“Thank you for being …”: From Silver to Golden with Betty White

Betty White, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan as I met them at a DVD signing at Barnes & Noble in downtown Manhattan in November 2005

What a fitting end this was to a mostly “stinky” 2021. Just as I was plonking myself down to subject my unsuspecting husband to a viewing of Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933), news reached me of Betty White’s death. The year could hardly have expired on a more cheerless note, with the last of the Golden Girls not living to see her hundredth birthday in January 2022. Like so many other celebrations these days, that centenary now has to be called off as well. As the clock ticked relentlessly toward midnight, I shed a tear, remembered the laughter and called to mind the many years I spent in the company of … Rose Nylund.

I know that White, who started out on radio, played many roles on screens small and big. I also know better than to confuse an actor interpreting a script with a person inhabiting a character. Nevertheless, it was as Rose on The Golden Girls that White had the most profound influence on my life, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was trying to adopt a more colloquial American English, to make the vernacular mine and make it work for me to boot.

Now, I’m not one to “blow my own gertögenflögen” – or however you might spell Rose’s pseudo-Scandinavian additions to my vocabulary – but, with the aid of White’s Rose, I managed to find the joy in speaking in at least two tongues, resigned to the likelihood that none quite conveys what I am aiming to say, particularly in the face of that “precise moment when dog do turns white.”

Peroxide blonde like me, White’s Rose was reassuringly naïve, curious and enthusiastic. She was generally good-natured and, trusting in fellow human beings she remained even after the end of her relationship with the man she had assumed to be Miles, was especially kind to animals, among them Mr. Peepers, the cat she reluctantly gave up on the day she met her future housemate Blanche Devereaux; Count Bessie, the piano-playing chicken she dreaded consuming; and Baby, the aged pig she agreed to adopt – or indeed to all the injured animals back on the farm on which she grew up. Rose’s character and the situations in which she found herself reflected White’s commitment to animal activism.

Rose was an outsider, too, an adopted child (with a monk for a father, no less). After the death of her husband, Charlie – of whom the bull on her family farm “would have been jealous” – she moved from Minnesota to Florida, struggling to acclimatize. She felt even more out of place visiting the “Big Potato.” Never having “seen so much of everything” in her “whole life,” she did not know “how people live here.”

Rose was also highly competitive, filled as she was with the “bitter butter memories” of having lost Butter Queen – a disappointment she revisited on the night she was arrested for prostitution – and occasionally exhibited a sarcastic streak, all qualities that I possessed anno 1990 without quite having the language to give them adequate expression in my temporary home of NYC.

Rose, as brought to life by White, never left me; indeed, the Girls helped me when I relocated from Manhattan to Wales, ill equipped as I was in my knowledge of that nation. Only yesterday, in the shower, I was making up another St. Olaf story that Rose might have tried to spring on Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia – a story sure to sound incomprehensible beyond that shower door.

A page from my ENG 101 journal

I am used to talking to myself, unable to make myself understood about my distant past, which is another country not on anyone else’s map. Like Rose, though, I never quite stopped trying.

On 23 March in 1991, during my first semester of college at BMCC in downtown Manhattan, and toward the end of what would be the final season of The Golden Girls, I devoted an entry to the girls in my journal – an assignment for my English 101 class with Ms. Padol – insisting that those “four women [we]re not just knitting sweaters.” After all, there were “episodes on artificial insemination, gay marriage, racial problems, Alzheimers, homeless[ness] and death.” As I pointed out to my audience of one, “the show is liberal but does not come along too preaching or moralising.”

When you keep watching the show you come to know the characters[,] learn a lot about their relationship.  And even though the four leading ladies are slightly off-beat you can get a lot out of the show; you can often relate to some of their various problems.

There is life and sex after 50.  Some youngsters seem to forget that and some old people find it hard to compete or fight for their rights in the fast-paced world of today

As a queer young man growing up at the height of the AIDS crisis in the West, I certainly could relate to Rose and her agony of waiting for the result of an HIV test. I found comfort in the fiction that they had made it past the age of forty and envied the close and safe commune of the Girls.  When I taught an English literature class on friendship back in the late 1990s, I played the theme song that had inspired the theme of my class.  

Now that I am over fifty (Rose was 55 in the first season of the show, even though White was already in her sixties then), I think of The Golden Girls as a cultural product that made it easier for me to transition from silver to gold. And while I did not pick up many medals along the way, I did it all without access to the professional services of Mr. Ingrid of St. Olaf and his moose. Rose never divulged which part of the moose he used. “But,” she declared, “it’ll keep your hair in place in winds up to 130 miles an hour.”

I could always count on Betty White to see me through a storm.

Down Memory Street; or, Thanks for the Sesame

Filming of Sesame Street in Carl-Schurz Park, Manhattan

The sight was monstrous. There was shouting. They were shooting. Someone stood guard to keep strollers from trespassing while the action went on undisturbed. Few folks seemed to care, though, so familiar had such sights become in New York City. One could always catch up with it later, on television. Besides, this wasn’t a crime scene. It sure wasn’t Needle Park or Fort Apache, The Bronx. This was the peaceful, upmarket Upper East Side, for crying out not too loudly, and the wildly gesticulating savage in furs was of the Cookie Monster sort.  Sesame Street was being filmed on location—and the location, on that May day, was Carl-Schurz Park in my old neighborhood of Yorkville.

Peter Pan sculpture, Carl-Schurz Park

It seemed fitting that the beloved children’s television series should be shot here, right in front of Peter Pan, the bronze statue that, some fifteen years earlier—when the park had gone to seed other than Sesame—was violently uprooted and tossed into the nearby East River like an innocent bystander who, some thugs decided, had seen too much. It seemed fitting because Carl-Schurz Park is a tribute to German-American relations—and, in a long and roundabout way, I came to New York City from Germany by way of Sesame Street.  

As a prepubescent, I spent a great deal of time in front of the television, a shortage of viewing choices notwithstanding. My parents were both working and I turned to the tube for company, comfort and the kind of guidance that didn’t come in the form of a command or a slap. West German television had only three channels until well into the 1980s, and the third one, back in the early 1970s, was still experimental, reserved mainly for educational programs aired at odd hours. Odd hours would have been anything before mid-afternoon, when regular programming commenced on weekdays.  

So, there was literally nothing else on when I pushed the knob of our black-and-white set (a stylishly futuristic Wega) to come across Ernie, Bert, Oscar and the Cookie Monster—and they all spoke, growled or squeaked English. That is how I heard them first and how, several years before I was taught English at school, I got my first lessons in a foreign language.

I had just gotten through the alphabet and the numbers from one to ten when, without “Warnung,” Sesame Street turned into Sesamstrasse and the felty, fluffy foreigners became German, even though they changed neither looks nor scenery. Being beyond pre-schooling, I now tuned in chiefly for the puppetry and the antics of the Krümelmonster. That is the way the Cookie Monster crumbled. “Krümel” literally means “crumb,” suggestive of the state to which something solid could be reduced in the process of translation.

Educationally, the early dubbed version of Sesame Street was dubious, to say the least. Spoken and written words and images did not always match.  Sure, “A” is for “apple” as well as “Apfel,” and “B” for “banana” and, well, “Banana.”  But there was little use for “C,” since few words in the German language begin with that letter; at least they didn’t during those days before Computers.  I remember watching a lesson on “A” that ended in “Alles am Arsch,” an expression only a tad short of the exclamation summed up in the last three letters of “snafu.” For once, even my parents took note. 

Never mind, I remained loyal to Ernie and Bert, whose odd coupling I envied; and once the magazine accompanying the series was launched, with images of the puppets as centerfolds, the pair became my first pinups.  If only Sesame Street (a pun that, too, is lost in German translation) had remained on the air in its original language. By the time high school started, and with it lessons in English—British, if you please—I had all but lost the enthusiasm; for the next nine years, I learned reluctantly and none too well, being that we were forced to go through joyless Grammar drills to arrive at the point of meaningful self-expression. 

As a child, I never associated Sesame Street with any real place, let alone New York City, the seedy ways of which, back then, conjured scenes of violence and decay: the turf of gangs, the marketplace for drugs, and the inspiration for nothing except TV cop shows. It was just as difficult to get that image out of my head as it had been to get English into it. 

Indeed, my first exposure to the Big Apfel demonstrated that image to be truer than the pictures of it in glossy travel brochures; no doubt, I had spent too much time eyeing the Carringtons of Denver, Colorado. That I fell in love with old, crime-ridden Gotham all the same had more to do with hormones than with anything we traditionally understand to be “tourist attractions.”

Since the mid-1990s, Manhattan has cleaned up its act, even though it wiped out much of the city’s character along with the crime—so successfully, in fact, that I once was slapped with a fine for dozing off on a bench opposite Peter Pan because I felt safe enough to rest my eyes.  

Sesamstrasse, Carl-Schurz Park, and the old Wega set (images of which I had to google to remind myself): the neighborhood of memory sure gets crowded as you travel ever further down the road . . .

So Long, Onslow

Onslow? Why not!
One of my too few regrets in life is that I did not manage to inspire any of my fellow students to make up a nickname for me when I was in high school. Not counting “Battle of the Sexes,” that is. That was more of a cut than a nick, and all because I didn’t seem quite ready to shave—or perhaps even to be beyond shaving—at least not where man folk is supposed to. It was much later in life that I earned a moniker, one that didn’t make me feel I should be called Monica, and without having to do much or make an effort to look like much to deserve it, if deserve it I do. Onslow’s the name—a name that, to millions of television viewers, conjures up an image of a lazy slob in what is dead commonly referred to as a wife beater, a bad name given the kind of shirt I tend to don when the point of dressing up beats me, when reaching for a respectably casual shirt seems a waste of time, especially of daylight savings. Is it that shirt, or perhaps the silvery whiskers to the swift removal of which I do not always see soon enough now that I got them, at last? Else, it might just be those extra few pounds around my waist that just scream handle, luv! Handle, nickname, dishonorific, or what have you. It’s a name only an uppity so-and-so like Hyacinth Bucket would call a sobriquet.

That I learned to live with—since that is so much easier than having to live up to anything else—can be readily demonstrated by the above shot taken on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The star thus honored is, in truth, character actor Onslow Stevens; but I put my foot down to give the underachieving Onslows of this world their due, especially since I had already shed my shirt in the midday sun and was undressed for it.

Onslow, of course, was, like Ms. Bucket, a character in the Britcom Keeping Up Appearances, and Geoffrey Hughes was the actor who played the part, filling that undershirt better than I could ever hope or fear to do. Hughes died at the age of 68. And while I only knew him as Onslow—or Twiggy on The Royle Family—the fact that his passing topped news about the Olympics on the BBC website well before fatigue about that event set in even among High Jump (or Canoe Slalom or Trampoline or Water Polo) fanatics shows just how big a name he made for himself.

Eur[e]vision

I don’t often indulge in morning afterthoughts. I might—and frequently do—revise what I said (or, rather, how I said it); but I generally just take time, and one time only, to say my piece instead of doling it out piecemeal. Unlike the producers of much of the (un)popular culture I go on about here, I don’t make a virtue of saying “As I was saying” or make my fortune, say, by milking the cash cow of regurgitation. To my thinking, which is, I realize, incompatible with web journalism, each entry into this journal, however piffling, should be complete—a composition, traditionally called essay, that has a beginning, middle and end, a framework that gives whatever I write a raison d’être for ending up here to begin with.

Although I resist following up for the sake of building a following, it does not follow that my last word in any one post is the last word on any one subject—especially if the subject is as inexhaustible as the Eurovision Song Contest, which festival of song, spectacle and politics compelled me previously to go on as follows: “It [a Eurovision song] is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.”

Diplomatic blunder, my foot. My native Germany did win, after all, coming in first for the first time since 1982, when Germany was still divided by a wall so eloquent that, growing up, I did not consider whatever lay to the east of it German at all. Apparently, this year’s German singer-delegate Lena Meyer-Landrut, born some time after that wall came down, did not step on anyone’s toes with her idiosyncratic rendition of “Satellite,” a catchy little number whose inane English lyrics she nearly reduced to gibberish.

Her aforementioned insistence on turning toenails into “toenates” intrigued a number of bemused or irritated viewers to go online in search of answers, only to be directed straight to broadcastellan. Perhaps, the United Kingdom should have fought tooth and nates instead of articulating each tiresome syllable of their entry into the competition, a song so cheesy that it did not come altogether undeservedly last, even if European politics surely factored into the voting.

Britain never embraced European unity wholeheartedly—and those in the thick of the economic crisis now challenging the ideal of Europe may well resent it. Is it a coincidence that the votes were cast in favor of the entrant representing the biggest economy in Europe, a country in the heart of the European continent?

While not content, perhaps, to orbit round that center of gravity, other nations may yet feel that it behoves them to acknowledge the star quality of Germany, which, according to contest rules, is called upon to stage the spectacle in 2011. After all, why shouldn’t the wealthiest neighbor be host of a competition some countries, including Hungary and the Czech Republic, declared themselves too cash-strapped even to enter this year.

I may not have been back on native soil since those early days of German reunification, but there was yet some national pride aroused in me as “Satellite” was declared the winner of the contest by the judges and juries of thirty-eight nations competing in Oslo this year along with Deutschland.

That said, seeing a German citizen draped in a German flag as she approaches the stage to take home a coveted prize, however deserved, still makes me somewhat uneasy. Given our place in world history, the expression of national pride strikes me as unbecoming of us, to say the least. I was keenly aware, too, that there were no points awarded to Germany by the people of Israel.

Will I ever stop being or seeing myself as a satellite and, instead of circling around Germany, get round to dealing with my troubled relationship with the country I cannot bring myself to call home? That, after the ball was over, formed itself as a sobering afterthought. And that, for the time being, is the beginning, middle, and end of it. Truth is, I take comfort putting a neat frame around pictures that are hazy, disturbing or none too pretty.

“The Hut-Sut is their dream”; or, Accent on Eurovision

Eddie Cantor

Folks flicking through the May 25-30 issue of Radio-Movie Guide back in 1941 were told about a “New Song Sensation,” a novelty number written by Ted McMichael (of the Merry Macs), Jack Owens and Leo V. Killion. The identification of the tunesmiths aside, this was probably no news at all to America’s avid dial twisters. Published only a few weeks earlier, the “Sensation” in question had already “featured on the air by Kate Smith, Bob Hope and Alec Templeton.” In fact, as early as 23 April, listeners to Eddie Cantor’s It’s Time to Smile program would have been exposed to what was tongue-in-cheekily billed as a “Swedish Serenade” overheard by an illiterate boy who “should have been in school”:

Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla, brawla sooit,
Hut-Sut Rawlson on the rillerah and a brawla sooit.

According to Radio-Movie Guide, Benny Goodman was so keen on the ditty that he wanted to “buy an interest in its profit for five thousand dollars.” It is easy to see the attraction of such novelty nonsense at a time when news from Europe were similarly bewildering yet decidedly less diverting. And before we tut-tut a nation at war for going gaga over a trifle such as “The Hut Sut Song” while being gleefully indifferent to—or woefully ignorant of—the world, we might consider the musical offerings conceived for the current Eurovision Song Contest, an annual agit-pop extravaganza that, in this, its fifty-fifth year, is playing itself out against the somber backdrop of the European fiscal crisis.

Much of Europe may be cash-strapped and debt-ridden, but the thirty-nine nations competing in Oslo this year have it yet in their means to bestow points and favors upon one another—or to withhold them. Even the least affluent countries of greater Europe may take comfort as well in the potentiality of turning freshly minted tunes into pop-cultural currency. Europe is less concerned, it seems, with the phrases it must coin to achieve such a feat.

The emphasis on rhyme over reason is apparent in traditional Eurovision song contest titles—and winners—like “Boom Bang-a-Bang” (United Kingdom, 1969), “Ding-A-Dong” (Netherlands, 1975), and “Diggi-loo, Diggi-ley” (Norway, 1984). It is an orchestrated retreat to the banks of a mythical “rillerah,” a clean plunge into a stream of pure nonsense beyond the realities of the Babel that is Europe. Might an agreement to be agreeably meaningless be a key to intercultural understanding?

“The Hut Sut Song” came with its own dictionary:

Now the Rawlson is a Swedish town, the rillerah is a stream.
The brawla is the boy and girl,
The Hut-Sut is their dream.

By comparison, most Eurovision entries, which, in the past, included “Volare,” “Waterloo,” and some inconsequentiality or other performed by Celine Dion, do not make much of an effort to render themselves intelligible. While by and large performed in some approximation of English, today’s Eurovision songs are, for the most part, incomprehensible rather than nonsensical, as if members of the vastly, perhaps inordinately or at any rate prematurely expanded union were determined to avail themselves of the English language as a means of keeping apart instead of coming together, inarticulate English being the universal diversifier.

Eurovision songs have always suffered—or, you might well argue, benefited—from less-than-sophisticated lyrics. Take these lines from this year’s Armenian entry, performed by one Eva Rivas: “I began to cry a lot / And she gave me apricots.” Which begs the question, I told a friend the other day: if she had only laughed a little, might she have gotten . . . peanut brittle? Well, perhaps not. Apricots are a symbol of Armenian nationality.

In its well-nigh incomprehensible delivery, “Satellite” takes the cake, though. According to British bookies and the internet downloads on which they rely to establish the odds, the quirky, bouncy little song representing my native Germany—where it became an instant success—is second in popularity only to the entry from Azerbaijan (which, as the contest rules have it, lies within the boundaries of Europe).

A Danish-German-American collaboration, “Satellite” scores high in both the “bad lyrics” and “strange accent” categories, proving, as only a Eurovision song can, that those categories are not mutually exclusive:

I went everywhere for you
I even did my hair for you
I bought new underwear that’s blue
And I wore it just the other day.

The singer, Lena Meyer-Landrut hails from Hanover. Not that this should lead us to expect any pronounced British connections in her house. Still, being a graduating high school student, she ought to have a firmer grasp on the English language. At least, her origins and education cannot account for—or explain away—references to painted “toenates” and underwear “thay blue.” Since, after weeks of tryouts and rehearsals, she still can’t, er, “nate” those undemanding lyrics, her accent is clearly an affectation. Could it be anything else?

Just what kind of “Hut-Sut” are European “brawla” dreaming of these days as they insist on diving, seemingly pell-mell, into the turbid “rillerah” they make of English? Not of a unity achieved through universality, I reckon. Perhaps, they are simply getting back at the native speakers by twisting their tongue in ways that are as likely to alienate as to amuse, and are having the last laugh by turning this recklessly appropriated language into Europop gold with which to pay back the British for steadfastly refusing to adopt the sinking Euro. The apricot stones-filled cheek!

Whether “Satellite”—or Germany—wins this Saturday has perhaps more to do with the recent bailout of Greece than with the merits of the song or the quality of the performance. Then again, a Eurovision song, however frivolous, is generally looked upon as something larger than its number of bum notes and odd intonations. It is, at best, ambassadorial—and the outlandish accent of the German envoy makes for a curious diplomatic statement indeed.

Hattie Tatty Coram Girl: A Casting Note on the BBC’s Little Dorrit

They’re still after him, those producers of television drama. And they know that many of us are eager to follow and go after him as well. In a way, we can’t help being After Dickens, to borrow the title of a study on “Reading, Adaptation and Performance” by John Glavin. It’s a sly title, that. After all, we are belated in our pursuit; we don’t just try to catch up. We are bringing something to the most dangerous game that is the act of reading. We make sense and we remake it, too.

This time around, Andrew Davies, the writer responsible for the award-winning dramatization of Bleak House, has tackled Little Dorrit (1855-57), one of the lesser-known works in the Dickens canon. Having greatly enjoyed the former when it first aired back in 2005, I am again drawn away from the wireless to go after what’s being shared out, a little at a time, by radio’s rich, distant relation.

Now, it has been some time since I last read Little Dorrit. During my graduate studies, the novel tantalized me with its perplexing nomenclature. Dickens’s uncrackable code of names and monikers inspired me to dabble in the dark art of onomastic speculation. The result of my academic labors, “Nominal Control: Dickens’s Little Dorrit and the Challenges of Onomancy,” is available online. While Dickens’s names still have a familiar ring to me, some of the faces, as interpreted and fixed for us by the adaptor, seem to have changed. Never mind Arthur Clennam, who is rather younger than the middle-aged man Dickens was so bold to place at the center of his novelistic commentary on the manners, mores and money matters of Victorian Britain. The character of Tattycoram is the one to watch and not recognize: a foundling turned changeling.

In the original story, Tattycoram (alias Harriet Beadle, alias Hattey—the act of naming is that complicated in Little Dorrit) is introduced as a “handsome girl with lustrous dark hair and eyes, and very neatly dressed.” As portrayed by Freema Agyeman, Tatty certainly fits the bill: a handsome girl with dark hair and eyes, and, my hat off to the costume department, neatly dressed. Hang on, though. The color of her skin has changed; and it is a change that really makes a difference. Has Tattycoram just “growed” that way? Or is this a case of revisionism?

It sure is not simply a case of equal opportunity, if such cases are ever simple. A black Tattycoram transforms the very fabric of Little Dorrit. It imposes an historical subtext on our reading of the story and the young woman’s part in it.

Adaptors, like translators, frequently engage in such updates, if that is the word for what amounts to anachronism. I was not bothered by the Lesbian characters the BBC insisted on sneaking into the staid mysteries of Agatha Christie, even though such reorientations seemed gratuitous and, in their treatment, out of place and time. The transformation of Tattycoram, however, is altogether more complicated.

True, slavery was abolished in Britain well before the story of Little Dorrit commences; but, in the Victorian novel, the black or mulatto figure remained largely invisible, or else was the brunt of derision. One such laughing-stock character is Thackeray’s Miss Swartz, the “rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt’s” who parades through Vanity Fair being “about as elegantly decorated as a she chimney-sweep on May-day.” In Dickens’s Bleak House, sympathy toward blacks is dismissed as the folly of “educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.”

The BBC revision of Little Dorrit comes across as an un-Dickensian, modern extension of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its sensitive and unsentimental treatment of the girl from Coram, the notorious London hospital recently revisited in Coram Boy. As a result, Tattycoram is less of a caricature than most of Dickens’s typically flat characters. Of the nearly one hundred personages we come across in Little Dorrit—which, according to the Radio Times, were reduced to around seventy-five in the process of adaptation—it is Tattycoram who now stands out as she struggles to emerge from her socially imposed conspicuous invisibility. It is an undue attention, warranted only by her transformation.

Showing a little skin, or skin a little darker, Davies’s retailoring may strike some of us acquainted with the genuine article as a bold new cut. To others, it seems that, in the process of giving the old Empire new clothes, the Dickensian fabric has gotten more than a Little Tatty. It got a new, postcolonial label that makes it seem like a knockoff.

They’re still after Dickens, all right. The question is: do they even try to get him?

Secondary Childhood; or, Pandas to Ponder

Wili and Wali at Penrhyn Castle

It is not dotage but a momentary state of doting. Not the reliving of one’s own youth, however romanticized, but an imagining—or experiencing—of what it means to be very young while looking at objects or confronted with performances not created with me in mind. Not reverie, in short, but empathy. That is what I call “secondary childhood”—the state of being elsewhere in time and space, being young there while being here and quite otherwise. Listening to so-called old time radio programs produced in the US, for instance, I am keenly aware that I am entering worlds once inhabited by millions of children born in a country other than my German birthplace, past generations whose reflections are lost to us and, all too frequently, even to them—worlds the passage to which might have been blocked and obscured over time, but that might nonetheless be recoverable.

This recovery effort is quite distinct from the nostalgia of which I am so wary, the attempt of forcing oneself back through that passage and, failing to do so, creating one through which one may yet squeeze wistfully into a niche of one’s own making. It is quite another thing, to me, to set out to gain access to the worlds of other people’s childhoods, to tune in with one’s child’s mind open. I try not to make assumptions about audiences and their responses; instead, I try to become that audience by permitting myself to be played with so as to figure out how a game or play works.

Penrhyn Castle

As I have had previously occasion to share after a trip to Prague, I enjoy looking at old toys. Visiting the grand and rather austere neo-Norman castle of Penrhyn last weekend, on an excursion to the north of Wales, I was surprised to find, housed in that forbidding fantasy fortress, a corner devoted to a collection of dolls. Now, it seems perverse to be so drawn to the two stuffed animals pictured above, stuffed as Penrhyn is with exquisite furniture and impressive works of art (a Rembrandt, no less). I gather it was the bathos of it, the relief after having had greatness thrust upon me to be surprised by these unassuming and, by comparison, prematurely timeworn objects.

Turns out, the twin pandas in the straw hats are Wili and Wali, marionettes who co-starred in a long-running Welsh children’s program titled Lili Lon (1959-75). Upon returning to mid-Wales, where I now live, I immediately went online in search of the two; but, aside from a history of their creators, little can be found about them. I have become so accustomed to YouTubing the past that I was surprised to find no trace of Wili and Wali. No doubt, they still dwell in the memories of thousands who shared their adventures. I was not among them; yet, as is often the case when I come across titles of lost radio programs or fragments thereof, I imagine myself enjoying what is beyond my reach . . .

Black Eye/Boxed Ear: Radio Vs. Television, Round One

Well, I’m working myself up to a season finale of sorts. On 20 May, broadcastellan will turn two. And since the anniversary falls smack into the limbo of my (projected) three-week hiatus—during which time I am once again catching the sights and sounds of New York City, my former home—this week’s journal entries are meant to remind me why I love writing about radio, the medium television bullied into submission. Let’s have a sparring contest between video and the wireless. Do we need images to get the picture? Can radio show television how it’s really done? Or might not sight be a welcome, even necessary, adjunct to sound? That kind of debate.

Though I grew up, like fellow webjournalist Brent McKee, being a “Child of Television,” I don’t sample many contemporary programs these days. I generally snatch from satellite TV whatever old movies I see listed in the Radio Times (yes, Britain’s premier TV guide is still called the Radio Times). Perhaps I shouldn’t be pooping on the dish, given that many of the films I have watched so far this year (and am listing in the column on the right) were recorded from television, British channels FilmFour, the four BBC channels, and TCM UK being the main purveyors.

So, what programs have I been watching lately? I confess to an occasional glance at a few early episodes of Ugly Betty, a serial so uneven in tone and unselfconsciously hokey in its storytelling that it makes me think Postmodernism has finally jumped the shark. I’m still following the exploits of those frenetic Housewives, however much the series and I have suffered since Marcia Gross went on maternity leave. This might have been Nicollette Sheridan’s chance to become more than a supporting player; but Edie’s hardened slut-with-a-soft spot turn is as tedious as it is unconvincing. Besides, I still mourn the exit of Valerie Mahaffey, for whose wicked ditziness I fell big time in the early 1990s, when it was on full display in Norman Lear’s too-smart-for-prime time serial The Powers That Be.

Since the gals I have been cheering for are leading the competition, I keep tuning in to the current season American Idol, even if it means turning down the volume when subjected to the song catalogues of mentors like Jon Bon Jovi. Rather an ordeal is Any Dream Will Do, a British song-and-dance contest in which a group of guys vie for the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Largely deficient in ability or charisma, the contestants may very well be the death of the musical’s West End revival later this year—a case of pop culture trash canning itself.

What do these illegitimate children of Major Bowes signify, now that Eurovision fever is once again sweeping the nations (forty-two of them, to be exact)? Small fries, I say (if only to account for my choice of illustration, the above being an image from the early US television program Small Fry Club).

But, to get this match started. Last night, 6 May, I watched “How the Edwardians Spoke,” an the unlikely television documentary shown on BBC4, Britain’s “digital channel of the year.” This seemed to me the ideal subject for a radio program: a dialectician (Joan Washington) in search of lost pieces of shellac holding the voices of Britons imprisoned in Germany during the First World War. The men, of whose days in the camps only few pictures survive, were asked (not forced, apparently), to read or sing some lines in English so that their regional accents could be captured and studied by Austrian Anglophile Alois Brandl.

I was doubtful about the prospect of staring at spinning records from a bygone age; but seeing these “voices” come home to their families after ninety years in the can and witnessing their reception made for inspired television. Imagine hearing your ancestors (in one case, a dead brother of a woman yet living) speak or sing from the grave, as it were. Rather than being merely pleasing, the images of Britain’s landscapes, whose variety Ms. Washington linked to the wide range of accents and dialects, assisted me (still foreign to the British isles) in placing those voices, in tracing their origins on the map of the Kingdom.

Radio voices of the past cannot be trusted to tell the story of all these Englishes. On US radio, the British tended to sound like Alan Mowbray, while the dearth of authentic dialects in Britain was mainly due to the generic BBC English now challenged by regionally diverse newscasters. Like BBC2’s Balderdash and Piffle, which begins its second season this week, “How the Edwardians Spoke” proved to be radio worth watching. Seems that, instead of pummeling it, television is making eyes at the wireless, if only to invade the domain of sound that radio has lost sight of …

“Being Served”: Mr. Humphries, Mr. Dickens, and Me

Well, we’re “free”—all of us. John Inman, the outrageously queer men’s wear salesclerk Wilberforce Clayborne Humphries of Britcom fame, is free of all bodily cares after taking the inside leg of the grim reaper today at age 71. Mr. Dickens, whose words have long been spread somewhat too freely in the public domain, is currently being made free with in a new stage adaptation of Great Expectations, the world premiere of which I attended last night. And I? After having been Internet-free for yet another ten days (four weeks and counting so far this year), I am at liberty at last to go on about Mr. Humphries, Mr. Dickens, and myself . . . sharing the miseries of not Being Served well.

“I’m free!” That, of course was Mr. Humphries’s catchphrase, a phrase to catch his drift with. And while he wasn’t, really trapped as he found himself in that ultra-conservative world of the Grace Brothers emporium—oh, brother, the disgrace of Empire!—watching him sure felt liberating to those who shared his lot. Particular, prickly, and peculiar, Mr. Humphries came across as a none-too-distant cousin of Franklin Pangborn, the Queen of Paramount. You know, the kind of character you are free to laugh at, if only to remain in the chokehold of the stereotypes that brought him into being.

For anyone who, like me, grew up with an anxiety of being deemed abnormal, an anxiety that, to be endured, was best (that is, most safely) wrapped in the cloak of flamboyancy, Mr. Humphries was at once a model and a monster—a grotesque mask you felt inclined to pick up mainly because you lacked the fiber and fortitude to tear down the structure responsible for its manufacture and marketing. No, the likes of Mr. Humphries are never free. Mr. Inman, at least, got to celebrate his coming out, however late in life, by publicizing his “gay wedding,” thereby to dismantle what is the most insidious of all secrets . . . the open one.

Mr. Humphries is a thoroughly Dickensian character: a mores-reflecting surface that is buffed up to speak and account for the unspeakable and unaccountable: a caricature that sanitizes as it unsexes. In the Dickensian universe—which is no larger than a Victorian middle-class closet, a repository of so many readily retrievable garments—it is the figure of Pip that best demonstrates the pitfalls of trading one’s identity for a dangled, ready-made mask—a substitution of which its creator had made a trade. Pip is as much a mask of melodrama as it is an unmasking of its workings and limitations.

Pip’s struggle and ultimate inability of coming into his own become apparent in Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Dickens’s story, in which the episodes of Pip’s life are staged with a minimalism that divests the melodrama of its thrills and offers nothing in their stead, a creative “zilch” for which “existential void” is a mere euphemism. A set of loudspeakers is filling in as a Greek chorus, robbing Pip of the only authority he enjoyed—the privilege to relate the tale in which he found yet failed to find himself.

The silhouettes of characters traversing the stage in front of a white screen suggest what is clear from the start of this production: that none of the figures in the play are treated as living individuals, an impression enhanced by the doublings of most of the eight cast members. The avoidance of overt reflexive gestures—a director in search of his characters, perhaps—render altogether lifeless what might have generated some energy as a Brechtian comment on the world Dickens inhabited and peopled, a world whose masks and conventions we have not quite managed to drop, as much as we delight in making a spectacle of it.

"Rest in Peace," He Said: Yvonne De Carlo (1922-2007) on the Air

We web journalists are often, and not altogether unjustly, accused of recycling news rather than generating it. I’ve done my share of reprocessing yesterday by reporting the unearthing of Marlene Dietrich’s lost earring at an amusement park in Blackpool; but, recycling being the process of transforming and putting back to use, I turned this tidbit into a hook from which to dangle a reminder of Ms. Dietrich’s lost or rarely recalled career in radio. So, when I now reflect on the passing of actress Yvonne De Carlo, I am trying to avoid mirroring the tributes that appeared elsewhere.

As pop culture maven Ivan Shreve suggests in his ever instructive Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, the role for which Ms. De Carlo is “best remembered” these days should not overshadow the career she enjoyed prior to getting the Lily Munster makeover. And if you can’t recall anything else, the act of commemoration can be an opportunity to get to know a performer all over again. Like most people who wish to refresh their memories of a certain film or television actor, I turned to the Internet Movie Database, according to which, as of 5 PM EST on this Wednesday, 11 January 2007, Ms. De Carlo (who died on Monday) still numbered among the living. I guess, that is where our personal journals come in, spreading the news a little faster than those slow-firing big shots.

Inspecting her resume, I realized how little I have seen of Ms. De Carlo over the years. In fact, the last time I ran into her, I didn’t even notice her at all. That was in November 2006, when I watched So Proudly We Hail, a 1943 wartime drama starring Claudette Colbert (discussed here). Would I be able to spot her in This Gun for Hire, in which the aforementioned Laird Cregar made such an impression on me? Nor have I ever tried on her Sombrero, in which she had Vittorio Gassman at her feet (as pictured above).

So, instead of flaunting my ignorance, it is probably best to let Ms. De Carlo introduce herself, however belatedly. On 24 February 1947, the young actress, no longer the bit player she had been during the early and mid-1940s, appeared on Tom Breneman’s radio program Breakfast in Hollywood—sporting a feather in her hat—to promote her latest picture, Song of Scheherazade, released earlier that month.

You can tell from the reaction of the studio audience—responsive as trained seals to whatever Breneman and his sponsors tossed at them—that Ms. De Carlo was not yet a star. She was getting there—and she was there to get there. “Who are you, honey?” Breneman prompted the unaffected newcomer, whose response was greeted with no more enthusiasm than the names of the many unknowns whom the host granted exposure to the microphone that day. Apart from confessing some embarrassment about the millinery curiosity on her head, the soft-spoken actress did not get to say very much, the garrulous host being too busy reaping whatever laughs he could from the docile crowd.

He presented her with a bouquet of Camellias, named, in honor of her latest role, Scheherazade. So funereal and grand must the corsage have looked that, when Breneman was permitted to pin it on his charming and good-humored guest, he commented on its startling effect with the ominous words “All she needs there is ‘Rest in Peace.'”

When I listened to this exchange today, it struck me as a bit of gallows humor as dark as Lily Munster’s home. It was Breneman who had wreaths thrown at him not long thereafter (he shut up in 1948 at the age of 46), while the dame with the Camellias, who went on to enjoy another five decades in show business, proved more resilient than Scheherazade.