OH, PHIL-LEEP, Philleep!" pants are voluptuous" milkmaid, her breasts straining at the thin fabric of a gaping dress as she climbs the ladder to the hayloft. "Phull-eep! Phull-eep!" the lad's mother calls, from the front door of a little French farm-house on the Universal backlot. "You have a saucey tongue, sir," chirps the nubile Alicia Parkhurst, posed fetchingly on the grass. Little does she know that Phillipe's evil English brother Roger has told the one-eyes Captain Plummer, "A thousand pounds to you, Plummer, when you bring me his head."
What be this - that frisky silent movie satire, "The Duelling Cavalier," from "Singin' in the Rain"? But no, no, no! This be nothing less than the next great limp hope of television - a programming alternative to the monolithic and monophonic output of the mighty commercial networks. "The bastard," a four-hour, two-part TV-movie, will be shown this week not an ABC, CBS or NBC - no no no no no - but on 90 individual local stations, including Channel 20 in Washington, Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m.
A lusted-up, giant throw backward into the king of giddy plots and costume capers that Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy had the sense to use only as an excuse to sing, "The Bastard," which should really be called "The Duelling Bastard," is supposed to be a giant leap forward for local TV initiative and defiance of network programming as new improved Scotties are to new improved Kleenex.
"Bastard," delicately retitled "The Kent Family Chronicles" by some of the stations that have bought it, may not have cost quite as much as a comparable show produced for the net-works, but it looks like a network show and it sounds like a network show, and this is not meant as a compliment. The reason it shouts of the same old mass-produced approach is that it was manufactured by Universal TV, the largest supplier of programs to - guess who - the networks themselves.
Three out of four stations carrying the program, part of a series of multi-part specials huddles under the umbrella "Operation Prime Time, " are network affiliates, and the will indeed be prempting network shows to carry "The Bastard." And this does not please the networks. But how much, one wonders, will it profit viewers, most of whom will not notice any difference between this program and the standard bunk, except that costume dramas are fairly rare on the air.
It says something about the resourcefulness of these individual stations that their big programming initiative finds them going to the very same source the networks do, a huge Hollywood factory. Not just huge, actually - the hugest. MCA is the gigantic entertainment conglomerate whose 1977 revenues totalled more that $877 million. The company doesn't reveal how much it made on TV production, but its total "filmed entertainment" revenues, which also include theatrical feature production, were $561 million. MCA-TV, which syndicates network hand-me-downs to local stations, is the largest syndication company in the business.
At least 7 1/4 hours of prime-time network TV each week will come from Universal, according to the new fall schedules announced by the networks - more than from any other single source - and this does not include such multipart whoppers as NBC's 25-hour "Centennial" series. This year Universal produced such long-winded long-form shows as "Wheeks" and "Loose Change." In fact, a couple of establishing shots of Bristol and Boston harbors used in "The Bastard" look suspiciously like those used to represent other ports of call in Universal's "Captains and the Kings," shown two years ago on NBC.
So the idea that "The Bastard" represent any real breakthrough for television, or a significant expansion or program choices for viewers or for stations, is ridiculous. It only represents a new source of revenue for the participating stations, and for Universal.
Now this does not mean that "That Bastard" is not perfectly fine television entertainment.
But it isn't.
"The Bastard" is like "Wheel" - all trite plot, ambling along with little apparent purpose but never particularly objectionable and therefore largely tolerable. Television has perfected this king of programming and the best name for it might be neutertainment; not bad enough to be good, not good enough to be good, it's the king of thing you don't have to hate yourself either for watching or for missing.
Afocionados of arch acting even archer dialogue will find "The Bastard" something dialogue of a fiesta. It certainly snares one's attention right off; within the first 10 minutes, out illegitimate hero has been throttled by peasants and seduced by the milkmaid. "Eez eet your first time, hmm?" she asked, unbuttoning his shirt. The script, by Guerdon Trueblood from a lousy pseudo-historial pop novel by John Jakes, sips along, from fight to fight and tryst to tryst, but the impression left is that of a dithery old operetta from which all the musical numbers have been drained.
Nevertheless, "The Bastard" could well prove a ratings winner in the cities where it's shown. Network competition is not particularly strong this week. The long awaited CBS entry into long-form drama, "The Dain Curse," from a novel by Dashiell Hammett, certainly outclasses "The Bastard," but class counts for little in TV, and "Dain Curse" starts out so slowly and quietly, so wearily in fact, the viewers not already lured by the lurid charm of "Bastard" may start roaming the channels and come upon it out of boredom.
They may come out of boredom, but they will stay out of indifference.
And, perhaps most crucially, the "Bastard" himself is played by a young actor who proves rousingly capable not only of monopolozing the camera, but also at surmounting all manner of author's foolishness. Against all odds, he makes Phillipe a character the audience will actually care about. Andrew Stevens, the 22-years-old son of actress Stella Stevens and currently seen in Brian De Palma's florid thriller "The fury," assuredly and enigmatically dominates this production and even tricks one into thinking there is some point to it.
The case is littered with whacky accents from B-rank actors like Patricia Neal, Harry Morgan, Eleanor Parker as the nasty Lady Jane, Cameron Mitchell Plummer, Tom Bosley doing the world's worst impersonation of Benjamin Franklin, and William Shatner as Paul Revere.
Neal's performance as Phillipe's mother is perhaps the most grating of the lot, but the dear lady is killed off by the grippe while crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the American colonies. She starts coughing soon after she and her son arrive in England from France and poor Stevens has to shake his first and sputter, " Damn that English Channel! It is not wonder our armies have never crossed it."
"Cough, cough," goes Mom. Son her coughs come in threes and then fours and before long it's off to 20,000 leagues. But not before a delightful scene straight out of showboat mellerdramas in which Lorne Greene as the sinister Bishop Francis starts to burn the letter that proves our hero is really of noble birth. When mama tries to stop the bishop, he smacks her to the floor, and this is all staged by director Lee H. Katzin as if for and audience of ruffians given to hissing and throwing vegetables at villains. Little Nell happens to be a boy, but it's a Little Nell story just the same - " Dudley Do-Right" played straight.
This proves not only that television is a haven for primal divertissements but that it is able to recycle virtually anything, no matter how ragingly anachronistic it all to plainly may be.
"The Bastard" would come off, then, as just dumb fun if not for the fact that it is being touted in some quarters as a daring experiment for TV. The networks can hardly be shaking in their first-quarter earnings. They probably couldn't care less. A threat like this is really the sincerest form fo flattery - like public TV stooping to the promotional tricks and audience-grabbing gambits of commercial stations. Just because the networks are big and powerful and silly with money doesn't mean that the only way to compete is to imitate them. "Operation Prime Time" isn't even a paper tiger; it's a paper kitty-cat. Ah, Phil-leep!