Books: The Dreaming Swimmer — News Fantasy |
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News Fantasy

OUR REVIEW of the year is supposed to be a fantasy, but no fantasy could be more fantastic than the facts. This morning one of the tabloid newspapers tells me that a Taiwanese woman tourist, visiting an outlying church in the Ely area, was ravished by a curate on the floor of the sacristy. It transpires that the Taiwanese tourist, although her virtue had, in the final analysis, undoubtedly been compromised against her wishes, gave herself willingly in the first instance, the curate having led her to believe that he was personally related to the Everly Brothers. When you read something like that you realise how far even the most fertile imagination falls short of reality.

But if fantasy can’t improve on the facts, it can hope to make some kind of sense of them. Our programme treats the year as a drama, with the world’s leaders, celebrities, saints, frauds and cranks all featuring as characters. It’s a departure from reality, but in the direction of the truth. Take, for example, that bit of film we screened last year in which Lech Wałesa, after being embraced by the Pope, went away patting his pockets. We said that the Pope, an accomplished amateur conjurer, had nicked Mr Wałesa’s watch. A lot of people told me afterwards that they had found this to be a satisfactory gag, but couldn’t quite figure out why. Agreeing with them that it was a satisfactory gag — at my age you grab whatever praise is going — I set out to explain it, to myself at least. After much wrinkle-browed analysis I came up with a partial answer. The Pope and Mr Walesa are both good men, but Mr Walesa is the more innocent. One of the reasons we admire the Pope is that he gives an air of having been around. He is a man who has lived. To acknowledge this is to strike a chord. He is in character.

Mrs Thatcher’s character never showed more strikingly than on the day she resigned herself to the inevitable. In the House of Commons she slugged it out like a defeated champion who rises after the count of nine to beat up the referee. She is an historic national asset like the long bow or the tin helmet. Even her enemies are proud of her. In our version of the year, she is not only a star, she is a specific kind of star. We can call her a villainess or even a witch, but to call her a coward would not work. The audience wouldn’t get it. The fantasy has to fit the character.

With President Bush this becomes a genuine problem. If you suggested that President Reagan was vague, everybody laughed, because they knew he was. Even those who admired his intelligence and endorsed his principles knew that the word ‘vague’ was invented for him. But President Bush, although every sentence he manages to utter scatters its component parts like pond water from a verb chasing its own tail, is not vague. The only really funny thing about President Bush is Vice President Quayle.

There again, though, the would-be fantasist must face the fact that the facts can’t be beaten. We love making up things for our characters to say — the things they should have said — but Mr Quayle actually speaks, in real life, dialogue that no writer would dare submit to a script conference. When Mr Quayle says things like ‘there are a lot of uncharted waters in space’ we are hard put to keep up. Our latest review of the year is but a humble attempt.

Radio Times, 22 December, 1990 – 4 January, 1991