’t count the programmes which were amusing by accident. Foremost of these was The Golden Girls of Gowrie Beach (BBC2), purportedly an investigation into the competitive spirit of the Sunburned Country, meaning Australia. This was cheapo-cheapo television at its tackiest. A few days worth of location shooting (one of them squandered on the flattest surf since the Creation) were padded out with desperate interviews conducted by a lady billed as a British expatriate, who had undoubtedly been transported to Botany Bay for the crime of asking everybody she met the some question.

‘What is there about Australia that makes them supreme in all sports?’ she inquired, with characteristic accuracy and grammar. The Australians — Shane Gould, Ken Rosewall et hoc genus — opined that it was probably the sun, etc. The camera dwelt on a rodeo, the hideous buildings at Surfer’s Paradise, and on everything else about Australia which Australia shares with America — and all without the slightest hint of irony. Was the programme unscreenable slop, or was it a whole new departure — the Television of Innocence? I watched fascinated, while a grazier explained that polo is easier to play on the land than in the city.

Superstars abounded as Christmas Eve wound towards midnight. There were Elton John, André Previn and the Pope. Elton was on The Old Grey Whistle Test (BBC2), live from the Hammersmith Odeon. He was tasteful for Christmas in a tinsel-cuffed loon-leotard with lattice-work top to emphasise the hair on his chest and, more particularly, on his shoulders. Cruel SS wrist-bands, strato-specs and a throwaway plumed bolero completed the ensemble. Up-tempo numbers beat out ruthlessly, in a misguided effort to get the audience raving, but the slow songs went over better. Elton’s show might be camp, which is schlock’s clever sister, but at least it was a reminder that popular music isn’t necessarily what the BBC usually says it is.

On André Previn’s Christmas Music Night (BBC1), Janet Baker sang Exultate jubilate, which from Mozart is the merest showing-off, but which nevertheless came as a welcome note of celebration. The Mass of the Nativity (Thames), the Pope’s starring vehicle, was produced by Franco Zeffirelli.

The Mastermind final (BBC1) was, as Magnus Magnusson reminded us, ‘for four gallant contenders the end of a quest.’ The Hobbit lady won it; the Oxford girl with the lightning reflexes came apart on ornithology. Horizon (BBC2) was very interesting about special effects in the cinema. Richard Baker, prince of cool front-men, ably conducted the proceedings, and was to be seen at one point flying through a window in his chair. We saw how split screen effects were done and what was involved in a glass-shot. This information came in handy when watching, say, Ice Station Zebra, in which the special effects look a lot more real than the actors.

If Christmas is to be pagan, it ought at least to be joyous. The Likely Lads (BBC1) were that, as usual. With only 74 shopping days until Christmas, the dreaded Thelma was well prepared: in this department of his life as in all others, Bob was thoroughly looked after. Terry, on the other hand, was ready to ‘pull a cracker and open a tin of pork luncheon-meat.’ Finally, with the help of the legendary Sylvia Braithwaite, everything turned out for the worst. The Best of Not Only But Also (BBC2) was funny too: the Garbo number is deathless. Most of the other humour shows were drear. Dick Emery (BBC1) was much less comfortable in a Santa outfit than in high heels and Mike Yarwood (BBC1) saddled himself with Max Bygraves. Tonight with Danny La Rue (ATV) was trash. Parkinson Takes a Christmas Look at Morecambe and Wise (BBC1) did something to restore the spirits, even though we’d seen most of the stuff before. Sketches like the Cleopatra number are now on the limit of how much exposure they can take, but Parky fronted the compilation pretty well. It’s nice to be able to toss him a bun, after his recent abominations.

For Frost (BBC2) no forgiveness. His noxious programme on Knievel was unblushingly repeated. ‘How have you prepared yourself, Evel, both mentally and physically for this moment?’ ‘I am ready to go.’ Frost kept calling Knievel ‘you as an astronaut.’ Jesus Christ, Astronaut! ‘I am living a dream that they thought could never be done,’ announced Evel, before fizzling anticlimactically into the canyon. Frost called it ‘as extraordinary a happenin’ as any I’ve ever been caught in the middle of’. What had happened was that Knievel had taken him for a ride. He has probably realised that by now, but isn’t talking.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (BBC1) was the season’s Distinguished Film. As nobody should ever have needed telling, this picture is a load of high-toned codswallop. It was depressing to see various people in the preview business recommending its thoughtfulness. Providentially a relevant documentary (Return to the River Kwai, BBC2) turned up to give the viewing audience an idea of what things were really like. John Coast, an ex-POW, had the unstudied eloquence which made the film’s expensive footage look like tat. ‘We burned our dead on bamboo pyres.’ The bodies were so thin that they sat up in the flames. A thought which gave an extra edge, I found, to the brandy butter.

The Observer, 29th December 1974