Monday, 5 March 2012

Drained crystals

Watching re-runs of lousy old TV dramas is hugely enjoyable: it is fascinating to see which of them can give nostalgic pleasure and which are even worse heaps of rubbish than one remembers them. Fortunately many contemporary reviews are available on the internet so that it is possible to see what the critics thought of them at the time 

For example, there is a comprehensive archive of Clive James' writing on TV between 1972 and 1982. This is what he had to say about Star Trek

On Star Trek (BBC1) our galaxy got itself invaded from a parallel universe by an alien Doppelgänger toting mysterioso weaponry. These bad vibes in the time-warp inspired the line of the week. ‘Whatever that phenomenon was,’ piped Kirk’s dishy new black lieutenant, ‘it drained our crystals almost completely. Could mean trouble.’

In our house for the past few years it’s been a straight swap between two series: if my wife is allowed to watch Ironside I’m allowed to watch Star Trek, and so, by a bloodless compromise possible only between adults, we get to watch one unspeakable show per week each. (My regular and solitary viewing of It’s a Knock-Out and Mission Impossible counts as professional dedication.)

How, you might ask, can anyone harbour a passion for such a crystal-draining pile of barbiturates as Star Trek? The answer, I think, lies in the classical inevitability of its repetitions. As surely as Brünnhilde’s big moments are accompanied by a few bars of the Valkyries’ ride, Spock will say that the conclusion would appear to be logical, Captain. Uhura will turn leggily from her console to transmit information conveying either (a) that all contact with Star Fleet has been lost, or (b) that it has been regained. Chekhov will act badly. Bones (‘Jim, it may seem unbelievable, but my readings indicate that this man has … two hearts’) will act extremely badly. Kirk, employing a thespian technique picked up from someone who once worked with somebody who knew Lee Strasberg’s sister, will lead a team consisting of Spock and Bones into the Enterprise’s transporter room and so on down to the alien planet on which the Federation’s will is about to be imposed in the name of freedom.

The planet always turns out to be the same square mile of rocky Californian scrubland long ago overexposed in the Sam Katzman serials: Brick Bradford was there, and Captain Video – not to mention Batman, Superman, Jungle Jim and the Black Commando. I mean like this place has been worn smooth, friends. But the futuristic trio flip open their communicators, whip out their phasers, and peer alertly into the hinterland, just as if the whole layout were as threateningly pristine as the Seven Cities of Cibola. Star Trek has the innocence of belief.

Another example is this piece on Kenneth Griffith's documentary about Jesus:

During the course of his career as a maker of documentaries, this compact but variously gifted Welsh actor has been intense about such figures as Napoleon and Cecil Rhodes. Now he was after even bigger game — Jesus Christ. Retracing the journey of the Magi, Kenneth landed in Iran. Immediately he was thrown out. As usual Kenneth interpreted this rejection as an Establishment plot. Kenneth is convinced that the Establishment, everywhere, is out to get him, stifle his voice, ban his programmes, etc. 'I certainly have automatic high velocity RIFLES!' he shouted sarcastically.

Nothing daunted, Kenneth joined the Magi's trail at another point. Ruins of ancient cities trembled in the heat. A caricature stage Welshman darting abruptly out of doorways, Kenneth blended obtrusively into the scenery. He has a high visibility factor, mainly because he is incapable of either just standing there when he is standing there or just walking when he is walking. Standing there, he drops into a crouch, feet splayed, arms loosely gesticulating, eyes popping, teeth bared in a vulpine snarl. Walking, he makes sudden appearances over the tops of small hills.

Kenneth can ask you the time in a way that makes you wonder how he would play Richard III, so it can be imagined that when discussing Jesus he was seldom guilty of underplaying a scene. 'Jesus', he whimpered, ramming his hands deep into his pockets and staring sideways into the camera, 'was... a Jew.' In possession of this and much similar knowledge that the Establishment would like to ban, Kenneth kept moving through the desert, aiming the occasional slow karate chop at a rock. 'Of course all truth', he confided to the camera and a surrounding mountain range, 'is dangerous to all Establishments.' But even while saying this he was positioning himself on top of a particularly inviting mountain. Kenneth's version of the Sermon on the Mount was delivered to all points of the compass.

Spinning, jerking, ducking and weaving, he made you realise just how it was that Jesus attracted so much attention. As the son of a Nazarene carpenter Jesus would have remained unknown. It was by carrying on like a balding Taff madman with St Vitus's dance that he got his message across. 'Blessed are the MEEK!' shrieked Kenneth, climaxing a programme to which I unhesitatingly award, for the second time in the history of this column, that most rarely conferred of all television trophies, the Tin Bum of Rangoon.

This is classy writing. I read all James' TV pieces in the Observer when they first appeared and they are worth re-reading now. A comment in another article he wrote on Kenneth Griffith has stuck in my mind: "Griffith, if called upon, could do Gone with the Wind as a one-man show, including the burning of Atlanta if someone would set light to his socks."

On the evidence of his TV reviews and some of his literary essays—which are also in his archive—Clive James is witty, clever and erudite. But not particularly wise: years ago, he wrote a mawkish and fawning piece as an obituary (entitled, grandly, "Requiem") for Princess Diana, with whom he was besotted, while acknowledging that she was unstable, a liar and occasionally a fruitcake on the rampage; he was hugely impressed that she had enjoyed his company on many occasions, and had accepted his invitation to lunch. 

Oddly, at the same time he was describing Prince Charles as "a man as good and honest as any I have ever met", and expressing agreement with the view that he will make a great king.

He has a sharp eye for pretentiousness but not his own: Private Eye once devoted a whole Pseuds Corner to him, a rare distinction.



Froog said...

James came up with some great lines here and there, but most of the time I found his "wit" rather obvious and monotonous. It's really rather easy to make jokes about Star Trek - he couldn't do any better than this?

In his own television appearances, his smugness was even more suffocating. I found it hard to admire a man who evidently admired himself so much.

Froog said...

Do you suppose your friends at the OED could verify whether this is a first recorded instance of that temporising use of 'like' which has now grown to comprise some 25% of the spoken discourse of Americans under the age of 30?

Tony said...

Froog: I don't think James was using it in quite the same way that teenagers do now. If so, he was ahead of his time.
I agree about his smugness, though he is not quite as pleased with himself as Stephen Fry. "Too clever by half" fits both.
But James' pieces in The Observer were part of my youth so I have a certain affection for them; perhaps they were not as funny as I thought them at the time.

Froog said...

Combining the 'like' with the more British vice of the redundant 'I mean' makes it even worse.

I suspect this is an example of James (and other writers have certainly done it too) adopting a vernacular style of expression for use in the broadsheet press - whether to win credibility with the lower classes, or to mock them; perhaps a little of both - and inadvertently introducing them to wider usage and 'acceptability'.

Tony said...

I daresay you may be right.