Essays: Armless in China |
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Armless in China

BAD SIGHT of the week was on TV Eye (Thames). Chinese whose fingers had been cut off in industrial accidents were to be seen having them sewn back on or replaced with toes.

During the long operations, which involved microsurgery of staggering intricacy, the patients stayed awake, presumably so that the visiting round-eyes from ‘TV Eye’ could interview them. Some of the patients had had whole hands or even arms sliced off. These, too, were replaced. The cause of the accident was usually some such piece of machinery as a circular saw. Thousands of Chinese per year have digits or limbs removed in this way. Apparently it is deemed more interesting to explore surgical techniques for replacing the missing appendages than to devise safe machines.

We were introduced to Mrs Ho. ‘Four years ago Mrs Ho’s forearm was cut off by a milling machine.’ She did not offer to shake hands, but otherwise seemed in good shape. Chinese surgeons, it was announced, achieve a 92.3 per cent success rate in finger replacement. By my count that leaves 7.7 per cent of all severed fingers still being buried in separate graves, but not even Chairman Mao’s teachings can give you the moon. Gratitude to Chairman Mao was universal, expressing itself in a steady drone which helped lull your senses while you confronted a rich display of pulsing arteries and twitching tendons. Dissenting voices could be counted on the toes of one hand.

The Imitation Game (BBC1) was a ‘Play for Today’ of rare distinction. It counts as Ian McEwan’s first television play, since an earlier effort, called ‘Solid Geometry’, was cleverly scrapped by the BBC as part of a long campaign to injure its own reputation as a patron of talent. But this time something went wrong and McEwan managed to get his script on the air.

Helping him to realise his searchingly original idea, Richard Eyre directed with an unfailing touch and Harriet Walter brought seemingly limitless reserves of intelligent emotion to the incarnation of the central role. Cathy lived. She could hardly muster the words to say what was on her mind, but you knew exactly what was going on inside her head, even if the men around her noticed nothing.

The time and place were the last war and England. Cathy welcomed the war as something that would break the crushing routine of home, in which her squint-minded father led the conspiracy to keep women in their place. The Second World War, it is generally accepted, provided splendid opportunities for women to get out of their place, but McEwan, like David Hare in ‘Licking Hitler’, prefers to believe that such notions are wishful hindsight: the old prejudices were not undermined as much as they were reconfirmed. War was a man’s game which put women in their place more firmly than ever.

Cathy had a knack for codes and a gift for music. Apparently the two gifts often go together. But nobody was interested in harnessing Cathy’s abilities to the war effort. The closest she got to the inner secrets of Bletchley Park was making tea. She had previously been one of the hundreds of girls monitoring German radio transmissions but had lost the job after kneeing a publican who had slapped her face because she wouldn’t leave the pub when he wanted to throw her out because she had been sitting there without a man and we all know what an ATS girl is after if she sits alone and ... And so on. It was an unbroken and unbreakable sequence of stifling repressions, just like home.

Meanwhile, in secret rooms full of ticking equipment, the men were leading the exciting life. A nice young boffin tried to go to bed with her and blamed her for his impotence. One of the play’s male reviewers, I notice, has picked on this scene as the play’s only flaw: he said it was out of character for the nice young man to turn so nasty. Alas, not so. Nice young men can and do turn nasty in those circumstances. A man’s emotional education can take a long time.

One of the many commendable things about Ian McEwan is that his hasn’t. He seems to possess the sexual insight of Tiresias, who, it will be remembered, experienced the woman’s viewpoint at first hand. A good test of feminist writing is whether it makes men feel guilty. During this play I spent a lot of time feeling apologetic about my own past behaviour and I suspect that there were few male viewers who didn’t feel the same. The small patronising remarks were just as effective as the big cruelties in the protracted but eventually successful job of driving Cathy into a corner. She ended up behind bars, but then she had really been behind them all along.

One of the Highlights of My Viewing Year, the World Professional Snooker Championship (BBC2), known to its sponsors as the Embassy World Professional Snooker Championship, entered the first of its scheduled two glorious weeks of braincurdling transmission. I would almost rather watch it than watch Wimbledon, which is saying plenty. But perhaps I had better save the unbridled enthusiasm for next time. Enough for now to say that as a curtain-raiser to the fabulous fortnight, the final of Pot Black (BBC2) would have been hard to beat. A kill-or-be-killed nail-biter between Ray Reardon and the mighty Eddie Charlton, it featured an incredible range of flukes, in-offs, break-your-cue snookers and outlandishly accomplished positional play.

In Manon Lescaut (BBC2) James Levine stood revealed as a great conductor and Placido Domingo as a changed man. He has lost at least two stone, most of it from around the stern. But the voice is bigger and more beautiful than ever, like his eyebrows. Gates of Eden (Yorkshire) slipped by so quietly that I forgot to say how good it was at evoking callow sensitivity. Perhaps I have been brutalised by television’s heady sensationalism, as exemplified by World of Sport (LWT), which last weekend gave full coverage to the World Record High Diving Challenge, direct from the US.

The platform was set 166 feet above the water, which from that height looks like sheet steel. Divers were interviewed on the platform and interviewed again upon surfacing. In between the two interviews they had to accomplish their dive, during which the commentator did all the talking, since no means have yet been discovered of interviewing the diver on his way down. ‘Oogh, he’s in trouble now ... AAGH! Rick could be hurt! But he’s up! You looked as though you had a moment of uncertainty coming out of that dive.’ ‘Yeah,’ replied Rick weakly, ‘I ... I just ... ooh.’

But the winning dive, by Dana Kunze, was worth every dime of the 10,000 dollars it earned him. A triple gainer with a lay-out between two of the somersaults, it was beautiful to see. So was Ava Gardner in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (BBC2). So, under the harsh make-up, was Isobel Black, making a welcome return in The White Bird Passes (BBC2).

The Observer, 27th April 1980
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]