Last Night's TV - Imagine: Ray Davies – Imaginary Man, BBC1; Oz and Hugh Raise the Bar, BBC2
Just a few kinks along the way
Wednesday 22 December 2010
Nostalgia is for losers, but it often makes great telly. Old rockers do it better than most, not only because they seem so tangibly to personify social history, but because the contrast between their aged wistfulness and the intemperance of their youth is so pronounced. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how anyone could capture that contrast better than Ray Davies of The Kinks; nor could Alan Yentob have found a subject more temperamentally inclined to pine for days gone by, or see in his mind's eye timeless glories from yesteryear that he aches to relive.
Davies, it turns out, is a rambler, in both senses of the word. He loves to move about aimlessly, and walk for pleasure, but he also loves to ramble on in speech, peppering his talk with digressions and sometimes slipping into a desultory tone. This combination, a kind of ramblism, formed the basis of of Imagine: Ray Davies – Imaginary Man. Starting out in Hornsey Town Hall, now reduced to a crumbling relic but scene, four decades ago, of The Kinks' early success, he goes on a tour of his childhood territory in north London. Here he is striding across Parliament Hill in Hampstead; here he is sitting on Primrose Hill a little further south; now it's off to a music hall in Finsbury Park; now, here we are at a jazz club in Highgate. Throughout, he provided his own commentary, either singing classic tracks – "You Really Got Me", "Tired of Waiting for You", "Waterloo Sunset" – or recalling his youthful dalliances.
The effect was to peel the surface from the modern architecture, and reveal a lost world that survives only in the imagination and owes so much to the creative energy of men like Davies. If it felt at times like this show ought really to have been called "Ray Davies: in Conversation with Myself", that's OK, not only because the best interviewers know when to shut up (and Yentob gets better with age), but because it was impossible to hear these tracks without feeling the scale of The Kinks' contribution to rock'n'roll – in third place, probably, on a list of all-time great English contributors to rock'n'roll music, after The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The score to this show also revealed The Kinks' profound influence on successful, über-modern bands like The Mystery Jets, The Golden Silvers, and The Libertines.
I should say, on this point, that it never ceases to amaze me how producers don't have the common sense to put up a strapline, every time a new tune comes on, telling us what it is. This is incredibly frustrating. Those of us who don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of The Kinks' music, but are mesmerised by the 30 seconds we hear of some B-side, are left to ask the guy next to us on the Tube if he knows the song we can't stop humming. Just put the title on the screen, TV people. It's a free, worthwhile service.
At times, Davies's solipsism grated, as when he slipped into those very otiose and redundant phrases and mournings that make nostalgia a loser's habit: "It all happened really quickly" (it always does); "Things were different back then" (you don't say); "I read Orwell" (didn't we all, Ray, didn't we all). But at other times it was deeply affecting, as when he related the death of his sister – he had seven of them, and one brother – in London's Lyceum Ballroom, and how that spurred him on. At still other times, it was bizarre, as when he was recalling his affection for steam trains by singing a tune about them – we weren't told its name, alas – while standing adjacent to a train track, as the clanging metal of a modern Tube whizzed past.
The final victories were the sight of Davies, pictured from behind, sitting on his favourite hill in north London and looking south, at a grey landscape boasting no more than a series of stumps, and then a beautiful final scene in which he exited the stage from Hornsey Town Hall, where he'd started all those years ago. The first had a photographic glory; the second a cinematic one. And if there was a lingering sense that Davies was being indulged, that his nostalgia was slipping into downright despondence, we could forgive him on the grounds that he has done so much for us.
Indulgence of a very different kind was trumpeted on Oz and Hugh Raise the Bar, but it too was infused with nostalgia. The conceit seems to be that licence-payers' money should be spent on allowing Oz Clarke to get drunk in several pubs across Britain, on the spurious grounds that he's educating us about Britain's rich heritage in booze, which we're in danger of losing. Hugh Dennis tolerated him with customary charm, and Clarke himself is a likeable chap, with a voice that would bless Test Match Special.
But if you've been watching The Trip recently, in which two different blokes go on a gastronomic tour of the country, the pleasant inoffensiveness of this show is a pale comparison. Our adventurers' bravery in consuming hangover cures that could be brewed by a witch was infectious, as was Clarke's unconventional cocktail-making in a Camden bar. But ultimately this was less cultural education than lads on tour, and, far from re-creating a lost world, used booze to lubricate the lived one. Cheers!
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