Books: The Crystal Bucket : Personal freedom |
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Personal freedom

The worst TV programme of this or any other week was the Conservative Party Political Broadcast (all channels), which twice referred to a Russian writer called Solzhenitskyn. If Solzhenitskyn is against Socialism, we should be too: that was the message. The message was somewhat weakened by the fact that there is no such writer as Solzhenitskyn. The man they mean is called Solzhenitsyn — there is a ‘ts’ but there is no ‘k’. The pronunciation ‘Solzhenitskyn’ was invented last year by Margaret Thatcher, who thereby suggested that she knew nothing about Solzhenitsyn’s writings beyond what she had heard from her advisers, who in turn had apparently mixed him up with Rumpelstiltskin.

Other attractions of the Tory PPB included Reg Prentice, who was to be seen sitting in the path of a Force 10 gale, apparently in order to demonstrate that sparse, lank hair looks very ratty in a high wind. Possessing even less hair than Reg, I can advise him that the thing to do is cut it short. Growing it long and winding it round your head like a coil of rope is effective only if you fix the result with Araldite and wear a motor-cycle helmet when out of doors. Lectures on personal freedom lose force when delivered by someone who looks in desperate need of Supplementary Benefits.

The rest of the broadcast showed a comparable lack of judgment. It left you wondering, not for the first time, if the Tories any longer know quite what they’re up to. Are We Really Going to be Rich? (Yorkshire) left you wondering if anybody else knows what he’s up to either. A marathon drone-in with satellite link-ups, the show dealt with the challenge allegedly posed by the wealth purportedly about to emanate from North Sea oil.

Our host was David Frost, gripping his clip-board like a discobolus in mufti. He was on terrific form, cueing in savants from all over the world, cutting them off before they said enough to subtract from the confusion, switching to the studio audience whenever somebody sitting in it had something irrelevant he urgently wanted to contribute.

The component elements of his disarming physiognomy having been reassembled after a quick trip through space from California, Milton Friedman appeared in a big close-up on the studio wall. Friedman advised giving the money to the people, so that they could all become capitalists. Tony Benn appeared on the same wall, having been beamed line-of-sight from London. Benn advised using the money to revive British industry.

Sir Keith Joseph, present in the studio, argued for tax cuts so that the people would be encouraged to create more wealth in their turn. Benn’s proposals, according to Sir Keith, would only mean throwing the money away on British Leyland. As a layman I am bound to say I thought this last point had force: there seems little point in sucking up money out of one hole only to squirt it down another.

These formidable men spoke with equal plausibility, which meant that you were progressively left just as puzzled as you were before, but presumably on an increasingly high level. All concerned were clear, literate, urbane. Only Lord Balogh sounded like an economist. From what you could understand of his message, it was old and tired. It was also probably right. If the State spends the money where it seems most needed, justice is at least aimed at, even if not necessarily achieved. The last Tory tax bonanza brought the country nothing but property speculation — the worst morale-killer of the lot.

‘You are about to see something absolutely amazing,’ said the voice-over introducing Horizon (BBC2). Amazing it was: a machine reading an ordinary printed book to a blind man. The secret was the silicon chip microprocessor, which is a way of connecting together about a quarter of a million transistors in a space the size of your fingernail. The result is a Lilliputian computer with endless implications for the future. Some of these have already started happening: the Swiss watch industry, for example, has been wiped out, and nobody now wants to buy any kind of mechanical calculator.

Almost everybody’s job will be affected, up to and including doctors and lawyers. There was a disturbing sequence showing a famous American diagnostician teaching his life-time of experience to a silicon chip data bank. A big debate is already raging about whether Britain should try to build these things on its own account or simply confine itself to providing software — the programming and planning that we are already famous for. The issue was not settled on the programme and presumably won’t be until taken up by David Frost. Will his job be affected? Will mine?

There is no reason why a television critic should not be replaced by a silicon chip if all he has to watch is stuff like Miss England 1978 (BBC1), in which technology took over from people years ago. Android dancers programmed for maximum offensiveness mimed to the opening song. ‘This is Miss England [Boo-ba-ba-bum], everything about her is LOVELY!’

Terry Wogan glided forward on silent wheels and introduced us to his mechanical companion, Ray Moore. A banter tape was unspooling somewhere in each stiffly smiling head. ‘People will say we’re in love, Terry.’ ‘He’s a flatterer, but I like him. Go ahead, Ray.’ Ray went ahead with the same eerie glide, disappearing behind the scenes in order to provide noises off.

Cyborgs in female attire wobbled towards camera while Ray (the name stands for Recycled Automatic Yammer) filled in on sound. ‘Her great passion is watching golf. Pretty attractive birdie she is too.’ The cyborgs still can’t walk straight or turn corners but the technology for lip-licking and tongue-poking is getting better all the time.

The Fiftieth Academy Awards (Thames) was a bad scene. It, too, had dancers. Bob Hope told weak jokes which everybody pretended to find funny. ‘Nobody Does It Better’ was gruesomely sung by Aretha Franklin, all talent and no taste. Vanessa Redgrave gave a terrible little speech, pledging her support in the fight against anti-Semitism and Fascism.

It was encouraging to be thus assured that anti-Semitism and Fascism are now doomed, but one couldn’t help being depressed at Vanessa’s evident failure to realise how snugly she fits into the showbiz world which she deludes herself that she stands out from. Like almost everyone else in the auditorium, she was an ego on the rampage. Woody Allen had the right idea: he stayed away.

9 April, 1978

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]