Monday, 6 May 2013

Armchair Theatre: The Greatest Man In The World

‘The Greatest Man In The World’ is an ‘Armchair Theatre’ presentation from 1958.

It opens with familiar TV face Ludovic Kennedy introducing a live link from Washington, where the state funeral of Jack ‘Pal’ Smurch is taking place. Smurch, it appears, was the most revered hero in the history of mankind, ‘the greatest man in the world’, and his death has caused an outpouring of national and international grief.  The President (Donald Pleasence), his face taut with emotion, gives a touching eulogy to the enormous crowd that has gathered but, as he observes a moments silence, we hear his private thoughts: ‘it’s a good job they don’t know what the lousy bastard was really like’…
Smurch’s fame is based on a single amazing thing: he piloted a spaceship to the Moon, got out and walked around a bit, threw up (he was drunk) and then came back. The rocket was designed by a dipsomaniac high school teacher, and was developed entirely independently on a tiny fraction of the huge budget the government has expended on not getting to the Moon. Naturally, the President orders that everything possible is done to ensure that this incredible story is rewritten to include the full support of the US government, and the Press are briefed that, if they want to keep their jobs, they help keep the secret.

The big problem, however, is Smurch himself, who is the most incredible arsehole (he’s described as a ‘congenital hooligan' but there are much shorter words). Lazy, dishonest, violent, lascivious, cruel, astoundingly obnoxious, Jack Smurch is universally hated by everyone he has ever come into contact with. His High School teacher shows off a six inch scar Smurch gave him; his Army Sergeant admits that he put him on point while on patrol in the hope he might get shot. His own mother, when told that he is attempting re-entry, says ‘I hope he gets blown to bits’. When he finally arrives in person, he more than lives up to expectations: he’s unbearable – a gum chewing, aggressively ignorant braggart. He’s also played by Patrick McGoohan which, is wonderful and, although his accent is a bit hit and miss (to say the least, he sounds like Jimmy Cricket auditioning for ‘Guys & Dolls’) McGoohan makes Smurch a truly loathsome character, the sort of bloke you want to keep hitting until your fists are worn down to the wrists.

What’s worse, of course, is that everybody has to put up with his shit: the President, the Press, the F.B.I, the Army, the Air Force – they’re all committed to the lie that he is an inspirational person, a man of the highest courage and calibre, simply because of the enormous benefits of ‘the greatest man in the world’ being an American.  

At an official reception a few days after landing, General Smurch (as he is now) is holding forth on his own genius and courage whilst making crude moves on the waitresses and other female guests and showing everybody the nude lady he has tattooed on his chest. When he is told that he is to embark on a World Tour, visiting China and Russia to spread the American message, he starts to rant about how much he hates the Chinks and the Commies, and how he can't wait to tell them that he’d like to drop a bomb on them all. The President and the Secretary of State exchange glances and, realising that Smurch will always be a diplomatic timebomb waiting to explode, the President nods and the Secretary of State calmly pushes Smurch out of an open eighteenth storey window. I wonder if Mr. Mc remembered this scene when he did exactly the same thing to somebody else in 'Braveheart'?

From a story by American satirist James Thurber, ‘The Greatest Man In The World’ is a bitumen black comedy that benefits enormously from a careful, considered turn from Donald Pleasence and a scenery chewing tour de force of infuriation from McGoohan that you really have to see for yourself --

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