‘A Vision of England’, Tempo’s homage to Shakespeare
‘The Bundle’ succeeds admirably, but it may well be objected that whether or not the paintings of psychotics can be considered art, the free expression of twelve-year-olds is no more than an improvised school play. Art, not the untutored imagination, is the subject of Tempo, and art is altogether more difficult than camera-trapping children, however dexterously their secret wonderings may have been caught. The objection has some force, for ‘The Bundle’ (though, in fact, far more) gains by its strong element of sociology; and documentary, as I have suggested, is television’s one certain, overwhelming victory. What about trapping the artist, the adult sane creative imagination? Has television the art to do it?
There immediately springs to mind the Tempo programme — ‘The Medium-Sized Cage’, the story of the inventing and making of a television comment by a group of students at the Film and T.V. Design Section of the Royal College of Art. I write ‘comment’ for the invention was neither play nor documentary nor plain performance, it was something moving between all three, peculiarly designed by the students I suppose, to illustrate the special properties of that medium-sized cage — the television box. The title comes from Samuel Beckett’s Murphy where it is used to describe the desolate, anonymous yet enclosing qualities of the typical bedsitting room. The programme takes us from a group of students devising the programme to the comment itself — the picture internal and external of a young man (art student — one time would be sculptor) ‘moving digs’. With the background sound of a jazz group and the foreground details of empty bedsitters changing from anonymity to obsession as they fill up with the possessions (pinups, health and strength, comic-photo montage, ton-up equipment, skull and crossbones, science-fiction masks, and above all, shiny black leather boots) which give our hero his existence, we hear him — ‘outsider’, provincial, nearly twenty-four years old, everyman’s Albert Finney — in interior monologue over the detailed camera work. ‘Interests — sex, being alive and myself’, ‘War and death relate to myself’, ‘I wonder who lived here and collected all this junk?’ ‘Organs, religion, churches repel me’, ‘I could make some of these working class films, give me the money’ — the thoughts, if now familiar, are authentic. And so he could make one of these working class films, but what is made in ‘The Medium-Sized Cage’ is the distillation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or This Sporting Life, reduced to this single figure and his stream of consciousness, with his every associated object lovingly caressed in turn by the television cameras. The combination discloses a whole world of lusts, fantasies, ambitions and frustrations in a single set with a single actor, by using, as only television can, voice and pictures to combine the literary techniques of the naturalist like Zola with those of Joyce. This double technique is television’s greatest gift to artistic economy. Here the process can be peculiarly brief, for we know the young man’s type so well before the action starts. Publicity today has already reduced him to self-parody. As he says, with the inverted commas of self-consciousness, ‘My philosophy — anarchism!’ So far has the outsider travestied himself since Colin Wilson first burst forth upon the English scene.
I have written that the camera dwells most lovingly upon the objects, the junk of the young man’s life and sequences of his daydreams, but this is perhaps not quite accurate, for it is above all upon the young man himself as he stretches on his dreary bed — ‘the boxer must have a dressing room to relax in’ — that the camera descends, catching all his drifting daydreams and the self-mockery with which he protects himself from them. Each line of his body seems to suggest an aimless wandering that mocks those flashing jackboots, symbol of his cherished toughness and virility, to which the camera turns again and again in ironic comment.
There is nothing here, of course, that cinema could not do, but the mammoth scope of cinema could never content itself with caressing so limited an area of physical reality, so confined and repetitious a consciousness, nor probe so deeply, even for the short-running time of ‘The Medium-Sized Cage’.
The programme ends with a return to the students telling us of their social backgrounds and ambitions. Once again this emphasis on the creators seems an intrusion on what they have created. However, at least, they are not indulging in commentary on their work; they are telling us of themselves, and their accents proudly proclaiming almost every region of Great Britain offer authenticity for the portrait of youth on the move that they have offered us. The only puzzle that remains is why students of television should produce something so exact and sufficient, and television companies produce such…. But there is no mystery really. One can imagine exactly the kind of overplotted, socially significant play into which this comment would be blown up by most drama departments. And one knows exactly the many spurious pressures that would make for such inflation.
With ‘The Medium-Sized Cage’, however, we are still with one foot in documentary, and the other foot in television itself, which, alas, is a tautology if we wish to show that television is an art. There are two immediate directions by which we can find our way out of television into older means of expression — by way of cinema or by way of theatre.
Tempo has largely avoided programmes about cinema (though there was at least one notable one about Polish film acting marred only by the tedium of listening to an interpreter). I am sure that this has been a wise decision. The love-hate relationship of television and cinema is demonstrated in the mixture of dependence and contempt with which television planners use old films to fill in programme gaps. The public, shrewdly as usual, exactly echoes this mood in the loving grumbling with which it greets these substituted old cinema favourites. Cinema in space and motion can do so much more than television; television, by way of revenge, seems to reduce the films it presents to a kind of animated magic lantern show. As for tracing the processes of cinema creation, these, where they are not too technical for the average viewer to follow, are too close to those of television itself. The viewer would only be presented with an enormously magnified version of that studio scenery and life which, since someone brightly thought of doing without props, has been the increasingly deadening and monotonous background to so many television programmes, from interviews to variety.
The relationship between television and live theatre is a far more subtle one and Tempo has made many attempts, some excellent, others less good, to get at some of the facts that lie behind the mystique of ‘good theatre’ so strongly adhered to by that intuitive profession. The least successful programmes about theatre were those which attempted to give the flavour of a current show in excerpt, such as ‘Lions led by Donkeys’, the programme about Oh, What a Lovely War. I write ‘about’, but this was really the trouble; I do not think that a viewer who had not seen the show on the stage would have really known from the television programme what it was about, except in the most general terms. The commentator kept his explanations to the minimum. In general this is the greatest virtue that a commentator can show — and even here it was not perhaps more explanation that was needed but more passion in explaining. Of course, I was at a disadvantage in knowing the stage original well, but it seemed to me that the shot of the wonderfully funny ‘Roses are Blooming in Picardy’ or the deeply moving Christmas 1914 in the trenches failed to convey the emotions that came off the stage. There were Murray Melvin and Victor Spinetti doing their stuff and yet somehow the life had gone from it; I could only be excited by remembering what I had felt in the theatre. There was not enough of the show, nor enough coherence in the excerpts to convey Miss Littlewood’s peculiarly powerful propaganda, so powerful because of the very over-simplifying that makes it so infuriating, or her wonderful mockery of fruity music hall. A more passionate commentary might have welded it together; but the subject that demands passionate commentary is, I think, wrongly chosen for television. Which is not to say that it should not have been shown — one of television’s functions is to give a taste of contemporary plays or books for those who would not otherwise see them — but only that it was good entertainment but uninteresting television.
Something of the same difficulty attended the two programmes ‘Ad Absurdum’ about the theatre of the absurd. Yet here the excerpts and discussions based on Martin Esslin’s book had such variety of laughter and gloom that the viewer, who was not amazed and shocked by the outrageous novelty of it all (and thousands of viewers must have been), could be kept alert by the sheer jolting as he swung on the maniac-depressive pendulum from Ionesco to Beckett to Pinter to Simpson. Yet, if it had not been for the wonderful virtuoso acting of Kenneth Griffith — television more even than the stage showed what a lively actor can get in sheer liberation from talking nonsense — ‘Ad Absurdum’ would have primarily served to show how, if cinema evades television through movement, the theatre (particularly the verbose theatre of Waiting for Godot) weighs the television screen down with its static inertia. In Ionesco’s famous play Amédée the corpse of the lover grows and grows until it fills the flat — he is suffering from ‘geometrical progression — the incurable disease of the dead’. Even this slow morbid growth seems lively beside the stillness of Beckett’s tramps and dustbins and rubbish heaps.
No, once again, it is the making of the play, not the play itself, that television can bring alive. With the right personality, it must at once be said. From the earliest days of Tempo (as one might expect with Kenneth Tynan, the original inspiration of the programme) theatrical production and acting had a front place. The first of such programmes used interviews with cut-ins of filmed live productions or of stills to illustrate theatrical reminiscence. Interview has its faults, but they are perhaps exaggerated in television circles nowadays. It is primarily on interview surely that television’s brilliant journalistic achievement has been built up. The faulty development has been to overpower the personalities of the interviewed by the creation of celebrated interviewers (whether wreathed in smoke like Muggeridge or frozen into ice blocks like Freeman). The theatrical interviews on Tempo told me a lot about the effects of interviewing on television. The interview between Dan Farson and Gordon Craig at the old man’s home in Vence was one of the most memorable I have seen on television. Farson seemed quite obliterated (as an interviewer should be) by the force of the ninety-year-old Craig’s personality — so reminiscent of the Yellow Book era in his mixture of elaborate imagery (‘Irving’s voice was like a leopard’s smile’) and epigrammatic malice (‘Stanislavsky’s method? I don’t think I really know it. He was not very serious over it, I think’).
After Gordon Craig’s performance, Elia Kazan’s New York serious ‘theatre’ manner (the New York intelligentsia is often portentous, theatre people being serious are always heavy-handed, but the combination!) seemed like an embarrassingly sincere undergraduate talking his way through a tutorial for which he’d done no reading. Yet in the end I was to discover that it was not Gordon Craig’s personality that made Farson’s interview with him so excellent; it was rather that Farson was literally not there. He had arrived at Vence with a cold and the old man’s nonagenarian caution had rightly excluded him. Recipe, then, for a really good interview. Let the interviewee talk and mix afterwards with a few shots of the interviewer.
Another personality interviewed early on (by Tynan himself and very skilfully) was Franco Zeffirelli. His mixture of overpowering boyish charm, tenacity and toughness, and his original views that hang dangerously between the sublime and the vulgar made him even in that interview, where the formidable Joan Littlewood was third party, the figure that mattered. Miss Littlewood, using all her zany little-girl tricks, tried to hammer Zeffirelli on his Othello production. ‘First thing I’d do,’ she told him, ‘is clear the stage … make the audience work … cut psychology, cut character analysis.’ All good straight left stuff that we have heard her dish up before. In fact, I agree with it. But it somehow seems empty when Zeffirelli (tough-charm boy any time to match Joan Littlewood’s little-girl stuff) tells us that he has set out to give the ‘pompous state life of Venice’, to show in Othello ‘the tragedy of all V.I.P. men’. The reasoning is good, however much it is only an excuse for the high romanticism he craves. The resulting Othello may veer from the highest poetic tragedy to a suggestion of what Duse would have been like produced by Tree, but in a theatre world dedicated to improvisation Zeffirelli’s extravagances are intensely exciting.
It was then a splendid inspiration of the Tempo producers to show Zeffirelli rehearsing John Stride as Hamlet and Pamela Brown as Gertrude in the closet scene. An even better inspiration to call it ‘A Wind of Change’. Zeffirelli in interview, of course, was only an hors d’oeuvre to Zeffirelli in rehearsal. The mobility of his face is of a very unusual kind. Most men with conventional good looks (and Zeffirelli is very good-looking) can look noble or sentimental as required. Zeffirelli’s version of nobility is somehow savage and violent, his version of softer emotions is just on the edge of the clown. Since he mimes every gesture his actors make, the rehearsal would be a magnificent show if nothing else. But it is, in fact, much more, for Zeffirelli’s method of instruction, for all his charm, is steely rather than silken. From the beginning of the act until at any rate the murder of Polonius we saw conflict in the making of art — conflict between Zeffirelli and John Stride as Hamlet — conflict in which, despite an obvious real friendliness between the two men, Stride clearly found the producer’s ideas doubtful and alien to him. Zeffirelli made it clear that what thought was ‘what happened in Hamlet’. He posited at least three unorthodox views. Hamlet, when he kills Polonius, is relieved for he believes that he has killed the King and solved his dilemma; Hamlet hated his father who had sent him to Wittenburg because he did not think him a suitable heir to the throne; no ghost appears in the closet scene. Of these three propositions Stride sensibly seized on the second, for it is certainly the most outrageous. But Zeffirelli, for all his limited command of English and his boyish manner, won the day by aggression, determination and belief in himself. The film of the Italian production of Hamlet that followed seemed a slight anticlimax. It was a relief to see giant romantic acting again — Gordon Craig would have loved it. But the really exciting moment had been the conflict that went into its making — the short, fierce clash of wills between producer and actor. And its resolution in Zeffirelli’s favour. Too often on television the arts appear to be all sweetness and light, but art is founded on conflict and tension, and for a moment we had seen the very core of creative conflict in action.