Robert Hanks · Claire Bloom in 'The Bill'
Claire Bloom – Ophelia to Scofield and Burton; Lady Anne to Olivier’s Richard III; the girl handpicked by Chaplin to play his protegée in Limelight, the last of his films to have any shadow of greatness; Lady Marchmain in the original television Brideshead Revisited – is going to appear in an episode of The Bill next week. Whatever you think of Bloom’s acting (she’s always struck me as limited by her self-conscious seriousness; try to imagine her telling a joke), and despite her stints in daytime drama in the US and last year’s cameo as the Doctor’s mother on Dr Who, she will be an incongruous presence on ITV’s long-running, soon-to-be-axed cop opera, with its notoriously plodding scripts and cut-price production values. (A series like The Wire still only shows the way poverty blights imagination; The Bill embodies it.)
Incongruous, too, because of her glamorous life off stage: the affairs with Olivier and Burton, the marriages to Rod Steiger and Philip Roth. The union with Roth has provided the inspiration for at least three books: Bloom’s score-settling memoir Leaving a Doll’s House, and Roth’s novels Deception (the presence of a serially adulterous husband called Philip was supposedly one of the triggers for the marriage’s dissolution) and I Married a Communist (the depiction in which of a neurotic, egotistical actress was widely taken as a swipe at Bloom). Journalists have tended to tut at the ex-couple’s vindictive tendencies, in particular to see Roth as having got distracted from his serious business.
I’d like to see it all taken further: I want Philip Roth’s revenge scripts for Dr Who and The Bill. Think how much more exciting Bloom’s appearance in Dr Who would have been if the Doctor’s mother had been written as a soul-sucking Oedipal nightmare. Given the way Roth’s books abound in parallel universes, doppelgängers and quasi-fantastic devices such as the near-death narration of Indignation, the jump into science-fiction oughtn’t to be too hard. Roth does memory; the Doctor does time travel – is the difference always so clear cut? As a hyper-intelligent, almost but not quite assimilated outsider, the Doctor has a lot in common with Nathan Zuckerman. And Alexander Portnoy would have a fine time with all those gorgeous shiksa assistants.
A Roth-scripted episode of The Bill is less obviously seductive – and perhaps Bloom’s part, as an elderly widow who reports a burglary but turns out to have been raped, would satisfy what’s left of Roth’s vindictive impulses – but there are still possibilities. Maybe she could die, and her ex-lover could be arrested while humping her grave, like Mickey Sabbath; or, like Philip Roth the narrator of Operation Shylock, she could find that somebody has been using her name to spread a poisonous ideology. She could become a crazy Jain with stinking dead breath, like Merry Levov in American Pastoral, and then turn out to be on the run after bombing a post-office decades earlier. But the episode is in the can now, so it’s too late. And superfluous: Claire Bloom is in The Bill. What revenge could Roth devise sweeter than that?