Essays: Allsop in wild New York City |
[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]

Allsop in wild New York City

ONLY a few days ago at Television Centre I had a silent conversation, all gestures and eyebrows, through a glass partition: it’s the kind of semaphore one tends to develop in order to transmit information through the teeming hubbub of a telly office.

The man doing the receiving — more gestures and eyebrows — was Kenneth Allsop. After a few seconds he reminded me of the absurdity of what we were doing by shaking with noiseless laughter. He looked very alive. I don’t think he rated valedictory solemnity very highly so I won’t try any on, except to say that when he got up from the table he was still winning. His The World About Us (BBC-2) concerning the wild life of New York City was a total fascinator.

The show was a long-lensed hymn to the tenacity of organic chemistry. Dust-grey and pastel-blue skylines were drawn close to the eye by the telephoto’s depth-squeeze, while across the smoking garbage-dumps that filled the foreground winged a formation of — guess what? — ibises. In the inch-wide cracks between tall buildings a special mountain-climbing strain of sparrow splayed its legs sideways and shimmied up. There was a cockroach that had adapted itself to life inside a TV set: after a swift waddle along winding pathways of circuitry and over stiles of condensers and capacitors it settled down for a contented noshing of the insulation.

Cameras flew elegiacally across the Gatsby country, where Scott Fitzgerald once asked us to imagine a giant pair of spectacles staring out from a hoarding above the fields of ash. But that image, we now see, was too portentous: decay can be nauseating but rarely sterile, and every junk-pile is a potential food bin. Allsop presided over the programme’s revelations with characteristic thoroughness. His generation of presenters have always overdone the emphasis, in my view, and we need to go against that style now. But they set the standards for laying information on the line.

Liza Minnelli and Peter Sellers convened a press conference in order to announce their love. Cameras were dutifully there. Call to me all my sad captains. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Watergate boys started to spill their guts: cameras were there too, and Midweek (BBC-1) ran excerpts of the proceedings. With so many mechanical eyes on the prowl, it’s getting harder and harder to go missing — or perhaps it’s just that fewer and fewer people want to.

On BBC-2’s Man Alive, however, there were stories about runaway children who had simply gone into smoke, blown the scene, done a fade. Apparently there’s no pattern to the disappearances. The worst ones are when the kids never even get in touch to say they’re safe. Parents gaped with uncomprehending pain. The programme managed to snare one story about a runaway who re-established contact: in the interim she’d become a Hell’s Angel’s old lady. Her mother did a commendable job of forbearing to condemn. Some of the parents, with a nagging commentary to help them along, were distraught that the police can’t keep tabs on everybody. But the worst cases, one reflected, make bad laws: ID cards and registration of movement would be too big a price to pay for the quick return of children from terra incognita. The smartest point of the night was made by the parent who realised that it’s probably pride that keeps them away, once they’ve gone. When very small I ran away from home, taking nothing but a leather school-bag containing sandwiches made by my infuriatingly co-operative mother. I only went a mile. But I sat there until sunset.

Panorama (BBC-1) did a show on apartheid, securing some damaging footage direct from the scene of the crime. A shanty city of labourers who could see their families only once a year stretched into the far distance. Somebody thought that one lady might have a chance of sleeping with her husband under Section 10/1/C. The rottenness of the whole deal stank to heaven.

The programme would end, we were promised, with Vorster being interviewed. Thenks, but no thenks: I switched to World in Action (Granada), where they were cantering through that hoary old gory story about how easy it would be to pinch some plutonium and make your own nuclear weapon. The Mafia received several mentions. Ernst Blofeld received none. My scepticism, you understand, has nothing to do with blindly trusting that an event so catastrophic couldn’t happen: I merely doubt that a programme of this kind can have any material result beyond helping some dangerously well-educated maniac to hatch the big idea.

Philpott (BBC-2) continued his salutary investigation into sport, dealing this time with fishermen. Salmon who had come all the way across the Atlantic to lay their eggs were ambushed in the last 100 yards by nincompoops in funny hats. ATV did a motor-racing play called The Team that went straight down the same drear slip-road in which the hulks of the old British car movies still lie smouldering. Dullsville.

Joke of the week was in Radio Times, where the BBC-2 Midnight Movie, Kali-Yug, Goddess of Vengeance, was billed as ‘a colourful tale of eastern intrigue and sinister skulduggery set in the scarlet and gold heyday of Imperial India and featuring an international cast of stars.’ Bullshit. On Ironside (BBC-1) Mark finally passed his law exams, but decided to be a cop after all — a break for the boss, who had been practising solo wheelies in his chair but undoubtedly dreaded the departure of his faithful native bearer. Betjeman’s wonderful Metro-land got a re-run on BBC-2 and was even better the second time. Cider with Rosie likewise rated another spin, on BBC-2: sugary but addictive, like strawberries in heat.

A man called Fred Herzberg, starring in Jumping for the Jelly-Beans (BBC-1), explained to an auditorium full of manfully studious British executives that workers won’t work well on a meaningless job. Could it be, Karl, zat zer message aboudt alienation is geddink through at last? Frank Bough writes to say that it wasn’t him who made the boo-boo about Harry Commentator, ace carpenter. I apologise, damn it.

The Observer, 27th May 1973