Books: Glued to the Box : Washed-up cat | clivejames.com
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Washed-up cat

On Nationwide (BBC1) there was a lady whose cat had recently survived a complete cycle in the washing machine. ‘What sort of condition was he in?’ asked Frank Bough. The lady answered without smiling: ‘My husband said he looked like a drowned rat.’

The essence of a cliché is that words are not misused, but have gone dead. To describe a wet cat as a drowned rat is to use language from which all life has departed, leaving mechanical lips and a vacant stare. But you couldn’t blame the lady. Language was not her speciality.

Any suspicions that washing clothes was not her speciality either were allayed when Frank asked what she had done next. There was the cat, looking like a drowned rat. What had she done with it? It turned out that she had dried it manually, instead of doing what most housewives apparently do when they have inadvertently converted the cat into a drowned rat — i.e. put it in the microwave oven.

Before we get down to the main business of the week, a word for the Open University (BBC2), from whose programmes a free education is to be obtained if only you can arrange to be in front of the screen when they are running. Last weekend, as part of a drama course, there was a cheaply mounted but consistently dignified production of Oedipus Tyrannus, by Sophocles. Costumes consisted of caftans and plastic masks, decor of practically nothing. But the translation was good and the actors delivered it with great force. It was the best Greek tragedy I have seen on television since Eileen Atkins played Elektra.

Other first-rate recent OU programmes include a study of the Concorde project — in which everyone ever connected with the costly beauty was chased up and interviewed — and a splendid series, still running, about astronomy. The astronomy series is fronted by experts, who do not talk down. Nevertheless the whole thing is as clear as could be. Here is proof that a BBC science programme does not have to be what it usually is in the evenings, with Nigel Calder explaining things in ways that make them less comprehensible than ever, while Dudley Moore pretends to look puzzled or Peter Ustinov imitates Einstein. Even when Open University programmes are made for fourpence, they always look like value for money, mainly because they have not been invaded by any calculations about mass appeal.

Having been given a whole introductory programme in which to expound his economic theory, Milton Friedman faced his critics in the second episode of Free to Choose (BBC2). His critics did their best to punch a few holes in his argument, but didn’t get very far, because Friedman is an eloquent man with a simple idea, and that’s the hardest kind of man to interrupt.

As for the idea, it strikes at least one innumerate but interested spectator as being what the immortal A. J. Liebling used to call a system for betting on the horses. Friedman’s theory has the dubious merit of being unfalsifiable. It always fits. A country prospers if its government does not interfere. If a country prospers even when the government does interfere, it would have prospered even more if the government had not interfered. Adam Smith was right. The market knows best. The market is ‘the invisible hand’.

Friedman makes much of the invisible hand. Eric Heffer snorted his derision, making you wish that he had an invisible face. Lord Kearton, of Courtaulds, wasn’t impressed either. Nor was Bob Rowthorne, from Cambridge. Thin-lipped with contempt, Rowthorne wagged his finger in a way I remember from a decade or so ago, when he was busy telling Cambridge students about the necessity to dissent from capitalist society. One look at that stabbing digit was enough to tell you why Friedman has become popular. It is because the Left has become unpopular.

Lord Kearton called Friedman’s theory a religion. But it is a very attractive religion to anyone who feels his creativity is being stifled by the modern State. Ten years ago people who felt like that were all on the Left. Somebody in America called them the New Class. Nowadays the New Class tends to be on the Right. I would be surprised if this supposedly seismic realignment were anything more than yet another change of fashion, with the truth remaining hard to get at.

All you can be sure of is that anyone who sounds as if he has all the answers hasn’t. Meanwhile Friedman remains a television natural, the first man to make economics entertaining. Those who remember a similar attempt by John Kenneth Galbraith — who also had all the answers, although they were not the same ones — will have particular cause to be grateful for Friedman’s elfin charm. What the BBC did to Galbraith (a gigantic series with every point visually illustrated to make it less intelligible) was a clear case of bureaucratic interference. This time they are letting the free market operate. Friedman simply does his pixilated number, whereupon you can either take him or leave him. I intend to go on taking him, for a while at least.

In The Tempest (BBC2) the island was any old hunk of rock, but Michael Hordern, as Prospero, was magical enough to transfigure his surroundings, the television screen and, eventually, you. I doubt that I will ever hear the part better spoken. You could hear the chasm of Shakespeare’s approaching death in every line. Ariel popped his eyes, wore a jock-strap and led with his pelvis, making you glad every time he dematerialised, but the young lovers were suitably enchanting. Caliban looked no more off-putting than the average BBC sports commentator. Give him a pork-pie hat and he could have fronted Rugby Special.

Just for Today (ATV) was a clumsy but touching documentary about Jimmy Greaves’s eventually successful struggle against the demon rum. Booze stood indicted as a bad thing. Secret Orchards (Granada) was a William Trevor play about a man who got away with siring two families at once. After his death the whole deception fell messily apart, thereby proving that adultery is a bad thing. A Gift from Nessus (BBC 1), by William McIlvanney and Bill Craig, was an excellent play about both these bad things, with particular emphasis on the first. Eddie ended the affair because it was hurting his career as a salesman. The girl killed herself. It was only then that Eddie found out his wife had had an affair with his boss. So he took this cushion and... but you had to see it. Summed up, it sounds like melodrama. As acted and directed, it was genuinely tragic.

2 March, 1980