TV REVIEWS: Without Walls and They Think It's All Over


By some unaccountable failure of the screening process, Without Walls, Channel 4's arts strand, actually broadcast a programme about the arts last night. Naturally I was cautious, perhaps the elegiac opening - in which Natalie Clein played part of Elgar's Cello Concerto and summoned the revenant spirit of Sir Edward - was merely a blind. At any moment a Bullnosed Morris would crash up the aisle and we would be into "The Cowley Story", an account of Oxford's influence on inter-war automobile design. But no, "Elgar's Tenth Muse" was genuinely about the composer, a short drama which traced his acquaintance with the violinist Jelly d'Aranyi. His somewhat uneventful acquaintance, as it turned out, because despite the hint in the title, this was a pregnancy that never reached full term.

"Without the catalyst, you can't turn dross into gold," Sir Edward had announced earlier, from behind a fuming test-tube. Leaving aside the fact that no catalyst known to man will turn dross to gold, you felt you could take this as a hint of things to come. Viewers who didn't know the biography presumably prepared themselves for a tale of autumn passion, blossom suddenly appearing on an apparently dead branch under the warming sun of love. The expectation was further aroused by a calculated repetition in the script - "And what now?" - used by various characters to tune up the sense of imminent breakthrough. But the final answer to the question turned out to be "Not much, actually".

Sir Edward first encounters Jelly at a dinner party, where the sound of her playing drifts down the staircase, closely followed by a tumbling crowd of people being strenuously Bohemian - large feathers and a lot of that dutiful squeaking and squealing which is always used to represent antic revel. Sir Edward (James Fox with a fun-fur moustache and ill-fitting spats) stands at the bottom, an Edwardian pillar around which this wave of vitality breaks. Jelly plays the violin for him and James Fox does his best to look stiffly inspired - not easy, given that solemn aesthetic rapture looks much the same as the dawning realisation that you have just swallowed a bad oyster. He's enchanted by her untrammelled vivacity (she talks like a hippy desk calender, a homily for every occasion); she's put off by his starchy Edwardian friends. He makes a mild lunge at her in the library; she runs off down the path muttering something in French about old men with wandering hands. The final caption informs you that he never completed another major work. The Radio Times valiantly suggested that this was "a crossroads in his career". If so, it was one he seems to have ambled across without looking left or right.

Paul Yule's direction of this elegant non-event was an affair of refined visual compositions, and there was a real pleasure in the combination of his images and Elgar's music - the composer disappearing into the mist in a slow fade, or the layered profiles of the composer's dying wife and Fox's well-mannered grief. Selma Alispahic was good as d'Aranyi, too, making the best of a somewhat gauzy part. But the thing as a whole never managed to bring its sustained plangency to any conclusion - an unresolved cadence rather than a completed work.

They Think It's All Over (BBC1) is one of those quizzes in which nobody is supposed to mind who wins. Except, of course, that everybody does, because it is driven by competitive shower-room banter, the verbal equivalent of flicking a wet towel at a team-mate's rump. "Did you and Dennis Wise go and see Forrest Gump together?" Nick Hancock asks Gary Lineker, looking hard at his haircut. "His name was Jorso," says a straight-faced Lee Hurst, passing on an elaborate bit of trivia about a Portuguese striker - "Jorso gullible" he adds, when Hancock looks politely interested, and punches the air in tri-umph. It's very laddish, but it's also funny and it makes A Question of Sport look about as sprightly as a bowls match.

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