The priceless quality of actuality
NDERTAKING to cover
television as well as films reminds me of the doctrine, held in early post-war television circles, that the further films and television are kept apart. the better for both media. So it might have been.
But things developed differently. T.V. might have starved without old films to fill its programmes. Plugs for new films Come a bit pat on the box by way of compensation, but must be both profitable to the film industry and helpful in promoting appreciation of the cinema among a wider and more seriously enthusiastic audience than ever before.
Thus Joan Bakewell's "Film Night" last weekend gave a most useful and welcome short list of holiday films for children.
Today films and television form part of the same scene. We can almost envisage a time of watching all our movies on the box at home, enjoying what Harry Worth's new series calls "Personal Cinema"; and only for very rare T.V. super events —a Coronation or Papel ceremony — having to go out to view it in a cinema.
It seems thus logical for the same scene to be viewed and reviewed by one and the same critic. On the other hand I am keenly aware of the objection that no one critic is qualified to cover the whole range of television from sport to science, politics to panel games, archaeology to zoology.
So I must get down a few of my own prejudices and preferences before embarking on this combined column, and after a fair pause from compulsory viewing (not at all the same thing as compulsive viewing).
Television's magic gift to the viewer is of course a ringside seat at something he would not otherwise see — be it showjumping, soccer or, via Patrick Moore and his telescope "The Sky at Night." Actuality becomes television's most priceless quality and "actualities" its most compulsive programmes.
They have converted me into an enthusiastic viewer of such unlikely mysteries as all-in wrestling (through the sheer chanc:e of its preceding ITV's "Last Programme") and BBC's "The Money Programme."
My own preference (albeit masochistic) is for news, current affairs comment or civil. if not civilised discussion, quizzes from "University Challenge" to "Face the Music", animals when not in zoos or circuses or being hunted, and human personalities who are not just television celebrities, hut masters of their trades whether as performer, pedagogue, cook or politician.
Among my aversions are "Ballroom Dancing" and "Coronation Street", most serials except "The Forsyte Saga", series after their first run (except the "Z Cars" succession).
One of my blind spots is for our comics — nice enough chaps and so hardworking, but since Tony Hancock hardly any of them ever makes me laugh. I shall, however. do my best to allow for these prejudices, for or against, and to remember that the great hope of television is that it may always surprise us out of prejudice.
For example, I approached B.B.C.2 presentation of Synge's classic Irish comedy The Playboy of the Western World weary of the drama department's Irish and Welsh repertories and discouraged by longago memories of the play.
After very few minutes of the spellbinding of Pegeen (Sinead Cusack) and Widow Quin (Pauline Delany) and the local young ladies by the arrival of Christy Mahon (John Hurt) with his fabulous tale of having killed his father. I was laughing out loud in my own living room.
I was captivated alike by the Irish wit and the wild poetry of the fraudulent young troubadour. I was captivated too by the exuberance and
imaginative richness of John Hurt's performance, fulfilling the promise he has shown in films—and also by the spirited canter of the donkeys along the sand.
Sinead Cusack is on her way to follow in the steps of her father, that fine actor Cyril Cusack. As yet I miss in her the poetry to fire the Playboy and make Pegeen a byword in Irish theatre lore.
Nevertheless, Alan Gibson's presentation of Synge's masterpiece is the kind of classic. one of the living treasures of English-language poetic drama, which B.B.C. television does well to show us and the dutiful viewer must this time have felt well rewarded.
Of all the famous personages introduced on television recently, obviously Augustine of Hippo (BBC-2) was of preeminent interest to Christian viewers. We must be duly grateful that he was found worth almost an hour-long biography.
I quite enjoyed the mildly instructive introduction to St.
Augustine delivered by Anthony Thwait against a background of North African and Italian hills where the Bishop of Hippo lived and grew to be one of the great Doctors of the Church.
But I can't help feeling that this rather old-fashioned, lantern-lecture style with nice young Mr. Thwait in slacks, wandering on and off the mountains to deliver his lecture, cannot be the most inspiring or effective method of biographing the great on television.
If it is found expedient for economic or other reasons, this film, co-produced with Neyrac Films, apparently of Tunisia, is a great deal better than nothing. But I found it impossible not to compare its primitive poverty with the rich resources (including, of course, Goya's drawings) of the previous week's "Chronical" of the Peninsular War.
The directors of both major movies of the week under review had their own heralds to announce them on T.V. A whole programme, "Throwing out the Cobwebs" about Peter Brook's brilliant production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" trailed his film of King Lear ("A" Prince Charles Cinema). In addition, his star, Paul Scofield, appeared on I.T.V's "Cinema" reinforced by flashbacks to his famous film, "A Man for All Seasons".
Whether or not we thought the title of "Russell's Progress" begged the question, the B.B.C's interest in his career is indisputably legitimate, since Russell began by directing his sensitive film on Elgar, Delius and Debussy for the BBC-TV, as well as his gentle film of Oscar Wilde with Peter Finch) and the richly promising "Women in Love" before he seemed to go berserk on Strauss and Tchaikovsky.
Even so I thought the E.B.C. commentator lop-sided when he hailed Russell's new film, The Devils, as the principal attraction of a week which was to include Paul Scofield's "Lear."
My only reservation about the latter is that "King Lear" is 'inevitably rather hard work. Always a difficult play, it has been considerably cut, though hardly clarified by Peter Brook's strange, often fascinating, treatment.
The Ancient Britain of Lear's encumbered royal progress to Dover to divide his kingdom between two wicked daughters and one supposedly sweet one is set in Denmark, photographed in dark and frequently misty black and white, and the party proceeds by early horsedrawn wagon-train through the bleak and snowclad land.
Paul Scofield, of course, gives a deeply intelligent and poignant account of the venerable old man's demented dismay at the progressive revelation of the cruelty of his "unnatural hags" of daughters. Irene Worth is a ferocious Goneril. while Susan Engel's Regan has a serpentine malice.
Alan Webb's tormented Gloucester is agonised indeed (the putting out of his eyes is hard to watch) and the meeting of the two broken men on the lonely beach I found properly pathetic.
And so to The Devils ("X," Warner Rendezvous). Anybody who found Russell's treatment of Tchaikovsky in ""I he Music Lovers" distasteful would be wise to steer clear of this one.
A director of Russell's repute should be surely ashamed to take up the well-worn tale of the demented Ursuline nuns of 1.oudun—which has already ,furnished a book 'by Aldous 'Huxley, an opera by Penderewski, a play by Jon Whiting and a very distinguiehed Polish film by Kawalerowicz — without bringing something to illuminate the painful story.
In his T.V. programme Russell made pretentious claims of his intentions, but the film seems only designed to extract the maximum sensationalism from a sensational story, treating the case of mass hysteria hysterically, to heap blasphemy on sacrilege, orgy on scandal with a selfindulgence that is self-defeating.
Only Oliver Reed as Grandier, the priest who was burned at the stake for Ms supposed part in the nuns' "possession" tries to suggest the conscience problems of a priest who breaks his vows of chastity. The test is a thoroughly disreputable film.
People who seize on this strange story as a weapon in the anti-clerical armoury might remember that though an occasional convent might perhaps suffer from a neurotic superior, hundreds of thousands more nuns and priests remain faithful to their vocations.
Europe in the 1630's was a turbulent place where strange things happened; but it was also, in France alone, the century of St. Francis de Sales, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Jane Frances de Chantal.