Macbeth's filthy witness
Like the Spectator's immensely distinguished television critic, I very seldom watch television if I can help it. This may be due in part to some disreputable class prejudice, but I would prefer to believe it comesfrom a reasoned objection to the false picture of modern life shown on television, which is as insulting to human powers of perception as it is unpleasing to the refined or educated sensibility. The only programme I watch regularly is Independent Television's News at Ten, on the off-chance that it will be one of those nights featuring Anna Ford and Reginald Bosanquet as presenters. That miraculous combination, it seems to me, provides the only evidence we have yet seen that television can aspire to produce a work of art.
The news, of course, is invariably ghastly. First we have the lovely, elliptical face of Anna Ford, gabbling in a vaguely concerned way about strikes, closures, horrible murders, earthquakes in Bangladesh and things too horrible to imagine in Iran. What can all these frightful things mean to a girl who is so beautiful, so gentle, so obviously intelligent and kind? Has a country in decline ever had such a fair minstrel to sing it on its way? And then it is Reginald's turn. Knock, knock, knock! Who's there, i' th' name of Belzebub? Here's a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty . . . here's an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale . . . here's an English tailor come hither for stealing out of a French hose; come in, tailor, for here you may roast your goose. Come in Jim Slater, come in Eric Miller, come in Lord Brayley, come in Lord Kagan. News at Ten, as I see it, has an essential part to play in the story of our national decline and collapse, the exact equivalent of the Porter scene in Macbeth after Duncan's murder, with Bosanquet playing the character which of all Shakespeare's roles I have most coveted: Anna Ford. Was it so late, friend, ere you went to bed, That you do lie so late?
Bosanquet. Faith, sir, we were carousing till the second cock: and drink, sir, is a great provoker of three things.
Anna Ford. What three things does drink especially provoke?
Bosanquet. Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep and urine.
One searches in vain through Racine and Corneille, through Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides for any equivalent to the Porter scene in Macbeth. One searches in vain through Columbia Broadcasting, Radiodiffusion Television Francaise, the Canadian and Australian Broadcasting' Corporations, even Telefis Eireann, for any equivalent of Reginald Bosanquet and Anna Ford. The idea of putting them in harness — Beauty and the Beast — may be one of the oldest and corniest in showbusiness, but on this occasion, as I say, it has produced our only contemporary work of art, the one indication that Shakespeare's genius, and the national spirit which responded to it, survive in these barren and unseemly times.
So it was with mixed feelings that I turned on my television set last Thursday to discover that the News at Ten had been replaced by the real thing — a thoroughly modern version of Macbeth, with our tragic hero in Brylcreem looking like an epileptic Denis Compton, his wife like a nun in a comic strip. Was this a refinement of the original joke, an attempt to portray the panorama of world events through the whole play, rather than just the Porter scene? No, the news had been moved forward. This was something altogether more dismal — an attempt to show that modern England has got something to say about Shakespeare, something to add to our national culture's one exalted moment. What a commentary it made on modern England!
I never thought I would live to see a worse Macbeth than Trevor Nunn's 1974 production at Stratford, but even that unhappy experience had a few redeeming features — Helen Mirren was an engagingly voluptuous Lady Macbeth and Ron Pember a memorably good Porter, even if Nicol Williamson was an irritating kitchen-sink Macbeth who gobbled his lines and always seemed to be in a bait. It was a tiresome, gimmicky production with Black Masses and satanic orgies thrown in to dot every `i' and cross every 't' of Shakespeare's imagery, with the three witches suspended in baskets like hams from the ceiling, but all this could be attributed to the Royal Shakespeare Company's mistake in having picked a silly, over-excited and intellectually under-endowed producer in Trevor Nunn. It was scarcely to be interpreted as a symptom of national decline, still less the collapse of humane, educated, middleclass England.
The television play, taken from Nunn's latest attack on Macbeth at the Other Place, had no redeeming features it is true — Ian McKellen's Macbeth was half-baked, Judi Dench extraordinarily implausible as Lady Macbeth, all sense of poetry was lost owing to the actors' shortcomings and all sense of dramatic continuity .deliberately thrown away in a series of monologues in close-up, unrelated to the action of the play —but that, in itself, is no reason to despair of the intellectual or artistic vitality of England. Hundreds of bad, gimmicky and pretentious Macbeths have been produced in the past, even if Nunn's has the distinction of being the worst. My point is not even that the whole idea of the television production was based on a simple error which a child of fourteen should have been able to spot. Shakespeare is the greatest dramatic poet the human race has yet produced; it is possible that one can appreciate the poetry best by reading it to oneself without the distraction of an actor's speech, but it is written as a play to be declaimed on stage — close-ups of speaking faces are neither one thing nor the other and lose the advantage of both. Never mind, much thought had gone into every line of the production, and it is a shame that all the thinkers — Nunn, McKellen, Dench — should have been so uniformly mediocre in their capacity for original thought. But that need not give us cause to despair for our civilisation. With few exceptions, actors do not have very original minds, and should not be encouraged to use them too often.
What makes one despair for England is the critical reception given to this glum, unintelligent enterprise. Ian Hamilton of the Observer describes it as 'first-rate'; Sean Day-Lewis of the Daily Telegraph, as 'brilliant'. Herbert Kretzmer of the Mail, as 'miraculous', volunteering the asinine opinion that 'Macbeth might have been written for television'. Philip Purser of the Sunday Telegraph concludes: 'Yes, that's the way to do Shakespeare. Everything in close-up, the words gripping as they have rarely gripped before'.
Never mind that they are all wrong. It is the evidence of a national softening of the brain which alarms me. Perhaps it is part of inexorable historical processes that the country which once produced Shakespeare now produces Trevor Nunn. Much of the blame might be laid at the door of the Arts Council, but something can surely be saved from these wrong-headed, humourless, second-rate people. There is some vitality left in England, even if the only evidence for this is our national preference for Nastase as a tennis player, for Bosanquet and Ford as newscasters. Governments are reluctant to close down the Arts Council, which certainly does more harm than good, for fear of being thought philistine, but culture should not be seen as existing in a corner of its own, awarded a ten-thousandth part of public funds. Our culture is far more than that — it is the way we think, the air we breathe. Mrs Thatcher should appoint Sir Keith Joseph as her Secretary of State for Culture, with control over the Departments of Education, Environment, Civil Service and Industry, as well as Covent Garden and poetry reading in Taunton.