Television - review by Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry

On the Box



TELEVISION’s greatest enemy – aside from the BBC’s board of governors – is fine weather. The British are a weak-willed people – proud, of course, fiercely independent no doubt – but pusillanimous to a fault. (Though come to think of it, I never heard of anyone ever being pusillanimous to a virtue.) When they should be sitting inside, curtains carefully drawn, tuned in to the gallimaufrey of plays and films, comedies and documentaries that TV can offer, broadening their minds and buttocks, they are all too easily tempted outdoors by the sunshine and its concomitant distractions – physical exercise, conversation, garden reading, sexual play: in short, activity.

This summer, with its gentle, laughing rains and fresh revivifying winds has been a friend to television: the gruesome life of sunglasses, shorts and tinkling ice cubes has been confined to other, less happier lands.

Seaside theatres used to present summer seasons of plays in their little repertory houses in Westcliffe and Sheringham and such-like places, where holiday makers flocked in bad weather to enjoy a country-house murder or a bedroom farce. BBC 2’s own Summer Season of plays has answered the call of this year’s aestival inclemency with a variety of excellent dramas. I suspect that those who had tuned in only to shelter from the rain, found themselves returning weekly whatever the weather. The standard of writing, direction and performance has been astonishingly high. It fair warms the Leigh-on-Sea cockles of the heart to see that such a body of high-quality work is still possible in these dark days of reduced budgets and base ratings-catching standards. I am sure that nothing could be more inimical to persons of dignity and tone than sentiments of chauvinism, but by jingo, it really is splendid to be reassured that we still have in this country such a large and deep reservoir of gifted and variegated actors and so many fine dramatic writers. That there still exist people of sufficient will and judgement to patronise them can only gratify.

I see no point in reviewing productions which, if you saw, you will have your own opinions of, and which, if you missed, can mean little to you, but to see actors like, for instance, Geoffrey Palmer, Dinsdale Landen, Frances Tomelty, Timothy Spall, Don Henderson in plays like Radio Pictures (Stuart Parker), Breaking the Ice (Ron Eyre), and Time Trouble (Terry Johnson), was, for me, nothing short of inspiring. Not because any of them gave the greatest performance of their lives in the greatest texts ever produced, but actually because they were all doing what was for them simple, quick work, the making of which they would soon forget. They were working with fellow members of the large single company of British actors that hops from telly to radio to stage to cinema with equal ease; the large company that daily divides itself into smaller companies that work and dissolve and regroup continuously in a thousand different combinations. The company sometimes loses its more photogenic or outrageously prodigious members to superstardom or Hollywood or the stultifying cul-de-sac of Burbank and it yearly gains new and interesting members, but what is remarkable to me is its consistent skill, charm, technique, warmth, industry and talent. It seems to me that we owe them an enormous debt. They make surprisingly little money – a great deal less than the average moaner in the wine bar might suppose, but even those with golden larynxes who do rake in hundreds of thousands from advertising voice-overs are nothing loath when it comes to doing good plays for peanuts. Writers simply would not bother to write good plays and good parts unless they knew that they could call upon good actors to realise them.

I suspect that future generations may well look back at the television writing of our age and marvel at the ‘strength in depth’, to borrow a television phrase, of these our actors, just as we wonder at what boy actor Shakespeare must have thought it worth the bother of creating Cleopatra for and at what pompous and dreadful old hams good Victorian writers so conspicuously avoided writing for. Of course actors are vain creatures and need constantly to be reminded that without writers they would be nowhere, but this is a literary magazine and I must suppose that there are writers here amongst our readership. Writers too are vain, and perhaps they should be reminded that aside from the private intercourse of author and reader there is possible the great and glorious congress of drama. So take another look at that novel you are labouring over, see if with a little judicious emendation it couldn’t be transformed into a living telescript. Who better than Michael Gambon for Tom, your disillusioned Krausian philologist? What about Suzanne Bertish for Olivia, your isolated housewife trying to reconcile a convent upbringing and Leavisite education with her love and Tamsin, owner of a feminist bookstall in Salisbury? There! It can be done. I suggest Rowan Atkinson for the shy ’cellist in Chapter 5 – or as it now is, Scene 43. Fashion something splendid, for you have gold to work with.

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