Astringent, Acerbic and Alembic - review by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry

Astringent, Acerbic and Alembic

Astringent, Acerbic and Alembic


Why, I wonder, did I not enjoy Dutch Girls, the over-heralded film by William Boyd shown one dark weekend in late November? Almost everyone else I know adored it. The performances were all there. The 25-year-old actors were realistically dirty-minded Gordonstoun schoolboys, and a very talented Dutch actress guiding them gently from confused adolescence to baffled adulthood was astonishingly good. But somehow there was nothing there for me. I just couldn’t believe any of it. True, adolescents are as nervous and shy and smutty as represented, they can occasionally be charming too, I concede that all the externals were perfectly observed, but there was something missing at the heart. I think it was to do with the actors. They weren’t quite brave enough to show that however pretty the pubescent male may be and however hard he tries to look cool and in control, he is almost always embarrassingly disgusting. Not comically embarrassing, but grossly embarrassing. Going through puberty is like defecating in public for seven years. That’s something that comes from inside. In so many ways. John Gordon Sinclair who played Gregory in Gregory’s Girl, a far less self-important film, achieved that perfectly.

Or it may be that the film was so nicely observed and so accurate that it was too specific to be true for anyone but William Boyd. An example of that kind of over-truth was the documentary series Queens: a Cambridge College. For me, not just a Cambridge College, but the bountiful mother that for three years was my guide, philosopher and friend, my durum nutrix vitae, the sweet haunt of my youth, my home from home. I watched some, couldn’t bring myself to watch more; and of the programmes in the series and for all it meant to me, it might as well have been Albion Market. I graduated in 1981, so I hardly believe the place has changed that much since I left: I recognized the buildings and some of the people, but that was about it. What we saw obviously happened, but there are a million stories in the Naked Varsity, each one utterly different. For those of us who didn’t row, go to lectures or waste our own and our tutor’s time with being Christian or writing futile essays, the place was completely different. The truth only baffles and misleads. An Evelyn Waugh army novel or an episode of Colditz would tell one far more about what being in a large institution was like. The Roxanne episode of Happy Families which was set in a fictional Long Mangly prison currently being filmed by a BBC camera crew showed that perfectly. Perhaps if I hadn’t known that Dutch Girls was based on something that really happened to William Boyd I might have believed it more. But the truth is rarely convincing.

Despite my position as the foremost television critic in the land, astringent, acerbic and alembic (can you spit the deliverage mistake?) I am not flooded by TV companies with invitations to previews or with ‘press kits’ and ‘handouts’. I like to think that this is not so much a reflection of their underestimation of this magazine’s national importance as a manifestation of their fear of my reputation for alembic scrupulousness and integrity. They are quite simply afraid of my wrath should I suspect them of trying to bribe me. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons, I was not advised by anyone of three new drama series that I would, for one reason or another, respectfully commend to your attention when they are repeated. They are Black Silk, Hold The Back Page and Edge of Darkness. The first two seem to usher in a new age of the ‘ issue drama’. Despite its title, Black Silk has nothing whatever to do with a minority minority spin-off from Lace; it is a concerned drama dealing with the problems confronting a black barrister in this country. One of tho e dramas where the writing appears to get in the way of the acting. Watching it one is deafened by various metaphoric noises: the squeak of the nib on the paper; the rustling wings of the fat owl called ‘Worthy’ beat over one’s head; and the droning wail of the dark insect named ‘Dreary’ buzzes in one’s ears.

The central problem for me is that the title sequence is so well done that there is nowhere left for the programme to go after it. We see the black lawyer slowly don the great symbolic costume: the forensic robes of the scholar and the white neckband of the preacher; he lovingly places pink-ribboned documents in his (literal) brief ca e and the camera pulls back into what looks like a kind of graduation photograph.

That single image suggests more plotlines, more ironies and more resonances than any script- writer could hope to deliver. Nothing can follow but the deep pit of bathos. Still, better the fat owl ‘Worthy’ than the scrawny vulture ‘Worthless’, I always say. Well not always. Rather infrequently, to be hones t. Only, in fact, when I want to make a seamless join between one item and another. And of course, I’ve ruined the link now by putting too much between it and the subject I wanted to raise, namely the worthless carrion Wogan. Too late now, I must get straight back to business, I’m getting all kinds of frantic countdown signals from the editor.

Hold the Back Page is a pleasing title for a series that follows the adventures of a newspaper sports reporter. It must have been fun to ring up their production office at the BBC. I once had occasion to call a friend who was researching on a (now notorious) documentary on the history of drama. The telephone was answered with the words ‘All the world’s a stage… ‘ I thought I had misdialled and reached ‘Dial-a-proverb ‘. To be answered by ‘Hold the back page’ must be unnerving too. It would be worth devising a programme called Oh For Cod’s Sake Co Away You Fat Cit, just for the pleasure of being rung up by controllers and heads of department. However. Hold The Back Page contains two particularly fine performances from David Warner and Horovitch.

The caviar casting, superb direction and pawky writing of Edge Of Darkness has turned a pedestrian plot into a superb thriller series. Francis Durbridge meets Le Carre and Le Carre wins easily. There are more National and RSC players in the same place than I have seen for a long time, but despite that it is well acted. Keen-eyed television watchers will have recognized at least two of the many stage actors in this ‘masterly ‘ series: Ian MacNiece (RSC) is also the short one in the Extra Strong Mints advertisement and Tim Mclnnerny (NT) is Percy in The Black Adder. All the world is indeed a stage. As John Ebden says on the wireless, if you have been, thanks for listening.

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