Books: Visions Before Midnight — Killer ants | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Killer ants

The viewing week began with the Cup Final dominating both the main channels: a dreary occurrence over which we need not waste words, except to say that the supporters were a lot more inventive than the teams. The Fulham banner BUSBY BREAKS BUBBLES was crushingly trumped by West Ham’s BILLY BITES YOUR BUM. More enigmatic was TOMMY TRINDER SMELLS GREAT.

On ITV Brian Moore, in lightweight threads of whispering lilac, fronted a brand-new panel of experts — Alan Ball, Kevin Keegan and Malcolm Macdonald, all opinionating flat out in an effort to solidify their new positions. Jimmy Hill’s crew on BBC1 were cooler hands: Bobby Charlton, Bob Wilson and the Godfather, Don Revie. Revie approved of the way the Fulham squad were all dressed in the same suits and ties. He thought they were ‘a credit to the profession’. The Hammers, by implication, weren’t. Guess who won.

All this constituted a Mickey Finn of some magnitude, and I woke up somewhere in the middle of BBC1’s Saturday Night Movie, The Naked Jungle, a film I have been seeing all my life. I saw it when it came out in 1954 and I have seen it in half a dozen different countries since. I have been on a crippled ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean with nothing to watch except The Naked Jungle. I once spent a night at a small hotel in a Dutch pine forest and when I turned on the TV it was showing The Naked Jungle.

Making an early appearance as the District Commissioner in this superb film was a younger, slimmer William Conrad, more recently known to us as Cannon (BBC1). Whereas nowadays Conrad is very fat indeed, in those days he was simply very fat. Of all the film’s great lines of dialogue, the greatest is spoken by Conrad. When Charlton Heston announces his intention of fighting the killer ants, Conrad grimly warns him, in a French accent, that he is ‘up against a monster twenty miles long and two miles wide. Forty square miles of agonizing death!’

Between the end title of The Naked Jungle and the opening credits of Cannon half an hour later, Conrad put on five stone. It was a mind-blowing effect. From being merely a barrage balloon, suddenly he was the Graf Zeppelin. Goaded by my post-Cup tristesse into feeling even more callous than usual, I was disposed to find this funny. And in Cannon fatness is funny, because the issue is so thoroughly dodged. Cannon is so fat he has to lean backwards or he’ll fall over, yet the pretence is kept up that his largeness happens mainly because he’s peckish. He’s a gourmet, not a guts. You never hear anything about what it’s physically and psychologically like to be fat — the thigh-chafing, self-loathing reality is left out.

So completely is the nub of the matter fudged that Cannon is allowed all the attributes of the slimmer sleuths he is supposed to be different from. When he hits the heavies with the edge of his pudgy hand they collapse unconscious, instead of bursting out laughing. Trained assassins toting hunting rifles equipped with telescopic sights are strangely unable to shoot him: compared to Cannon a barn door looks like a lemon pip, yet they blaze away at his toddling form without being able to score so much as an outer.

There is more of the truth about fatness in The Girls of Slender Means (BBC2), a promising new three-parter adapted from Muriel Spark’s novel. It is 1945. In the May of Teck Club, a glorified boarding house, all kinds of well-bred girls converge. Jane Wright, played by Miriam Margolyes, is the fat kind. This is already a fine performance and bids fair to develop into something marvellous. Without allowing her chummy niceness to slip an inch, Miss Margolyes looks on in repressed anguish as the man she adores swivels his glance towards the Club’s svelte siren. The conclusion we must draw is that Jane’s chummy niceness is compulsory: people expect it of her. Miss Margolyes has a richly comic talent which was once conspicuously consumed by At the Eleventh Hour, a doomed satire show she was the only good thing in. It is to be hoped that she will now become established as a gift to our screen.

Arthur Hopcraft’s new play Wednesday Love (BBC2) was a subtle effort even from him, and one hesitates to bruise it with a summary, but to put it briefly: two frustrated suburban wives playing truant on a Wednesday afternoon met two broke students in a drinking club. The brash lad got off with the raver and the quiet ones, Chris and Jean, were left with each other. But it was in their lives that things happened. Chris (Simon Rouse) was bright, but Jean (Lois Daine) possessed the emotional education. Was he callow, or just cold? Was she wiser, or just older? In the end she ran away with him, but you guessed that he would soon use her up. The play was directed by Michael Apted and had a lot in it. I hope the tapes of Hopcraft’s plays are being kept. He can write better about love than almost anyone, giving you the sense that he has been every character he creates, in their frailties as well as in their strengths.

Scenario: The Peace Game (BBC1) was an epic nonsense about a supposed European crisis in 1978, with real-life ex-NATO bigwigs and erstwhile diplomats improvising limp dialogue behind desks. Being concerned with the Future, the show was naturally fronted by James Burke, who said ‘What you are about to see is unscripted,’ as if that was somehow a guarantee of excitement. In the event, the proceedings crept by like forty square miles of agonizing death. ‘May I,’ asked a Dutchman, ‘state the position of the Low Countries?’ And he did. A boring Frenchman with a joke accent said: ‘I’m going to give you the bottom of my thinking.’ And he did.

Pierre Salinger played the President of the United States, a role he was bound to enjoy, since it came him the opportunity of pretending to be his hero, Kennedy. The President was one of ‘two men, each of whom’, according to Burke, ‘could destroy the planet’. Pierre loved being one of those. Talking of ‘a normalization situation’ and ‘the last resort situation if the thing gets down to the point when it’s not tolerable any other way’, Pierre inadvertently demonstrated that the language of Watergate began at Camelot.

11 May, 1975