TELEVISION by H. R. F. Keating
NOW that the Mass seems :to have lost its blessed inevitability (or lulling familr iarity) one feels sometimes that television is the only decently predictable thing left. And dammit, even that lets me down now and again.
Take 1TV's arts magazine Aquarius last week. We were promised a look at the life of Peter HaN, producer (said the TV Times, licking its lips) of the notorious orgy in Covent Garden's "Moses and Aaron." I sat poised on the edge of' my chair, twin brother to the Anti-Television Lady herself. a denunciation perched on my lower lip, the set's off-switch firmly taped over.
And what happened? Not a glimpse of even one partially naked clanc..vr, but instead a portrait of a person which had that rarest of television qualities, a contradictory complexity. Yes, we got standard glimpses of artstycoon Hall gliding in a Rolls from a working lunch amid the splendours of the Royal Opera House to visiting a lady novelist and twisting her round his film director's finger. But we got, too, a rare and honest bout of prolonged self-examination.
In the light of a book about the Suffolk of yesterday, which Mr. Hall hopes to film, he stood apart and looked at not only his own past as a stationmaster's son in a remote Suffolk village, but at his hopes for his children ("I do not know what I would say if they decided just to drop out") and the effect of failures of his life have had on him as well as its successes.
It was a refreshing and remarkable piece of depthhonesty. And it set me thinking about how little the box ever allows us to see of the contradictoriness of things, how seldom it shows us people who are two opposed things at the same time.
The straitjacket of simplification squeezes, for instance, every internal clash out of almost all the plays we see, especially the dramas in the U epend ability-guaranteed series, your American imports, your Doornwatch, your Kate, your Wicked Women.
Consider Saturday's offering in this last collection, the history of Florence Maybrick from the pen of that trusted teleplay writer, Jacques Gillies. It told its based-on-truelife story well: it was well acted; its sense of period was high. (But did Victorian doctors talk about being "in shock"?); it was even to a certain degree subtle with its open-ended! last look at its villamess.
But when you looked at it in the light of the complexity one knows to exist in what you might call real true-life. then you saw it had only an appearance of contradictoriness, The way contradictions often exist simultaneously within us was ironed out into a simple, easily understandable either-or.
It is perhaps unfair to complain. The play set out to provide entertainment and entertainment it provided. But one should remember all the same that, like the great majority of television output, it wore the straitjacket.
One could say, however, that it knew it had the distorting garment on. It accepted its limitations. Far worse are those plays that seem not to realise straitjackets even exist, and my week's viewing included a prime example with the repffat of Nigel Kneale's unaccountably praised futuristic fantasy, The Year of the Sex Olympics, Not a sign here of the marvellous complexity of real human beings, and yet the piece claimed to be making a serious comment on the future of the whole race. It was, in fact, no more than warmed-up Aldous Huxley, and not much warmed-up at that. The only reason for watching this largely incomprehensible piece of childishness for long (and I switched off) would be that anything with enough sex in it seems guaranteed of an audience.
And that only goes to ment' category. If the straitjacket is enthusiastically embraced, its wearer can remain true to himself. A recent example was Ken Russell's anti-Strauss comic strip with its conscious employment of a crudely simple weapon to achieve a particular end.
Another example, which I recommend with some enthusiasm, is the series of animated living cartoons which John Wells is giving us fortnight by fortnight in Aquarius, wickedly exaggerated impersonations of wellobserved arts critics. Last time we got an art critic producing phrases which I swear I have actually read as he lectured on what turned out to be only the cover of a piece of sculpture. Grossly simplified, of course. But deliberr ately so, and therefore valuably cutting.
And finality note that it is not always easy to say, yes or no, whether the straitjacket is there or not. I think, for in stance, that in what seems to be a fairly run-of-the-mill children's series, London Weekend's Catweazle on Sundays, it is pretty well entirely absent. The formula of a medieval wizard finding himself in modern times would seem to cry aloud for the hidebound. Yet in a host of small ways it is avoided.
The wizard, played by Geoffrey Bayldon, reacts like a real complex person to the mysteries of electricity and safety-matches. The boy who befriends him (Robin Davies) equally is neither farcically silly nor cloyingly over-cute, a notably skilful perforrnmance. And the rest of the cast hit the same convincing note. Thank goodness television is not always predictable.