TV-ing it    2                                                                                                                                                                    Posted 6th August 2013

"Frank Sinatra - the First Forty Years" was like an epic "This Is Your Life," only not quite so restrained and unsentimental. People like Glenn Ford, Sammy Davis Junior, Dionne Warwick, Dean Martin and Orson Welles were queuing up to stand for a moment before the altar-table and make their offerings to the great man. He finished up with more accolades than a New Year's Honours List.

This tribute to his 40 years in show-business took place, appropriately enough, in 'Caesar's Palace'. There was a Roman grandeur about the sycophancy. He was heaped with such unstinting praise as would have been enough to embarrass God into resigning.

It was hard to imagine how anyone, after such an introduction, could have the nerve to stand up and perform anything less than the spontaneous combustion of a bush or the parting of a small sea.

Then he stood up and sang, and the residue of his talent was still enough to remind you of the uniquely marvellous singer he has been. He is unlike Crosby and Como, whose answer to the erosion of the gift has been to settle into what's left of it like an armchair and let the accrued affection of the fans make up the deficit like a pension.

Sinatra, always more aggressive, still seems to be fighting towards the limits of what he has left. At 'Caesar's Palace' he was again demonstrating why he has been the best for so long. Orson Welles touched on one of the reasons when he said that every song Sinatra sings is like a page of his autobiography. He has the ability to inform the most banal words with the authority of his own experience. Because he seems to know exactly what they mean, you believe them.

"The written word is first," he said on Wednesday. That respect for a form he has to find out how to inhabit has been coupled with amazing breath-control and an originality of phrasing that can be as arresting as spontaneous conversation, making you feel you're being told something for the first time.

He's a great colloquial actor, for my money the best lyric interpreter in the history of popular music. None of the dubious sentiment at 'Caesar's Palace' could detract from that.

'Very Like a Whale" was an hour and 50 minutes of John Osborne's familiar nausea with the way we live. It told of the disintegration of the life of Sir Jock Mellor (played by Alan Bates), an apparently important man, the reasons for whose success were never clear to me. No more were the reasons for his subsequent failure.

It seemed to me a play full of the symptoms of alienation without even a moderately sustained attempt at making them cohere into a diagnosis. Mind you, that seems to me not much less than Osborne has always done.

Jimmy Porter in "Look Back in Anger" was never much more than a hysteric. The supposed power of his invective came from the absence of any other substantial character to challenge him. Since then, John Osborne has been the master of the one-character play, genius of the masturbatory monologue.

By now, even that seems to be boring him. There wasn't even much self-indulgent verbal felicity in this play. As far as I could see, we were left with something so wilful it amounted to a personal allergy to life.

Osborne's revulsion to contemporary life is obviously authentic but it seems to me almost totally severed from any significant context, a sterile habit of mind. He reminds me of nothing so much as someone who continues to retch when he has nothing left to bring up.             .

"Wildlife on One" goes on quietly being utterly absorbing, one of those discreet programmes that on its own would justify the invention of television. This week's "Amorous Amphibians" told us about the mating habits of frogs, toads and newts and made Casanova seem like a prude.

The scientific research was done by Tim Halliday and Nick Davies but the essential television ingredient was the commentary of David Attenborough.

While a hundredweight or so of male toads sprachled ineffectually about the body of one hopeful female who seemed as passive as the ball in a rugby scrum, the same calmness of Attenborough's voice persisted, like John Arlott commentating on the Black Hole of Calcutta. ("You will notice that the man at the bottom of the heap is being trampled to death with a left foot, not a right. Now what might that mean?")

As Bronowski was, Attenborough is one of the true spellbinders of television, a man who is so intelligent he's almost mad. I'm still haunted by memories from his recent major series: Attenborough standing in the middle of a totally arid landscape with a spade saying: "I'm here to look for fish" (which he found); Attenborough reclining among a family of silver-backed gorillas who could have taken his head off the way we might pluck an apple, being stroked by a female and murmuring something like, "But as long as you don't make any sudden movement..."

I was dancing frantically up and down in front of the telly just watching him. He has the daft oddly specific courage of the true scientist. I have been relieved to find it has its limits. After the last England-Scotland match at Wembley, a friend of mine finished late on Saturday night sitting thoughtfully drunk on the wall outside David Attenborough's house in Richmond, without any specific idea of where he was, when the police arrived to move him. Apparently Mr Attenborough had phoned for their assistance. Silver-backed gorillas are one thing. But only fools tackle drunk Scottish supporters.

That is the last thing David Attenborough is. Even my friend acknowledged his wisdom. On being asked why he was outside David Attenborough's house, he had the presence of mind to reply, "Somebody called me an animal. And I came for a second opinion."

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