ONE of television's major drama projects came to an end last week, Ian Curteis's trilogy of plays, Long Voyage Out of War. Here was ambition: each play ran for nearly an hour and a half, their theme was the state of the world, no less, and Mr. Curteis took, we are told, two years of isolated, country life to COMplete the work.
I thought it failed almost totally. And apparently a good many of my fellow critics agreed, since the BBC brought in on Late Night Line-Up, after the last play, a small clutch of "ordinary viewers" to voice their, hopefully different, view. They too, alas, echoed the condemnation "pretentious."
Yet it seems hard to fault Mr. Curteis for pretentiousness. What, after all, does being pretentious mean? That someone has sought to produce something of great merit. And one should not condemn the high aimer, even when their bowstring is so lamentably slack that the arrow flops to the ground almost at their feet.
Much of what Mr. Curteis wanted to tell us was. admittedly, things most of us already knew. But they were still true things that old stabilities get swept away, that war kills children, that love regenerates — and, more than this, such truths need from time to time to be restated. They grow worn amongst us like old coins, and fresh minting becomes imperative.
Writers and artists are our new-minters. We should not complain of them when the coins they produce still bear the old heads and tails, nor when they seek to mint sovereigns. We can complain only when their images lack the telling impress of clarity. And this is what went wrong with Mr. Curteis's trilogy.
Alas, he seemed to lack the sheer ability to write convincingly. In the last play he has his hero deliver an immense speech in Trafalgar Square. "He's a bloody genius," a listener is rashly made to comment. But we have been able to judge, and it is plain that the speech we heard would have, and should have, fallen totally flat.
All hints and echoes
Nor was it the words only that were wrong. Once, the hero is made to concentrate ridiculously on a charity campaign, while a supporter tells him his daughter is leaving him : the idea is crude as a creaky ox-cart. And worse than inability to convince, worse than plot crudenesses, there were the patchings-over of thin places with echoing but inessential bits of poetic-sounding plaster, of which giving the hero the resonating name Turk Godfray is but an example.
What in fact Mr. Curteis was patching over was a lack of life. Everything was altogether too diagrammatic. What made a character behave in a certain way was not an inner logic, but the need to illustrate an idea.
Ideas near the surface of a work do not necessarily mean that the work is shallow. Bunyan is just one proof Of that. But if the ideas are only scantily fleshed with the fiction that embodies them, they have to be all the more deeply thought. They have to be rooted in everything their author has ever been or done. And Mr. Curteis, unlike Bunyan and other geniuses, could be seen not to have thought as deeply as possible.
There, sad to say, lies the root of the trilogy's failure and one's inability necessarily to accept the optimism of the final conclusion. Too often something was hinted at in a trailing-off voice. a sure sign that a writer has not thought an idea through. Too often things were so simplified they could be seen to be in actual conflict With the facts of the world today.
A virtuoso disturbance
This last sign of something wrong was certainly absent in the work of another playwright likely to be accused of pretentiousness. Clive Exton, author of last week's Play for Today, The Rainbirds. Whatever else you thought about it, you could hardly fault it for lack of a with-it handling of its theme.
Writing and production gave us perhaps the most virtuoso television we have ever had. Because much of the play was the dreams of Mr. Exton's hero as he lay unconscious after attempting suicide, both he and his director, Philip Saville, had chances galore for shock cuts to vivid and witty images (a lovely cigar-smoking male nun). for split screen work and double and treble split screen work and for deliberately overdramatised camera angles ramming a point home.
Before the play we got the standard warning that certain scenes might disturb some viewers. I am happy to say that almost every scene was likely to disturb millions of viewers. And so it should be, on occasion. We get plenty of paptv : sometimes we should have think-tv. This was one of those times.
But what was it all meant to make us think? Not an easy question to answer. If Mr. Curteis put his ideas only inch. deep. Mr. Exton buried his coffin far underground. Yet, provided your surface is as memorable as possible. this is no bad thing to do. Your viewer is left, willy-nilly, thinking about your play and eventually, if you're lucky, the core of it all comes clear to him.
The warp of callousness
This may be a bit hard on reviewers whose copy has to appear next day, and I fear Mr. Exton got a bad press here and there. But with a little brooding, what he was getting at did emerge. The unconscious hero dreamt of war, soldiers and slaughter-houses. But Mr. Exton was not having the usual jab at Vietnam and all that.
Certainly we saw those Vietnam horror film-clips that have become something of a stockin-trade. But Mr. Exton's point was that inside most of us a part of us enjoys such violent killing. This is why his fatherfigure and mother-figure commented in a far-fetched way on how much they had liked those scenes on their tv-screen.
Mr. Exton's aim was to expose the callousness that is woven into the garment of our world. It is a callousness that is largely concealed and disguised (and is therefore all the more in need of being attacked) and Mr. Exton's method was to unbury this quality and hold it up as much above surface reality as in fact it is concealed beneath that reality.
I wish I had all the columns I would need to illustrate this. But it would indeed require columns: Mr. Exton saw this callousness in the myriad disguises it takes in the warp and woof of our life and he pursued it down the arches of the years, down the labyrinthine ways. His play made a weighty contribution to our process of seeing ourselves clearly.