Books: Glued to the Box : You tested the gyroscope? |
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You tested the gyroscope?

Antibes was the venue for this season’s first international heat of Jeux sans frontières (BBC1), a television phenomenon which encapsulates the Europe of the present and presages the world of the future. It is omnilingual yet inarticulate, multicoloured yet homogeneous, frantic yet static, contrived yet banal. It is a girl from Urps-am-Gurgl dressed as a duck and it is Eddie Waring.

‘And here we are live on the site of an old Roman fort,’ cried Stuart Hall. ‘Her her her! Har har har! He’s gone!’ A giant fibreglass goblet had just been knocked off a greased plank and was upside down in the water with a pair of legs sticking out of it. The legs being French, Stuart felt free to expatiate on his theme. ‘Hee hee hee! He really must be a little bit disappointed at his performance! Hoo hoo hoo! A little distrait, I think.’

For years I have been following Stuart through heat after heat and final after final of both It’s a Knockout and Jeux sans frontières. He is an intelligent, cultivated man, yet somehow he has managed to embrace his task without recourse to drugs. The question is not how he does it, but how we will do it when our turn comes. ‘Doctors and teachers, I ask you what is Hell?’ wrote Dostoevsky. ‘I submit it is the agony of being unable to love.’ Nice try, Fyodor, but the correct answer is very different. Hell will take place on earth, will consist of It’s a Knockout and Jeux sans frontières played every day forever, and nobody will be permitted not to watch.

Here comes the British team dressed as knights in shining armour. They are carrying prop maces. They are riding bicycles. They must ride their bicycles across a greased plank and hit a dangling shield with their maces. The shield goes further up in the air as the game goes on. If they swing and miss the shield they fall into the water. If they swing and hit the shield they still fall into the water. ‘With your donger you have to smash the gong!’ cries Stuart. ‘Come on, Britain! Keep it going! WATCH IT!’ But Britain turns out to be no good at hitting shields with dongers while dressed as knights and riding bicycles. Our lads accumulate in the water like the Tour de France in a pond. The German team, on the other hand, looks as if it has been trained specifically for this event since the Spanish Civil War.

‘You tested the gyroscope?’ Spacemen delivered lines like that to each other in the first episode of The Martian Chronicles (BBC1), purportedly a faithful rendering of the Ray Bradbury book, but actually the latest in a long series of undeviatingly tacky science fiction epics which carry the name of Milton Subotsky prominent among the credits. I like Milton Subotsky, who once did me the honour of asking me to write a movie for him. He is under the illusion, however, that if one actor asks another actor whether he has tested the gyroscope, the audience will be convinced that they are both spacemen. Subotsky productions, whatever their budget, are dogged by an ineradicable naivety. The only difference between The Martian Chronicles and such hallowed items of Subotskiana as They Came Prom Beyond Space is that this time more money has been spent on getting things wrong. In They Came From Beyond Space the female lead was Viviane Ventura in a crash helmet. In The Martian Chronicles you get Gayle Hunnicutt to look at — a distinctly more rewarding experience. But the guys in the spacesuits are still asking each other whether the gyroscope has been tested.

Anyway, it is 1999 or thereabouts, and Rock Hudson is in charge of the first NASA mission to Mars. ‘The atmosphere on Mars, though thin by our standards,’ Rock tells the waiting pressmen, ‘is perfectly capable of supporting life.’ This suggests that Rock has not been keeping up with the previous quarter-century of research into the subject, and has perhaps stayed on in the job too long. It is important to remember at this point that actors do not write their own dialogue. Rock was a perfectly credible submarine captain in Ice Station Zebra, where he had some convincingly technical-sounding things to say. But that was a real movie, whereas this is the pits.

The spacemen, whose attire suggests that in 1999 military uniforms will be very badly tailored, climb into their module and fly up to join their waiting rocket, an order of events which intriguingly reverses the usual procedure, in which the chief function of the rocket is to lift the module. As it staggers through deep space, the rocket has smoke coming out the back. It would look more like a real rocket if it did not have smoke coming out the back, but the people responsible for this series have either never seen any film of what a real rocket looks like or, more likely, have seen it but not taken it in. Their imaginations were formed by Flash Gordon Conquers the Universes, in which rockets had smoke coming out the back.

On Mars, a local lady telepathically detects the approach of the Earthlings. She has no ears but otherwise looks like a soubrette from a Paris nightclub circa 1921, an effect reinforced by a hat borrowed from Josephine Baker. Her husband swans epicenely around in a white négligé plus choker. He has no ears either, which leads you to suspect either that these two are freaks huddling together for warmth of that earlessness is a Martian characteristic. The lady telepathically falls for the leader of the mission. Her husband, in a fit of Martian jealousy, wipes out the whole expedition with a gun that looks like a cream nozzle.

The second mission also gets wiped out, having made the mistake of dining with the inhabitants. ‘The chocolate pudding was drugged.’ The third mission is led by Rock in person. Having said goodbye to Gayle Hunnicutt and tested the gyroscope, although not necessarily in that order, he leads his men to a rendezvous with the unknown. On the sands of the Red Planet it is suddenly revealed that one of the expedition’s members is a drunken psychopath. For some reason this fact eluded the screening process on Earth. There is a Martian city close by. It is composed of cubes, cones and... well, balls, actually.

The black member of the crew falls in love with Martian culture, steals the cream nozzle, zaps the psychopath and disappears into the city of balls. At the end of the episode Rock is forced to shoot a mysterious figure in yet another white nylon négligé. I hoped this would turn out to be Gayle Hunnicutt, but it was the black guy. Gayle was back on Earth, counting the days before she got out of the series.

There have been some good repeats. Bamber Gascoigne’s The Christians (ATV) survives a second viewing and P.J. Kavanagh’s William Cowper in Olney (BBC2) is an impeccably composed and delivered little programme. The commercial for Bounty Bars features girls with bodies as beautiful as their faces are dumb. It is into the latter that they cram the Bounty bars, their features contorted as if something wonderful were happening to the former. What times, as Cicero said to Catiline, and what customs.

17 August, 1980

[ This piece can also be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]