Essays: You gonna know! |
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You gonna know!

LATE getting back from America, for reasons which in due course I will explain at length, I spent only half the week watching television in Britain. The other half I spent watching television in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

As always, American television was a salutary reminder of what we are not missing. In the evening there are sometimes a few passable shows, but too much of what happens at night is like what happens during the day, and almost everything that happens during the day is like the end of the world. If only the quiz shows were the worst programmes on offer, American daytime television would be merely disgusting. There are, however, the evangelists, any of whom is enough to make you fall to your knees praying to see a quiz show instead.

In Chicago you get evangelists beamed at you from all directions. Jimmy Swaggart comes from across the Canadian border. ‘Two prostitoots off the street and they knew! They knew when they got saved! You gonna know when you get saved you gonna know when you get saved gonna know you gonna know you gonna KNOW!’

But Jimmy is only warming up. Not only has he said all that without taking a breath, he has said all that without ceasing to smile. The time has come to turn serious. He closes his eyes. ‘Oh God oh God oh God oh God oh God,’ he intones. For a moment the viewer is worried about Jimmy’s state of health. Is he having a heart attack? Has a hernia given way? Is he suffering form the delayed consequences of having zipped himself up at the wrong angle? ‘Oh God oh God oh God oh God I pray that those who watch us over television, help them to know that JESUS is the only answer.’

Jimmy, like all the other television evangelists, looks like the host of a quiz show. The quiz show hosts all look like one another. Each looks as if a team of cosmetic dentists has capped not just his teeth but his whole head. On top of the resulting edifice flourishes a wad of hair transplanted from the rear end of a living buffalo. A quiz show host is as ageless as a Chinese politician. From the beginning of the show to the end, every day for ever, he says not a single spontaneous word. Even more disturbingly, the contestants don’t either.

Intelligent Americans will tell you that the television quiz show is an art form. As one who likes pop culture, I am usually susceptible to such arguments, but there is a line to be drawn. It can be drawn at the point where a formula is too dead for variations on it to be interesting. Similarly there is a limit to the sense in which it is true to say that people should be given what they want. The limit can be set at the point where the spectacle on offer ceases to be human. There is something inhuman about training quiz show contestants to jump up and down with excitement, faint with surprise and yell lines of special material even more fatuous than the stuff the host is reading off his cue cards.

Shows like Card Sharks and The Price Is Right can be regarded as typical. There are plenty more where they came from. After an introductory fanfare plugging Puppy Chow, Purina Cat Chow or Minute Made (‘Mom, look at all those beautiful ornges!’), the host sways into position, buffeted by a gale of applause. They are applauding him for merely being alive — as well they might, considering what his head has been through on the operating table. The host introduces the first contestant, Rancine Zilchberger from Whang, Colorado. Rancine is blown sideways by a hurricane of applause. They are applauding her for being a resident of Whang.

When Rancine straightens up, she reveals the fact that she is a medical student. This time the applause assumes the proportions of a tornado, distorting her features with its pressure. Rancine is no oil-painting at the best of times, but there is no law which says that human beings should look beautiful. What they should look is human.

Rancine, however, has been encouraged to behave like a cheer-leader. Having chosen another card, or guessed another price, she hammers her desk top with her fists, chews her nails, rolls her eyes, and jumps up and down. When, amid an apocalypse of applause, it turns out that she has won, she screams and clutches her throat, strangling herself with ecstasy. Take a look at those hands. One day they could be operating on you.

Back in Britain, it is almost a relief to turn on Blankety Blank (BBC1), hosted by Terry Wogan. True, this is an American format, which has merely been transplanted like a tuft of hair. But compared with an American quiz show host, Terry Wogan is Doctor Johnson. He is capable of the occasional spontaneous remark. It is not a very memorable occasional spontaneous remark, but he is capable of it. On top of that, it is almost certain that most of his head is composed of the original tissue. Many times in the past I have made jokes about Terry’s bionic appearance. It was wrong of me to do that. I see now that he is full of those redeeming flaws without which, as Degas insisted, there is no life.

Among the contestants is Nicholas Parsons. How wrong, how needlessly cruel, one has been about Nicholas Parsons. He is not, in fact, the chortling twit that he appears. By American standards he is an improviser of dazzling prowess. And Eddie Waring is there too — Eddie whose handling of the English language, it now becomes plain, is a triumph of sustained virtuosity. Together they all set about the task of filling in the blanks. Nobody in his right mind could give a blank about the results. The whole format is a load of blank. But at least the people concerned retain a spark of life. It is not much comfort, but it is something.

Gavin Millar fronted an interesting Arena (BBC2) about the Hong Kong film industry, whose executives tirelessly advanced the proposition that their uneducated audience needed simple fare. Scenes of bad actors kicking one another were shown — mere samples of films which consist entirely of the same bad actors kicking one another over and over again.

Omnibus (BBC1) defied precedent by screening a good programme. The subject was Natalia Makarova. Clement Crisp wrote and narrated with appropriate awe, but the decisive component was Derek Bailey’s brilliant directing. Shooting and editing with unfaltering fluency and tact, he did for Makarova what he did for Lynn Seymour in the ‘South Bank Show’ devoted to ‘Mayerling’ — i.e., he brought out the discipline that underlies the magic, and thus made the magic seem more magical than ever.

Richard Beckinsale’s death is too sad for words. He had so much to offer that he leaves a vacuum ahead of him.

The Observer, 1st April 1979

[ A shorter version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]