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Upstairs, Downstairs, Inside Out : CUTS by Malcolm Bradbury, illustrations by Tom Phillips (Harper & Row: $10.95; 106 pp.)

October 18, 1987|Jean Marsh | M arsh was co-creator of "Upstairs, Downstairs". and

Malcolm Bradbury's short satirical novel "Cuts" is prefaced by an essay on the Britain of 1986 under the rule of Margaret Thatcher, a reign dominated by the tightening of belts and by cuts, cuts that were supposed to be good for you and for the country. This preface is a sharp, witty, incisive description of a Britain that has changed its priorities. Where the glamour industries are no longer law and the arts but money; a Britain that finally entered the 20th Century via the Big Bang, an expression used to describe the computerization of the Stock Exchange, an apposite expression given that money was now the big sexual turn-on.

In a few pages, Bradbury gives a hilarious, deadly, accurate picture of life in a country that can accommodate a gigantically expensive and gorgeous Royal Wedding with people sleeping in cardboard boxes in the subway. His use of the synonyms of cut is exhaustive and very funny.

"They were axing the arts, slimming the sciences--chopping at the schools, hewing away at the universities, scissoring at the health-service, shutting down operating theatres (British for operating rooms)--so that, in one sense at least, there were actually far fewer cuts than before."

The success of a satire partly depends on its target, and in the main body of this book, the making of a television series is the rather small target.

A naive, unknown avant-garde writer living in the country, with no knowledge of television and no television set, is hired to write the scripts for a 13-part television series as a favor to his agent (for a sexual encounter). Lots of these in the book: sexual encounters and favors. The series is to be made by a small independent company that needs not only financial success but the prestige that comes from making the sort of middle-brow television that Britain does so well.

"Great country houses, royals, political conflict, the Irish question, lots of Empire--India, the Crimea".

The television company is peopled by alcoholics with extremely expensive tastes in wine and by nymphomaniacs with extremely bad taste in men. They do all the rewriting and re-rewriting and re-re-rewriting when they are not bedding each other or having long expensive dinners where the ubiquitous kiwi appears, as does the equally ubiquitous kiwi joke. The endless rewriting is necessitated by the constant changing of locations--because of the constant changing of financing. The inexperienced and bemused writer, whose work is only fodder for the rewriters, is expected to turn a story involving the lost child of a Japanese samurai and an English noblewoman into a romance involving a Swiss mountain guide and the long-lost daughter of an English lord.

It's a world where the regard for writing and quality is minimal and the regard for cash and perks is maximal. Where everybody is corruptible by money, fame and sex, or, in the case of a distinguished old knight of the theater, by an open account at a great wine merchant. His opinion of the scripts does not stop him from accepting a role.

"A completely untalented piece of hackery, a purely mechanical artifact without any quality or any substance, a tissue of faked emotion and falsified eloquence. Entirely lacking in moral truth, or any kind of real human seriousness. Utterly failing to extend the medium or advance the possibilities of our dramatic arts by the slightest jot or tittle. Confirming the viewer in the most banal sentiments. Flattering him in his folly, his vanity, his vulgar nostalgia, his natural avarice, his barbaric cynicism. Oh, yes, I liked it greatly".

I found "Cuts" intermittently amusing but, after the promise of the first few pages, ultimately disappointing.

The publisher's blurb describes it as a romp through the world that produced "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Jewel in the Crown." I can't speak for "Jewel in the Crown," but in "Upstairs, Downstairs"--in which I was involved and which was made in a studio on a very low budget with no foreign locations and no stars--there was neither the money nor time for excessive drinking and hangovers. Even when we won our first Emmy, we celebrated with sparkling wine, not champagne, and the producers, directors and their assistants worked so hard I doubt if they had the energy to make love to their spouses every night, let alone to each other.

"Cuts" seems to me to come from another kind of television world, the world of the mini-series, where stars are given totally inappropriate roles and even more inappropriate makeup, hair styles and costumes and where the aim is to entertain without the intrusion of thought. But are those stars worth satirizing? Surely they satirize themselves.

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