Television Review

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The Independent Culture
"He had a bit of a flat swing... but he got results," said an elderly golf pro in Bookmark's (BBC2) two-part programme about Samuel Beckett, well-known pillar of the Carrickmines Golf Club and proud possessor of a two handicap. The scene was typical of Sean O'Mordha's documentary, of its faintly comic ingenuousness and of its appetite for any crumb of information, however tiny, about its subject. Television profiles of great artists are always prone to turn into human reliquaries - display cabinets for those who have been hallowed by their proximity to the beatified dead. The effect is amplified in the case of Beckett, whose contented seclusion from the world of celebrity and publicity stirs inappropriate thoughts in those who want an exclusive on the life. Journalists tend to treat anyone who doesn't wish to speak to them as bizarrely reclusive and ascetic, rather than simply choosy about the company they keep.

And, to be fair, within this holy crumb there was a grain of truth. Beckett's golfing days didn't last much longer, perhaps because he parted with his regular playing partner after a disagreement over the attractiveness of "normal" people. "I'm not interested in normal," he is reported to have said, "I'm only interested in the abnormal." This is intriguing, if true, because of how uncharacteristic it is, sounding a note both arrogant and uncharitable. In fact it sounds like a young man's remark, the sort of thing which he might have repudiated later, when the normality of his subject matter must have become more apparent to him.

O'Mordha's film was not really about the work though, viewing it less as an independent object of study than as a coded kind of diary, a set of autobiographical allusions to be tallied up with the scant fragments of the life. This is a necessarily diminishing exercise, though it certainly obeys the current pieties - in particular the belief that sincere self- expression is the highest artistic virtue. And in terms of tracing the details of the life O'Mordha had done a lot of work, talking to Beckett's relatives, to friends and colleagues and publishers, even a maid who worked in the Beckett family home and who delivered the sweetly Irish verdict that "he wasn't a bit of bother".

A sense of Beckett as a man did emerge from this - a figure unusually sensitive to the distress of others, absolutely clear-minded and courageous about his obligations as an artist. The painter Avigdor Arikha described him as "a spiritual crystal, where ethics and aesthetics fuse". After which O'Mordha, to his credit, had placed a timely denial from the stage designer Jocelyn Herbert: "He wasn't a saint," she said, smiling as she recalled an all-night bar-crawl through Paris. Whether you would have needed this wake-up call without the unbroken reverence that had preceded it, and without Ronald Pickup's hushed narration, is another matter.

There were other admonitions: countless still pictures of Beckett as he aged, that beaked profile, with its crowning crest of stiff hair, slowly hollowing into a mask of vigilance. In all the portrait photographs his eyes have a questioning gaze. This is not the amenable pose of a man putting himself at the disposal of the publicity photographer, but something more interrogative - "what are you looking at?" without the note of aggression. There was also a last minute moment of grace. Beckett confided to his nephew late in his life that he thought of his work as a narrowing V, a powerful image this, as if you were to suddenly find that a perspective's vanishing point was real, that the road really did close in on either side as you proceeded along it. Coupled with a beautiful image of a road in the Wicklow Mountains, a scene that recalled Beckett's youthful walks with his father and the lonely setting of his most famous play, this moment gave O'Mordha's film an allusive power that had eluded it throughout the more humdrum tramp through the biography.