Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 2. Ferrets to the Rescue |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 2. Ferrets to the Rescue


Is a hillside where the cows are? I still, by reflex action, look around for a spare researcher to send in search of the answer, which in those days you couldn’t get by Google. Somebody had to pick up a phone, or even pick up a book. The people who did this were called the ferrets. The term was invented by Richard. Only a very few of the ferrets were ever humourless enough to resent being called that. The rest of them were capable of seeing the respect that their boss held for them under the banter. (Contrary to the received wisdom which holds that men have the sense of humour and women merely play along, it has been my experience that almost all women enjoy banter as long as it respects their dignity, whereas there are men who think you are saying they can’t drive.) Most of the ferrets were young, a good half of them were female, and some of those were pretty. I did my best not to notice, aware from the start that nobody had been hired for their looks, only for their ability.

I might say at this point, so as to get my rebuttal in early, that I am very proud of my part in ensuring that the women in our office, over the next twenty years, could always depend on equal treatment. Quite a few of them have high positions in the industry now, and would probably be ready to say, if questioned on the point, that they were never held back. They might also say, alas, that I was heavy-handed with the gallantry and far too free with the waggling eyebrow of admiration. In that respect, I had had a bad education, and was slow to get over it. Marriage had done a good deal to civilize my libidinous urge, but there continued to be a lot more of it that needed convincing. Surrounded by personable young women working hard on my behalf, I had trouble wiping the grin off my face, and there were certainly occasions when beauty turned my head. But it seldom affected my judgement, and never for long. Richard made sure of that. He was hard to fault in that matter, and since I wanted his approval, I tried hard to copy him. But more of that later. The story will go on. It was one of the stories of our generation of men, and I often wonder if the next generation ever realized how lucky it was, whatever its gender, to grow up and work in an atmosphere where equality was taken for granted, and a man who allowed lust to warp his sense of justice would be shamed in his own eyes. I’m talking about Australia and America, of course: in Britain things remained as bad as ever, although television has always been a fairer place to work in than Fleet Street, which in turn is nothing like as bad as the House of Commons, where the women MPs are still forced to suffer routine abuse from the kind of men who, even when nominally heterosexual, are at ease only with each other, and polite to nobody.

Overnight, as our department expanded in anticipation of the new format, we moved out of the main LWT skyscraper into an annex called Sea Containers House beside the southern approach to Blackfriars Bridge. It was here — as Richard was fond of saying portentously at production meetings, especially if the meeting was taking place in some glorified corridor decorated with cardboard cut-outs of comedians no longer exactly current — it was here, in the romantically named Sea Containers House, that we edited and assembled our first syndicated footage of the Japanese game show Endurance. Our Japanese-speaking stringer in Tokyo had been watching the show in growing disbelief, and when he finally ceased spitting noodles he sent us a compilation several hours long. In those days it was a huge task to send a sample of a TV show across the world. Today the stringer could have swiped it straight off air and squirted it halfway around the globe at the speed of light. In the next generation, when the satellites up there are touching each other, he will be able to get any channel in the world at the touch of a button and download the images by saying, ‘Shazam!’ But we’re talking about a time when he had to ask permission, get his physical hands on the actual stuff, wrap it up and pay for the stamps. Just the first step in this sequence, the business of asking permission, took weeks of effort even though he spoke the language. But he never gave up. His determination was a measure of how sure he was that he was on to something rivetingly weird. Our own editors trimmed the several hours of footage back to an hour, so that we could taste it.

It was like tasting an electric light socket. Young Japanese people had volunteered for tests in order to advance towards a grand prize — some kind of holiday — which seemed petty indeed when seen in the light of their sufferings. One of the milder images I made notes on was of young men hanging near-naked upside down over a well-populated snake-pit while their plastic underpants were shovelled full of live cockroaches. Instantly my narrative line started to form on the page. There had been a day when young men like these would have been taking off in planes they barely knew how to fly and heading for a sky full of flak, all in the hope of a different kind of grand prize — the chance to crash into an Allied warship. The producers, on the other hand, would have been preparing some memorable evil for the citizens of Nanking. The yammering front-man would have been an interrogator for the Kempei Tai, or leading a banzai charge on Iwo Jima. Times had changed, and all the most frightening characteristics of an alien culture were in the process of transferring themselves out of the real world and on to television. For anyone such as myself, who had always found the real world unreal in its insanities, here was evidence that television might become a new real world where homicidal tendencies were palliated by the histrionic. The Japanese students confirmed this possibility by plainly enjoying the chance to act out being afraid. There was a lot to be afraid of, by our standards. But they still relished the opportunity to emote. You could tell they were acting because they acted so badly. The one advantage of the Japanese acting style is that you can always tell when someone is acting. The young lady at the front desk of your hotel who apologizes for having given you the wrong key carries on like Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai.

As the next batch of young student contestants shivered and mugged with feigned fear while the previous batch went through their protracted martyrdom, you were seeing the deadly pseudo-Samurai code of bushido transformed into kabuki. It was kabuki with the accelerator pressed to the floor, but it was recognizably drawn from the same wellspring of inspiration as the average afternoon double bill at the great playhouse in the Ginza district of Tokyo, where the actors, year upon year forever, zealously preserve their ancient tradition of conveying anger by raising their eyebrows, snorting fiercely and stamping out imaginary cigarette butts. This was theatre, and it was formed on the ruins of a sadistic militarist tradition that had richly merited being ruined. As I made my first notes, I was forming something too: the beginnings of a theme that I would pursue for the rest of my career, even into the present day. Civilization doesn’t eliminate human impulses: it tames them, through changing their means of expression. That, I decided straight away, would have to be the serious story under the paragraphs that tied the clips together: otherwise the commentary would be doomed never to rise above the level of condescension.

With all of us in the editing room simultaneously lost in thought and yelling with disbelief, we watched through to the end of the reel, after which we decided that there was about five minutes of sure-fire material distributed amongst the chaos. Even then, what we chose had to be further edited so as to make sense as separate clips. It would be a large, long, finicky task to bring a few shaped moments out of the mayhem, but our producers immediately sent the orders to Tokyo to keep the stuff coming. Back in his office, Richard asked how I would handle the commentary. He was understandably worried about the racism angle. I said what I still believe today, that there was no question of racism. It was a question of culture, and what we were seeing was a cultural nightmare being turned into a playground before our eyes. Japan, after all, was a successful nation — rather more successful than Britain, if the truth be told — and to overdo the respect for the supposed unfortunates would be to belittle them. Besides (this was my clincher), if the Japanese themselves thought they were being funny, why couldn’t we agree?

So I got the green light. It was a crucial decision on Richard’s part, and it sharply demonstrated the weight of the heaviest can any executive producer has to carry, because with this new kind of programme the moral issue would never go away. To condense my account of how we treated a dilemma that would extend into the years to come, let me say now that our biggest problem was Africa. Egypt was tough enough. Egyptian soap operas were so awful that you looked as if you were calling into question the intelligence of an entire population simply by screening them. There was one Egyptian light-entertainment programme based on practical jokes, in which the capering and winking star turn would plant a ticking suitcase in a railway station and they would film the panic when the commuters thought it might be a bomb. At the time this seemed too ridiculous to be harmful, so we screened it. But the real problems started further south. In the sub-Saharan countries, local television featured some wonderfully clumsy commercials. Quiz contestants competed for a packet of biscuits. The current-affairs programmes consisted almost entirely of politicians sitting facing each other in armchairs, doing nothing except getting filmed. We decided that it would look patronizing to screen this stuff, so we didn’t. Underdeveloped television was no fun if it came from underdeveloped countries. For as long as I headlined the programme, that was the principle we stuck to. Critics never ceased to sum up my attitude as knowingly parochial, but that was because most critics, like most journalists of any kind, would rather change gender than change a story. To anyone capable of objective judgement, it was obvious that we were bending over backwards to be fair. When in doubt, we left it out, and we didn’t need theories of imperialism to tell us to do so: a sense of common humanity was enough to do the trick.

But the constant awareness that we were on the lip of an ethical precipice proved nerve-racking, and eventually racked nerves wear you out more thoroughly than taxed muscles. The constant work of editing for impact was comparatively less tiresome. It had to be done, though, and with unrelenting concentration. You couldn’t just shove stuff on the air because it was generally funny. The footage you screened had to be specifically so. A good example was the cinematic oeuvre of the renowned American director Ed Wood, who had spent a dedicated career fighting the closely connected handicaps of insufficient finance and a total absence of gift. We were the first to screen Ed Wood’s movies for a television audience, and no other programme but ours ever managed to screen them successfully, because the awkward truth about Wood’s justly celebrated lack of talent was that it peaked only intermittently. His masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space was merely boring if you looked at the whole thing, or even at any long sequence. He had never, in his whole career, got anything right, but the bits that were hilariously wrong were heavily wrapped in mere tedium, and had to be picked out and mounted lovingly for inspection, like treasure from a dump. I liked to think that my intervening commentary gave Ed Wood some of the brio which he had mistakenly assumed was his hallmark.

What was true for Ed Wood was true for almost everything else we screened. Editing is an essentially poetic process akin to compressing carbon until you get diamonds. In our case we were compressing dross to get zircons, but that made the job even more difficult. It was nothing, though, compared to the effort of watching fifty hopeless African current-affairs programmes and deciding you couldn’t screen anything. The waste of time was so pure that it ached. With the Japanese game shows, however, we were in heaven, and precisely because all the participants were having such a ball being in hell.

When our first programme to feature excerpts from Endurance went to air in the new Sunday night prime-time format, the audience consolidated immediately at ten million plus. In my previous volume of memoirs I recounted how I had a local-area cult hit with my riffs about the South American killer bees in the disastrous disaster movie The Swarm, but the Japanese cockroaches were a success of a different order. This time the notoriety was on a national scale — I got an offer of marriage from a man in the Shetlands — and I had very little time to learn how it might be handled. The first thing I learned was that it can’t: not beyond a certain point, which is placed very low down on the rising scale to insanity. If everyone in the country recognizes your face, your only hope of normality is to find another country where they don’t, but you might be too late. When Elton John first stood on the Great Wall of China, he told the attendant British press pack — trailing him around the earth as if he were a more tractable version of royalty — that it was a relief to be somewhere where a thousand million people didn’t know him from Adam. But he was almost certainly bluffing. Poor sap, he had already got to where it felt strange when someone didn’t know who he was. I already had a mild sense of that before I left on my next foreign assignment. Kenya was bigger than Britain but blessedly had slightly fewer people in it, and very few of those had seen me explicating on screen the motivation of a bunch of Japanese adolescents as they roasted each other over a bed of embers while their testicles were being colonized by starving maggots.