TELEVISION / Home on the rage: James Rampton on Maxwell's missing money, music from the movies, and an angry old man
Monday 01 February 1993
In the first episode of the new series, not only was his perennial enemy Patrick (Angus Deayton) against Victor, but so were his telephone and his bladder. As soon as Victor took a moment out from waiting for an important call about a job to go and expel several cups of coffee in the upstairs loo, you just knew that the phone would start ringing insistently in the sitting-room downstairs. But that episode paled beside his contretemps with the workman (Daniel Peacock, with trademark builder's backside cleavage), which resulted in Victor being buried in his own back garden.
Much of the comedy in One Foot in the Grave is played out in a theatre of cruelty - the laughter is triggered by such incidents as Patrick having a hermit-crab surgically removed from his genitals. It also relies heavily on sarcasm; when Victor's wife (Annette Crosbie) politely inquired what he was doing up to his neck in the ground, he exploded, 'Wall-papering the spare bedroom. What the bloody hell does it look as if I'm doing?' On both counts, One Foot in the Grave is derivative of Fawlty Towers and Blackadder.
But Richard Wilson brings a real edge to Victor. He delivers even a simple line like 'What did I come up here for?' as though he too has just had a hermit crab surgically removed from his genitals. Victor may live in the archetypal suburban sitcom street (cf, Bless This House, Terry and June, No Place Like Home), but he is not a suburban sitcom archetype. In his unredeemed grouchiness, he is believable. And it is a measure of David Renwick's confidence as a writer that he could switch so smoothly from comedy to tragedy at the moment when the still-interred Victor, resplendent in his baggy cap, was informed of the death of his mother-in-law.
A cantankerous old man also starred in Screen Two: The Long Roads (BBC 2, Sunday), although he was not a cause for laughter in this downbeat tale of unhappy families and terminal illness. John McGrath's screenplay about Peter and Kitty (Robert Urquhart and Edith MacArthur), an elderly Skye couple on a round-Britain tour to see their five children, played on the obvious contrast between the tranquillity of the Scottish Isles and the clamour of the urban mainland. It opened with breathtaking shots of the Skye sky, a friendly neighbourhood postman and a moody, acoustic Mark Knopfler-style soundtrack. Before you could say 'Local Hero', Kitty and Peter were on their travels and being subjected to louts telling racist jokes and vomiting on trains, police violence, machismo- enhancing attack-dogs and glowering Glasgow tenements.
The clash of two worlds offered some amusing moments. Peter's recitation of romantic verse to Kitty was rudely interrupted by the bleeping of a teasmade. And Kitty's tales of shepherds castrating sheep with their teeth were met with frowns from suited commuters.
But the film's principal charm lay in the voyage of discovery the old couple underwent; the less they understood about the modern world, the more they understood about each other. Too often, films focus on teenagers awakening sexually or thirtysomethings re-evaluating their lives. Like director Tristram Powell's last offering, The Old Devils, The Long Roads showed that old age be just as gripping a subject.
That Alfred Hitchcock's films were gripping was in no small way due to the composer Bernard Hermann. Joshua Waletzky's documentary, Bernard Hermann: Music for the Movies (C4, Sunday), went to commendable lengths demonstrating the composer's skill in the creation of atmosphere rather than just pretty tunes for films. A fellow musician admired Hermann's fandango for the Mount Rushmore scene in North By Northwest: 'When Benny had to unleash something, he'd smite the world with trombones.' Claude Chabrol suggested that the music for the shower sequence in Psycho echoed bird cries, thus subliminally pointing to the murderer - Norman Bates stuffed birds.
This was a far cry from the level of sophistication exhibited by a 1960s BBC film about Robert Maxwell, shown on High Interest (C4, Sunday). Here, as our hero strode purposefully down the Mall and the narrator puffed 'Ian Robert Maxwell, patriot, politician, tycoon extraordinary', the background music was a rousing orchestral march.
'Following the Money', a detective drama masquerading as a documentary, charted the attempts of accountants to track down Maxwell's 'missing millions' - a phrase the commentary seemed especially keen on. This is one case that even Morse would be pushed to solve (although he did solve a mystery surrounding a Maxwell-alike in his last outing, Twilight of the Gods). The 'family tree' diagram mapping out the interrelationship of Maxwell's companies looked like the blackboard in an advanced Open University programme on quantum mechanics.
Per-Eric Hawthorne's documentary was at its best when it let its archive footage do the talking. You did not need an array of accountants to grasp the extent of Maxwell's fraud. You just had to watch the corporate video of Cap'n Bob sermonising to employees in syntax as Byzantine as his business empire: 'It's in your and your family's best interests to remain a member of whichever pension scheme you're a member of in our group.'
Talk about a video nasty.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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