March 31st, 2008

Scofield And Wilde

A.A. Gill in the Sunday Times was getting in a strop yesterday because the BBC reported the death of Brian Wilde- minor sit-com star- ahead of the death of Paul Scofield- major classical actor. At first I was inclined to agree, but as Gill continued to erupt, braying scorn (the way he does) and calling for the head of whoever was responsible, he lost me. "Hang on a minute," I thought. "This is just  snobbery. It assumes a hierarchy in which West End theatre ranks above TV sitcoms and- sorry-  but it just doesn't work like that."

Scofield was high art, Wilde was popular art- but which of them made the bigger impact on our culture? Which is more likely to be remembered? Scofield gave a string of great performances which were seen by very few and which have now faded into the ether. Wilde, on the other hand was in Porridge- and Porridge is one of the greatest sitcoms from the golden age of sitcoms and is showing every sign of immortality.

I don't go to the theatre much. I never saw Scofield live. His infrequent film and TV appearances add up to very little- supporting roles as irascible old men in less than classic productions. His one great starring role- in A Man for All Seasons- is overshadowed by a supporting cast- Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Shaw, real film stars all of them- delightedly making the most of an opportunity to go right over the top in their robes and furs. It's a nice film, not a very good one- and it's looking dated now.

So, tell me Scofield was a great actor- and I'll take it on trust, but I haven't seen the evidence and I'm not altogether sure it exists any longer. Wilde, on the other hand, did a very funny turn in a very funny show which is likely to be repeated as long as TV exists.  I'm not a fan of Last of The Summer Wine- but it's the longest running sit-com in the history of the universe and a lot of people love it and- well- he was in that one too. 

I'm sure Scofield was a "greater" actor than Wilde, but it's Wilde who's going to leave the greater legacy. Have a look on YouTube and see who rates more clips.  Immortality- especially in the performing arts- is a bit of a lottery.  It isn't finally about integrity or ideals or intentions or the applause of the elite, it's about what turns out to have the most juice in it.