The unhappy princess
Sunday 24 November 1996
Thousands of schoolchildren may have encountered Wilde's moral genius for the first time when watching The Happy Prince (C4, Monday), an animated musical version of the story in which a gilded, bejewelled statue of a prince persuades a tatty swallow to delay flying south for the winter, and strip away the gold and gems to give to the poor and dying. The swallow dies, the statue is pulled down - both are carted off to heaven by a deity that recognises their preciousness. You could not wish for a clearer message about selflessness.
But what, one wonders, was the Duchess of York reading when she was a child? Which moral precepts was she absorbing, to provide her with a compass to guide her? Or did she just forget everything that she had learnt? I have heard some people say that she emerged well from Ruby Wax Meets The Duchess of York (BBC1, Sunday). Certainly - persuaded by the argument of some of my colleagues that she had been "demonised" by the tabloids - I sat down to watch, open to the idea that she had had a hard time, had made mistakes and was repentant.
How wrong I was. These were her views about herself: "I'm not materialistic, Ruby"; "I'm a woman of integrity, funnily enough"; "I'm a very humble person, Ruby". And everything that she had ever done wrong, every excess, every holiday paid for on tick, every present not covered by funds, every bit of frivolous jet-setting, every preposterous indulgence, was covered by the "fact" that she herself is a victim.
A victim of her mother's inconstancy (true), a victim of palace scapegoating (not really true), a victim of her own lack of self-confidence (nearly universal), a victim of others' evil counsel or venality - and all leading to her own particular form of self-destruction: " my addiction - my `bulimia', my `alcoholism' - was that I overspent". What a convenient form of self-sacrifice that is! I wonder what deep unhappiness accounts for my own tendency to overeat? What bad experience explains my own covetousness and greed? Was it how my father made me smoke, my mother made me irascible, my siblings made me jealous?
One of the developing curses of the age is the inability to distinguish between understanding why we act badly, and excusing it. Failing this, words of contri- tion become - as in this programme - a parody of real sentiment. "May I seek to ..." said Fergie, quoting a poem by St Francis of Assisi, "... to ... er ... all that sort of stuff."
Wasn't it wonderful of Ruby Wax, then, to expose this admixture of self- pity and self-excuse to the light of day? Well, I am not so sure. There were the usual Waxian impertinences and intrusions into the trivial (opening the fridge and the clothes drawers), but unless she was reaching ironic heights beyond the wit of this reviewer to scale, then it seemed to me that she bought a great deal of this babble. At one point, when Fergie seemed on the brink of being emotional, she was in- terrupted by Wax with: "God, that's [sniffle], I'm sorry ..." Fergie told us that she had read her own story in Hello! magazine, and cried twice. I watched her story once, and screamed.
While we're about it, perhaps someone could answer MP Frank Field's conundrum. How did the billions in Robert Maxwell's Mirror Group pension fund move themselves from one place to another? Was it a secular miracle?
The bloated tyrant's son, Kevin Maxwell, was not guilty of the fraud - the courts have told us that. The programme made about him and his family, filmed at the time of his arrest and during the course of the proceedings, was certainly unable to throw any light on what had happened either. Kevin didn't know. It wasn't him, despite the fact that his father's bullying (as attested to by both Kevin himself and his formidable wife, Pandora), would have left him with a Fergie-type excuse for anything that he subsequently did. It is extraordinary that The Trial of Kevin Maxwell (BBC1, Tuesday) failed to throw up an eating disorder, or wrist-slashing or something self-destructive.
But then, the producer of this programme was not concerned with who did take the money, nor with exploring Kevin's sense of moral responsibility, but with how the family had borne up under trying circumstances. The children were brave, but upset, and one felt for them. Pandora was rock-like and stoical and one felt for her. Kevin was hunted and pathetic and one felt for him.
But once again there was a lack of a moral compass, of real integrity, of a model of behaviour. It is possible to tell bullies to bugger off, it is possible to resign from companies and organisations that behave amorally, it is possible (without being a vicar, a bishop or a saint) to behave decently. It is possible and it is necessary. Yet, as some of those who argue for a re-moralisation say, we seem more concerned - as evidenced by these two programmes - to excuse ourselves, to parade our weaknesses, than to test our strengths.
Some of this may be because, for years, true morality was replaced with the prurient morality of sexual condemnation; a condemnation that has earned morality a bad name. If nothing else (and there was plenty) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (BBC1, Sunday) reminded us that, too oft- en, the family that prays togeth- er, slays together. The cost of narrow-mindedness in a small community was evoked in darknesses, whispers, nasty rumours, closed minds.
Oh, but this was a glorious production - a jewel. For once you forgot the crinolines, the obligatory carts, the Darcy trousers, in this tale of a strange young woman with artistic flair, moving with her child from an unwant- ed life to a magical landscape, accompanied by lovely music and men who stare appreciatively at her neck. And if you think you've seen all that before, it was in Jane Campion's The Piano, to which this production probably owes a subliminal debt.
I'm not going to gush any more, save to praise both Tara Fitzgerald (the tenant) and Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham (the neck-starer). The role of Markham is not easy, since one minute he is telling the mysterious Mrs Graham "how prettily you embellish our rugged landscape" and the next he is delivering a baby sheep. Delivering a sheep is now, of course, de rigueur in any serious BBC production. It happens in most of the documentaries and all the best dramas. Denoting an attractive combination of sensitivity ("you'll be all right, old girl") and masculine strength ("now pull!") young actors must be constantly arriving at auditions to be asked whether or not they can deliver a sheep. After six months as a television critic, I think I could deliver a bloody sheep.
But I couldn't choose a wine, which is what Gluck, Gluck, Gluck (BBC2, Friday), starring wine writer Malcolm Gluck, seeks to remedy. This week he answered the vital question, what to have with a Balti? This marks the show out from all those snobby programmes on choosing a "true" champagne, and what best accompanies caviar, and for that it is welcome.
Unfortunately somewhere along the line the producer made an ominous discovery - Gluck himself gives great pieces to camera. He can speak to the lens whilst pedalling a bicycle (think about this: you have to ride, talking to a camera mounted on a slow-moving car beside you, while maintaining balance, vigilance and remembering the words that you have to say), getting into a taxi, sitting on a rock by a river, anywhere really. So that is what the show consists of: Gluck, Gluck, Gluck.
And can he write! Sorry. And can he write? Unfortunately not. Sitting in the back of a pick-up in a vineyard he says: "You don't get a smooth ride with this wine, but boy, do you enjoy the journey." Bleugh! Folks, it's content that counts, not just appearances. What you do, not just your excuses.
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