The word and the picture

'And yet the man smelled of sweat'. John Whiting's view of Christ. Narrator - C. Day Lewis

I have discussed Tempo programmes dealing with the arts that require interpretation so that television’s task is mainly to interpret the interpreter. As a writer I am impatient to come to Tempo‘s treatment of literary themes, but before doing so, I must write a word upon painting and television. The memorable Tempo programmes that relate to painting appear to be few. This does not surprise me. Painters in action (save no doubt for Action painters) must be rigged to create a coherent programme. Great paintings of the past can only be dealt with in a more or less complex version of a lecture. This can be supremely effective as we all know from Sir Kenneth Clark’s television talks on Michelangelo. But then Sir Kenneth is, in my opinion, the most incisive television personality we possess. The cameras helped him, of course, but television technique played a subordinate role. The only comparable programme on Tempo was ‘The Face of Christ’ — an analysis of the representation of Christ in art. Here I thought the camera technique — fading in and out from one painting to another — was a deterrent to appreciation, nor can C. Day Lewis as a narrator rival Kenneth Clark. But the programme will remain remarkable, for the script — intricate and powerful, although I disagree with its anti-romantic view — was written by the late John Whiting; as such it is in itself a contribution to literature.

'The Dream'

In interpreting literature, Tempo producers have preferred poetry to prose. Many of their poetry programmes have been effective and one, at least, was outstanding. Nevertheless it was in their treatment of Chekhov’s short story ‘The Dream’ that the Tempo team produced one of their most original and successful pieces of television. As a prose writer I am no doubt biased. Nevertheless I shall pause for a moment to question this preference for poetry, especially since it is generally to be found in most television programmes on the arts. It lies deep, surely, in the make-up of television personnel. As a whole they belong to the worlds of journalism, design, theatre or cinema; their instincts are dramatic, visual, and even when they are most apparently concerned with documentary realism, romantic; like people of the theatre and the cinema, they are highly intelligent rather than intellectual and intuitive, practical rather than rational and ruminative; with a journalist’s flair for the new, their artistic snobberies slant towards the contemporary or avant garde rather than towards the masterpieces of the past; they are as distrustful of the academic as they are of the dowdy (but not by any means so suspicious of the folksy as they should be — especially if it be ‘continental’ or Celtic folksiness). From this very combination of qualities come most of the virtues of their work — style, a sense of movement and form, a lively speed, great sensitivity to overtones of emotion, avoidance of the sin of dryness (with a propensity to the far less grave sin of vulgarity), freshness and originality; but, of course, such an approach has its deficiencies — arts programmes on television (Tempo is no exception) lack intellectual toughness, any acceptance of difficulty as a part of good art; their intellectual comment is sometimes pompous and pretentious; they fall too easily for the ‘arty’ provided it can be tricked out to please the senses. Art, perhaps, is made to seem a little uplifting and beautiful, and a little too lightweight. A strong intermixture of the conflicting, the complex and the solid would be my recipe for a new lease of life for television programmes on the arts, although I am well aware that the difficulties of relating such qualities to pleasing and entertaining vision and sound are considerable. But definitely a little more prose and a little less poetry (if poetry means as it usually does romantic ballads or lyrics) would save television art programmes from death by loss of weight. 

However, that said, let me salute the programme ‘Morning at Alamein’, an anthology of poetry from the desert campaigns. We come in through a staff-room chart on which is traced the forthcoming attack ‘Scorpion’, and through the chart we open on to a Scorpion tank, and with it move to our desert scene. Here around the tank are grouped its crew by whom or over whose actions the poems are recited. It is not always the case that actors prove good in near-static recitation; they seem too often to be deprived of their essential dimension of movement. Most of the actors in ‘Morning at Alamein’ seemed as though born to recitation. Grouped around their tank at their various duties, or awaiting the dawn battle, sleeping or writing letters, or merely (how ghastly is ‘merely’ here) staring before them, they delivered the poems without a trace of the voice beautiful, nor did they destroy all the rhythms as though they were under orders to disguise the poetry as prose. In fact the bitter, sad and humble mood of the soldiers’ poetry that they gave us came over completely. Death as a greedy, though cunning, reaper was in every poet’s mind. ‘Do not think to provoke any immediate answer from death’. ‘It is the harvest time in no man’s land’ — always Death’s mouth about to devour sooner or later. If I were to criticise the actors’ performance at all, it would be only to wonder whether the profusion of regional accents was not a somewhat distracting, irrelevant carry-over from sound radio, where they are so much needed for purposes of identification.

'Morning at Alamein...'
'It is the harvest time in no man's land'

As the time came up to dawn and then to the advance the suspense created despite the counterpull of a static set was quite admirable. The mood of fear borne well and regret for life — ‘I hate that dark and I love the light’, ‘We’re not much… afraid’, ‘I’m not afraid but me and mine are hard to part’ — was conveyed despite all the strain imposed on actors’ facial repertory by the demands of close-ups. The battle din, though effective, was at times too much for the poetry (I doubt if such realism has any place in a programme of this kind). Most effective was the theatrical silence of the desert as the battle died away and the camera moved now on to one silhouetted corpse, now on to another — from an arm trickling with blood and on until at last it rested upon the dead man’s head, face downwards, with his hair blowing in the dust-filled desert wind. ‘He died the lad with a bruise — his bruise not to be mended’; ‘their stillness is our comfort’. It was simple, romantic poetry, often Kiplingesque ballad in form. It seldom echoed the more famous poetry of the First War, except in its assumption that the best would be taken and the worse left behind. It was largely without the bitterness of Sassoon or Osbert Sitwell, though once the second-war poets questioned, ‘The old usurpers reap what they cannot sow, will it be so again?’ It was none of it poetry of the highest class; sincerity was its greatest virtue. But the television producers never let it down.

Three other programmes of poetry need mention, if only because they all began from the same general idea of national or regional poetry and each achieved such different effects.

I hope that the number of English viewers of ‘A Grey Eye Weeping’, a programme for St Patrick’s day, was well above average. It will have done them good. When I was at school, hearty boys began their sentences…. ‘You can always tell a stinker…’ Well, you can always tell an English stinker if he is not utterly ashamed of our past record in Ireland; and this, despite all the clever excuses that can be found for us, not the least of which is the extreme tiresomeness of the Irish themselves. ‘A Grey Eye Weeping’ consisted of a series of the most bitter Irish poems, songs, and speeches (particularly impressive was Robert Emmett’s speech from the dock in 1798) spoken by actors and a fine actress Eithne Dunne in the simplest Irish costumes. The camera moved from figure to figure as they stood or sat among various props that well (though hardly as well as the real thing) suggested a bleak, bare, celtic-crossed Irish scenery. ‘Royal Cashel is bare of house and guest’ suggested the mood of the programme, but it whipped itself into a less austere, more frightening lament with the girl’s greeting of her maimed lover returned from the English wars — ‘Johnnie, I hardly knew you’. Perhaps it was the academic in me that wondered whether viewers could follow the rather complicated move from one historical period to another; perhaps, in fact, it doesn’t matter if they didn’t. At any rate it was a nice change from television’s usual tendency to dot every i and cross every t at least three times.

There is no space here to describe in detail ‘The Saltire in the Wind’, a St Andrew’s day offering when Glasgow and (blasphemy of blasphemies) Edinburgh were given the works in alternate lyrical prose and harsh invective. The programme must have knocked a lot of the surplus smugness out of Auld Reekie’s God-fearing burghers. I can also only mention an anthology of Australian poetry, painting and prose — They’re a Weird Mob designed to show that Ned Kelly isn’t all of Australia, that Australian art is now not just down under but international. All these programmes showed satisfactorily, I think, that a common television prejudice against actors is completely unjustified. The actors’ faces were always relevant, and a great deal more satisfying than voices over any montage of stills. One point, I must notice, about the Australian programme — the reading from Patrick White’s novel Riders in the Chariot was the most effective recitation in the programme, yet the extract comes from a close-packed, long novel and does not even relate to Australia. There was no preliminary explanation of the plot or the character, and none seemed to be needed. So much for the belief that extracts from novels need too much filling in of background to be good television.

'Royal Cashel is bare of house and guest'. Eithne Dunne in 'A Grey Eye Weeping', a programme for St Patrick's Day
Hellfire from the pulpit...
Andrew Crawford in 'Saltire in the Winf', a programme for St Andrew's Day
'Most things a man can do I'm up to...'
Two of the 'Weird Mob'

But, as I have said, the real triumph came in the reconstruction of Chekhov’s story The Dream. The programme ‘Two Tales for Christmas’ attempted two different approaches to presenting short stories on the screen. The first was a short story especially written and read by Gwyn Thomas. It says nothing against Mr Thomas’s work, though something, I fear, against his rather wooden narration, that the first story failed. It seems to me unlikely that any writer (or even actor) would have the dramatic power necessary to recite a whole short story to camera without leaving the viewers cold and dazed behind him. The powerful impression made by The Dream may have gained a little from following this failure in narration.

As Chekhov is conveniently dead, camera could take over from writer in narrating this story of an old pawnbroker’s man alone in his shop on Christmas Eve. The place is full of the pledges of the poor anxious to find a little ready cash to provide some small addition to their dinner table on Christmas Day. Beautifully the camera tracked round them; in the half-light of the shop’s dim mysterious recesses, they seem blurred shadows, indistinct forms that might perhaps prove to be no more than rags and lumber. And so they are or little more — these dresses and bonnets, bits of finery, jewellery, watches, clocks, a guitar. At the centre of the room the pawnbroker, played beautifully by Paul Rogers, sits in an old fur-trimmed coat huddled over the fire. Even when he lies down full length to sleep he seems — so clever is the camera work — no more than a shadowy outline whose eyes, or wrinkled cheeks, or grubby beard, or fleshy nose are lit up from moment to moment — highlights in a shadowy bundle not so different from the strange shapes of the pledges that hang from the beams of the roof. Every article seems to speak of that hopeless slum world of Moscow or St Petersburg — a world of venial debauchery, sorrow and crime — the world of the Marmeladovs or of Dostoevsky’s poor folk. There seems something evil about the pawnbroker — perhaps it is the association with Crime and Punishment, or more probably that the sinister Dickensian bloom so apparent always in the urban poverty of nineteenth-century Russia, especially at Christmas time, is heightened by the touch of Fagin that Paul Rogers’ make-up lends to the scene. Or is it, especially when he pores over the jewels, in his old fur-trimmed cloak that he recalls Volpone?

'You can't be tried for a nightmare'. Paul Rogers in Checkov's short story

However the evil seeps into the scene, it seems almost tangible as the shadows and frost shapes appear like faces at the window of the close, stuffy room. We are with the frightening side of Hans Andersen. Fear is communicated to the pawnbroker… He turns and tosses. I have not seen a bad conscience so visually extended as to gather to itself every half-seen, half-heard thing in the room. Then, woken from his half-slumber by a terrible knocking, the pawnbroker takes a new shape — not as the master, the Fagin of his bullied, hungry little world, but as the squalid, rather pitiful instrument of oppression. The voice of his master tells him that he shall not go to Christmas morning mass, because there will still be hungry wretches ready to pledge their last pathetic possession for a little share of Christmas good cheer. I use a Dickensian vocabulary deliberately, for it is in Chekhov’s short stories (his petty clerks and straining seamstresses) that via Dostoevsky the whole Christmas world of Dickens (and of Hans Andersen) finds its last respectable resting-place.

As the pawnbroker whom we now know not only as an instrument, but as an unwilling one, for he has come to his trade through necessity, the same necessity that drives his wretched victims to him, pauses in contemplation of his master’s harsh orders, the silent world of the shop is pierced by the sudden reverberating note of a string that snaps on the guitar. It is a moment of alarm for him and for us viewers. Still the faces seem to peer at the window. Nearby sounds a shot and a cry, but when the old man goes to the window to peer out, there is only an old woman’s voice piteously whining through the howling wind of the snowstorm. ‘Your honour… your honour….’ ‘It’s poverty’. Something in the old man breaks and he begins desperately to thrust all the pledged objects out to the old beggar… coats, petticoats, cloaks, all, even down to the guitar.

And then over his shuffling, bewildered old figure we hear his words, ‘I was tried a month later…. What for?…. I told the judges it was a dream…. You can’t be tried for a nightmare…. But the court took my dream for reality’.

This surely is how prose fiction is to be conveyed on television. No stage performance could separate the thoughts and words from the scene as television can, no stage performance could reduce the central figure to a shadow and some sudden highlit grotesque features; no stage performance could give us the suggested faces at the window; no stage performance could assemble the whole story bit by bit as the camera passes from object to object. The cinema could — but what sense could there be in cinema so confining itself in space and in duration. In The Dream, Tempo took the words, the images from a printed book and brought them to life by purely television technique, as only the imagination of the most subtle reader of Chekhov’s great short story could ever hope to do.

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