Books: Visions Before Midnight — Unintelligibühl |
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‘If we ate what we listened to,’ said the pianist Earl Wild (BBC2), ‘we’d all be dead.’ He meant Muzak, but his observations applied equally well to the English language, which in this week’s television received a fearful bashing from more than one direction.

For example, there was NATO Supreme Commander General Alexander Haig, talking to Robin Day on Newsday (BBC2). General Haig looks the way a general ought to look, with a Steve Canyon countenance, shoulders like an armoured personnel carrier, and rows of medal ribbons running down one side of his chest and out of the picture. Unfortunately he sounds like nothing on earth. It is almost impossible to understand him, since he crams so many polysyllabic abstractions into a sentence that he forgets the beginning before he reaches the end.

Quizzed by Robin on the Soviet military build-up, General Haig squared his jaw and talked of the restructured multi-capable inter-parity situation of the SALT ceiling. Robin adjusted his glasses and rephrased his question. General Haig squared his jaw even further and rephrased his answer, talking of how the shortfall in assessment of the balanced triad necessitated that he participate in the evolution of viable agreement postures.

Apart from hitting General Haig in the face with a custard pie, there wasn’t a lot Robin could do except plough on. If the West was going broke, how could it meet the Russian threat? General Haig squared his jaw to the point of crystalline fatigue failure and gave answer. The United States no longer wielding hegemonial power in the tightly inter-dependent global strategic environment, the NATO allies in the present socio-economic crisis situation would require to keep their perspectives clear. Robin, looking as if he had been wrestling a mattress full of treacle, retired defeated. General Haig looked triumphant. Now for the Russians.

‘John Curry pulled out everything!’ screamed Alan Weeks in Olympic Grandstand (BBC1). So did the BBC commentators. For them, Innsbruck was a kind of apotheosis. What would the Winter Olympics be without them?

To start with, it would be literate — but let’s not carp. We’ve done that before. In the sweet instant of an unarguable British victory, it behoves us to be proud, and that includes being proud of Alan Weeks, Ron Pickering, David Vine and David Coleman. Vine, especially, is a changed man. Not once did he lapse into a repetition of the unforgettable moment when he predicted that an athlete would shortly pull out the big one. He left that to Alan Weeks, who on the evening of the pairs figure-skating final duly delivered himself of a classic. ‘This might well be the night,’ mused Alan, ‘when Rodnina pulls everything out.’ Thereby confirming our suspicions about Russian female athletes.

Coleman, Weeks, Pickering and Vine all made copious use of this year’s official BBC demonstrative adjective, this. This man, this is the man, this girl, this is the girl. The skiing ability of Klammer was referred to as ‘the brilliance of this man’. There were several instances of last year’s the man who, as in ‘The man who was injured last year’, but they were overwhelmed by the popularity of this is the man who, as in ‘This is the man who challenged Thoeni at Burble Valley.’

This is the man who was sometimes shortened to this the man who, as in ‘This the man who leads the commatition.’ For some reason, this advanced form was never used when referring to women, who were still sometimes the girl who (as in ‘The girl who lives in the tiny village of Unintelligibühl’), were very often this is the girl who (as in ‘This is the girl from Gruntstadt in Mumblestein who fractured an ovary at Grenoble’), but were never this the girl who.

Why this should be was a difficult question. This the question that was difficult to answer. While you were working on it, there were some nice things to watch. I liked the American pairs skaters, anglo Randy Gardner and ethnic Tai Babilonia. Super-Wasp and the Half-Breed! As usual, Irena Rodnina carried on like a ballbreaker, incinerating Zaitsev with her beetle-browed hate-stare when he got his blades tangled. It will be a relief when those two retire from commatition, since for all their technical razzle-dazzle they are unpoetic to the last degree. Not that Rodnina lacks femininity compared to some other members of the Russian team. One of their speed-skating persons bore a startling resemblance to Johnny Weissmuller. Perhaps it was thinking about her which led Reginald Bosanquet on News at Ten (ITN) to mention an event called the five hundred kilometres women’s speed-skating.

If you can accept the fact that Bouquet of Barbed Wire (LWT) is the house of Atreus transferred to Peyton Place on a long low loader, there are worse serials to get hooked on. It won’t rot your brains like The Brothers. Nor will you see — as in so many other series currently on the screen — the roof of a coal mine fall on the hero’s father. Instead there is plenty of solid middle-class adultery and incest. Sheila Allen is having a whale of a time as the Older Woman who has welcomed her daughter’s husband into her bed, which is roughly what her husband (Frank Finlay) would like to do with the daughter, and perhaps will, or even perhaps once did, or perhaps both.

I have been unfair to When the Boat Comes In (BBC1), which has really been far too good to ignore. James Bolam is quite superb in the leading role. But I was sad to see, in the latest episode, the roof of a coal mine fall on the hero’s father. It is one of the few blessings of Clayhanger (ATV) that the series is set in the Potteries, thus ruling out the possibility that the roof of a coal mine will fall on the hero’s father. There is always the chance, I suppose, that a kiln will instead.

I hate to go on and on about The Brothers (BBC1), but it’s turning into a very freaky scene. It looks as if Jenny is scheduled for the funny farm. That’s where Brian went when they wrote him out for a whole series. When he came back, he had a moustache. When Jenny comes back, will she have one too? If there is no room at the asylum, she could always become one of the presenters of Terra Firma (BBC2): there are three already, and might as well be four, since the main interest of this new magazine programme’s first instalment lay in watching the cooks crowd round the broth.

Ned Sherrin, a genuinely sharp character, could easily have run the whole show on his own, but had been burdened with help. Alasdair Clayre, fronting a thrill-a-minute story about canals, spoke in the tones of someone contemplating taking holy orders. Nemone Lethbridge was in charge of the standard item about stud bulls. There was a certain frisson in listening to her ritzy accent while her elegant hand patted a bull’s bum, but the news was stale — which didn’t, of course, stop Nationwide (BBC1) covering the same topic all over again a few nights later.

15 February, 1976

[ This piece also appears in our Observer TV column chapter ]