Essays: Getting in a panic |
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Getting in a panic

RELISHING its irresponsible position, this column doesn’t like to spend much time discussing broadcasting policy, a topic on which a copious supply of punditry is readily available. But just this once I should venture an opinion about the BBC’s worsening habit of kow-towing to an interfering Government instead of telling it to go chase itself.

From my vantage point a long way from the action, I can see that a BBC film unit might possibly have been played for a sucker by the IRA. But BBC executives must regain the art of handling such embarrassments in a firm, just manner by themselves, instead of being galvanised into panic by some politician in search of an opportunity to sound magisterial. Until such time as they recover the confidence they should never have lost, the BBC hierarchs can reassure themselves with the knowledge that while their house might be in a bit of a dither, Mrs Thatcher is scarcely well placed to tell them to put it in order. She should put hers in order.

The facility with which recent Governments, both Labour and Conservative, have attacked the BBC is a striking and continuous example of the dim-wittedness prevailing in the two major parties, each of which seems to be convinced that Britain’s survival depends on the realisation in practice of partisan ideology, instead of on the furtherance of institutions. Instead of putting the BBC under pressure, the Conservatives should find a way of making sure that the adequate licence fee Parliament has just granted will be equally adequate next time and all the times after that. They will then have buttressed one of the institutions on which this country’s international prestige can unarguably be said to depend — namely a broadcasting system which is dedicated to the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth, even if it is difficult to arrive at.

The two great parties, separated by bickering, are united in their poor intellectual performance. This fix is easy to weep over but hard to analyse. Roy Jenkins analysed it in The Dimbleby Lecture (BBC1). Back from his years in the wilderness, Jenkins seized the moment by composing and delivering a distinguished address. His personal long-term aim, if he has one, remained inscrutable. If the time has come for a breakaway social-democratic party perhaps he will lead it, although I suspect that it already exists and is led by David Steel. But whatever he has in mind about his place in history, with this speech it became clear what history has in mind for him. He stood revealed as the Eider Statesman.

The news programmes on all three channels had their own collective spy series running, starring Anthony Blunt. Disappearing by the simple expedient of failing to answer his own doorbell. Blunt in absentia generated a powerful air of mystery. This was dissipated when he agreed to talk. Addressing selected representatives of broadcasting and the Press, he grandly conceded his own innocent gullibility. ‘I ought to have realised at the time,’ he muttered, ‘that I didn’t know enough about politics.’

What he ought to have realised at the time was that the Soviet Union was a disaster. Other intelligent men shared the delusion that it was not, but they grew out of it. He and his friends should have woken up too, but somehow contrived to stay asleep. Partly, no doubt, this was because they had sold their souls and there was no going back. But there is also the matter of sheer obtuseness. The spies were plainly a dense lot. Talk of ‘brilliance’ is just cheap journalism. Blunt, the most distinguished of the bunch, was a sound enough scholar, but no great critical mind. The great writers on art in the thirties were refugees from Continental Europe who had vivid first-hand knowledge of the threat posed to civilisation by rampant ideology.

The lads were obliged to go on playing spies long after it ceased to be fun. It must have been agony. No wonder none of them could drink without breaking windows. Blunt must have counted himself lucky to be allowed off the hook. Finally the whole business is best regarded as a kind of bleary comedy. Tragedies rarely produce such baroque characters as Blunt’s friend Brian Sewell, who all last week was often to be seen in the news, touchingly striving to remain unexcited by the lenses. Cruelly illuminated, a marshmallow in the sun, he remained loyal to his ruined mentor.

Lately both the BBC and ITV have presented allegedly gripping imported American mini-series, none of which could compete with the Blunt epic. On ITV the worthless ‘Ike,’ in which Lee Remick and Robert Duval were painfully wasted, was succeeded by Top of the Hill, in which the big question was whether Elke Sommer’s pout had been grafted into position or was maintained by will-power. Mel Ferrer played a tubercular ski-ing philosopher and Elke played his nymphomaniacal pouting wife. Finally she ski-ied over a cliff and fell five thousand feet on to her top lip, thereby wiping out the pout.

The BBC would not have had to try very hard to come up with a better mini-series than those two put together, but in the event it was considered easier just to settle for the biggest load of codswallop still available. This turned out to be Pearl (BBC1), a human-interest saga concerning the behaviour of various people, both military and civilian, both WASP and ethnic, before, during and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

Most of the action scenes were lifted wholesale from ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ Harvard training planes rebuilt to look like Zeroes dived menacingly, while Robert Wagner, Angie Dickinson and Dennis Weaver tried to shoot them down with bad dialogue. ‘A very special world is dying all around us.’ Zzzzzaaaah! Angie’s husband was a fascist, so no wonder the lady was a tramp. ‘I have to do something and I’m not afraid any longer.’ Vvvvooom!

If only Robert Wagner could have loved Angie. but he had no energy left over from protecting a neurotic female doctor and holding his stomach in. ‘I feel so much better. God forgive me for how good I feel!’ Mmreeaagh! Kaboom! One was reminded irresistibly of Ronnie Scott’s famous comment about the Japanese kamikaze pilot who joined the Ku Klux Klan so that he could attack Pearl Bailey.

The Observer, 25th November 1979