The scene is a lectern. Dennis Potter nervously stubs out a cigarette and approaches it. He glares out at an invisible audience. He opens his mouth. He sings.
Potter: Be sure it's true when you say I love you - it's a sin to tell a lie. (He stops singing and leans forward to the mike.) Yes, truth. There are many ways of reaching the truth. One of them is by introducing the right song at the right moment. I discovered this back in the days when the BBC had strength and courage and let me put songs in my dreams. No longer. Nowadays they tell me, 'I am sorry, we cannot afford a song any more. We have shopped around, and we do not have the money to buy a song. So we want our characters to hum the song in future. This would be a lot cheaper.' (He hums the tune of 'It's a Sin to Tell a Lie'.) Producer choice. What does this mean? It means listening to the choice of producers. I have talked to thousands of producers in my life and they all want just one thing. They want John Birt and Marmaduke Hussey to go.
The screen ripples and wavers. Cut to a small classroom about 40 years ago, maybe in the Forest of Dean, where a class of small boys is listening spellbound to the teacher.
Teacher: Quality will always out. Do you know what this means, boys? It means that we do not all have the same talent. Some are cleverer than others. They can break rules and get away with it. Did you notice that there was no main verb in my opening sentence, 'Quality will out'? No main verb. Think about it. On the other hand, there are some people who only think they are cleverer than others. Eh, Potter?
The camera slowly pans across the classroom to 10-year-old Potter lying in a bed at the back of the class. He has a packet of Woodbines open on the pil-
low and is looking miserable.
Teacher: Potter is not very well. Potter has to come to school in a bed. But Potter will be able to tell us where the main verb has got to, won't he? Won't you, Potter?
Potter: Ellipsis, sir.
Teacher: Hey? What? What's that?
Potter: Nothing, sir.
Teacher: Anyone else? Yes, Birt? (He points to the young Birt, sitting next to the young Hussey, wearing an Armani grey blazer.)
Birt: Please, sir, as an economy measure it is quite justifiable to omit verbs from sentences if the sense remains clear. The money saved by this cost-cutting measure can be spent on refurbishing the grammatical centres of excellence of other, more vital sentences.
Teacher: Birt, what you say sounds very good and makes almost no sense at all. I predict you will go far.
Hussey: Hear, hear. Jolly good show. Absolutely. Spot on . . .
Teacher: Thank you, young Hussey. You also will go far, though, unlike Birt, I feel you have already, at the age of 11, said everything of value you are likely to say in this life. Now . . . what's that noise?
Hussey: Sir, do you mean the droning of German planes overhead?
(Cut to chorus line of Luftwaffe pilots, dancing and singing: 'We bombed the Forest of Dean last night, and set the Potters' back yard alight] Tomorrow we're going back again, To scare their dog and frighten their hen]' Cut back to teacher.)
Teacher: No, I do not. Droning yes, but it's coming from in here . . .
Birt: Please, sir, Potter's humming]
Teacher: Are we indeed, Potter? And perhaps we could share with the whole class your little song?
Potter: And perhaps with the whole world one day, sir. (He sits upright.) Because the song I am singing is called 'Lille Marlene'. The Germans sing it with one set of lyrics, and the British sing it with another. Both sides think it is their song. And one day, when this war is over and there is a new world of peace, I shall be able to bring this song into a play on television as an example of how . . . (He stops. Cut to teacher.)
Teacher: Go on, boy. (Cut back to Potter at the lectern in Edinburgh.)
Potter: . . . as an example of how, of how (he breaks into song again), 'Oh, when I become chairman of the BBC, We'll have lots of fun with the licence fee] Duke Hussey and Birt will pack their bags, And we'll all sit back and light our fags, And there'll be non-stop drama on BBC 2, and much the same thing on BBC 1 too . . .'
This song 'n' dance lecture series to be continued here for the next 12 Mondays, repeated on Fridays.Reuse content