Essays: Taking a shufti |
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Taking a shufti

FOR students of Christianity at its last gasp, a Sunday show called Kossoff and Company (BBC1) is essential viewing. Written by and starring David Kossoff, it features, as well as Kossoff, several of Kossoff’s friends. Together they tell little stories, based loosely on the Bible. There are no elaborate props. Just a few simple costumes, a rostrum or two, and a willingness to be very boring.

Kossoff is not afraid of referring himself in the third person, as Kossoff. Yet with a towel around his head and a crook in his hand he is instantly transformed into a shepherd. ‘My father and my grandfather were shepherds...’ In the course of a not very brief monologue, it gradually emerges that this shepherd was plying his trade near a certain manger, not far from Bethlehem, when suddenly a star shone brightly in the sky and the woods began disgorging wise men, kings, other shepherds, etc. Not his sort of thing, really. Nevertheless he felt compelled to take a shufti.

With a different towel around his head, Kossoff becomes yet another marginal figure. ‘John and Jesus, marvellous characters both. Neither was on the scene for long, but they certainly made their presence felt.’ This bluff character turns out to have handled the catering for the crowds who came to see John the Baptist. Flat out buttering bread, he didn’t have much time to pay the holy stuff any mind. Still, he had to admit that he was impressed.

Kossoff’s characters are ordinary, no-nonsense people who happen to be caught up in great events. They give us the small man’s view, in small man’s language. They are abetted by a minstrel, Robert Spencer, who is wont to pluck the lute and sing. ‘I’m so happy I feel that I’m dancing with glee ...’ he trills, adding: You taught me to bray.’ His diction is not what it might be, but his heart is full. Just being near Kossoff is enough.

Another man with a mission is Arthur Scargill, who was on The Frost Programme (BBC1). Short on charisma, he is long on shy charm, and must have left many viewers more impressed, or anyway less enraged, than they had expected to be. Scargill argued for State ownership of everything. Frost didn’t see how that could he brought about in a free country. Scargill mentioned a ‘transition period.’ Apparently there would not have to be any coercion. Persuasion would be enough — although if persuasion were to get a fair chance the mass media would have to be taken over by the People.

Frost had small trouble making most of Scargill’s general arguments sound simple-minded. But when it got down to cases Scargill often had the best of it. Frost is quite right to say that Cuba is not free, but quite wrong to say that it is less free than it was under Batista. An easy gibe against the nationalised industries was countered by Scargill with the observation, surely correct, that coalmining has improved out of sight since it was taken out of private hands. For one thing, it kills far fewer coalminers.

Later the same night, an Omnibus (BBC2) on the ‘Unità’ festival in Naples gave us a taste of what Scargill’s dream of society might be like if it came true. Not that it has yet come true even in Italy, where the Communists are so afraid of being forced to take control of a bankrupt country that they can even be heard advocating free enterprise. So for the nonce the ‘Unità’ festival must go on serving its purpose of giving a foretaste of the earthly paradise to come.

I was at a ‘Unità’ festival myself a few years ago, in Florence, and I’m bound to say it was terrific fun. Judging from this programme, the tradition is being upheld. People eat themselves stupid on roast pig and join in singing ‘Bella ciao,’ the best marching song ever. The Chilean folk singers perform. Lights shining through canvas; girls in summer dresses; children staying up late. It’s the most human face communism has ever had.

This year Enrico Berlinguer addresses the crowd. If he is a threat to humanity, he has certainly done a thorough job of making himself sound civilised. Kissinger being no longer with us, there is now at least some chance that the United States will tolerate an Italian government which includes Berlinguer. Whether the Soviet Union will do the same is still open to doubt. If there’s anything they hate, it’s the thought of people using their imaginations.

A community action show called Reports Action (Granada) might well end up governing Britain. As a regional programme for Granadaland it used to be fronted by Bob Greaves and Anna Ford. In the networked version Ms Ford’s vacant place (she moved to ‘Man Alive’) has been taken by Joan Bakewell, First Lady of Television. Bob Greaves soldiers on. He is an ordinary looking chap with extraordinary energy. A fine spray of adrenalin issues from each ear.

The idea of the show is to put people who need things in touch with people who don’t mind giving them away. The means of communication is the telephone. While Bob and Joan spiel to camera, minions toil at desks in the background, logging the phone calls. An appeal for wheelchairs is followed very quickly by an appeal to stop sending wheelchairs. Any request for anything gets people ringing up in thousands. The thought occurs that Bob and Joan could take over the country far more easily than Arthur Scargill. If they succumbed to folie à deux, the only thing to limit their ambitions would be the size of the switchboard. Otherwise they could conjure up alternative transport systems, armies, governments...

If the warnings in Red Alert (BBC1) are not heeded, we might soon need an alternative world. So, at any rate, the programme strove to convince us. I suppose it was not the fault of the programme-makers that the doomwatch message sounded tired. We were shown examples of what happens when precautions are not taken: Flixborough featured prominently. We were shown examples of what happens when precautions are taken: the London tube system has been protected against floods. There was film of a bone-dry tube. The Moorgate crash can’t happen again. This fact was illustrated by film of a train stopping safely. The chief message was that we need people working full time on ‘what would happen if?’ The viewer could only yawn his assent.

ITV’s For Adults Only film series opened cautiously with ‘Play Misty for Me,’ in which the eroticism consisted mainly of the top half of a short woman coming into contact with the top half of Clint Eastwood. Since Eastwood is very tall, it was necessary for them to lie down in order to accomplish this. The only possible objection to the film was that a mad woman kept running around chopping people to pieces with a carving knife.

The Observer, 10th July 1977