Essays: Bad jokes, blind eyes |
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Bad jokes, blind eyes

MRS THATCHER has ceased to excite me. For a long while I found her combination of peachy complexion and spun-gold hair a potent turn-on, but recently she has leaned too close, thereby revealing that her breath smells of old socks.

I refer, of course, to her now celebrated remarks on immigration. Either these remarks constituted a blatant appeal to the racist vote, or else she was fooling herself. To do her what credit she has coming, the possibility that she was fooling herself ought not to be ruled out. She is a bit of an actress. Suddenly she feels the need to play Cassandra, conjuring visions of the topless towers of Ilium brought low. Many British citizens, she announces, are afraid of being swamped by people of a different culture. It never occurs to her that such an attitude comes strangely from someone who is herself patently of a different culture from most of her countrymen. The same doubt has never bothered Enoch Powell, either.

Anyway, she made the announcement, and on television, thus doubly ensuring that immigration would become not just an issue but a television issue. Programmes already scheduled promptly took on extra significance. Was it ‘Before Hindsight’ ? (BBC2) showed you how the cinema newsreels dealt with the rise of the Nazis. Mainly they dealt with it by telling a bad joke or simply turning a blind eye. The parochial ineptitude of the accompanying commentaries was hard to believe, until you remembered that the same thing went on, ever more detached from reality, in newsreels after the war, and still lingers in certain of the voice-overs emanating from the BBC Sports department.

There were telling clips of Nazis running true to type. What was most telling about them was that they were never used. Instead you got George Bernard Shaw, in his garrulous old age, referring smugly to ‘a very intelligent gentleman named Adolf Hitler.’ Obviously Shaw had no real idea of what was going on. Those who did tended not to appear. Some of them might have had an effect: Harold Nicolson and Lord Rothschild had their hearts in the right place and were both natural speakers to camera.

By 1936 even the newsreels were ready to admit that Hitler was unpleasant, but the disapproval was all to do with foreign policy: the internal cruelties of Nazi Germany never became news. The full consequences of racism became generally apparent only after the end of the war. The newsreels can thus be said to have been of little use. But it is a long jump from saying that the newsreels were of little use then to saying that television is of little use now. This was the jump that Jonathan Dimbleby took, declaring that the concept of ‘balance’ automatically distorted the picture. A generation from now, he declared, people will look back on our television coverage of Northern Ireland and South Africa in the same dismay with which we look back on how the newsreels covered the thirties.

Dimbleby generously forgot to mention that his own programme, This Week (Thames), has done excellent reports from both places. The BBC’s performance has generally been weak by contrast: its current affairs programmes have lately shown a marked improvement, but on the Irish question Auntie still manages to get not very much said.

Dimbleby was away filming and couldn’t make the studio discussion after the programme, but his editor was there to put the case. The Beeb’s representative countered smoothly but was not very convincing. The best point was made by Jo Grimond, who said that the real scandal about the thirties was not the little that was said about Nazi Germany but the nothing that was said about the Soviet Union.

Anyway, that was then. The National Front, unfortunately, is now. If the BBC had not already screened a useful Panorama capably fronted by Charles Wheeler, its major contribution to the discussion would have been Behind the Front (BBC2). This was the kind of programme which makes you doubt whether television has any business interfering in these matters at all. On the whole I think Jonathan Dimbleby is wrong and the BBC right: balance is a good thing. But balance is not the same as dither, and it is dither to hand the National Front free publicity on some vague assumption that it will hang itself if given enough footage.

The programme tried to be severe about John Tyndall, describing him as a one-time Jew-baiter. But it also let him rant on and on about how the British people’s ‘unique cultural identity’ was dependent on a blend of different stocks of North European people. The programme makers failed to point out that this clap-trap was the standard old Nazi rhetoric with blacks and Asians substituted for Jews. Doubtless they thought that Tyndall’s gush was too ridiculous to need rebutting. Perhaps Mrs Thatcher has made them think again.

Cameras climbed aboard a bus taking Front members to a march. Could there be a better way of making them feel important? There was film shot from a police helicopter showing the whole march on the move. March with the National Front and get yourself filmed by a police helicopter!

Despite the fact that the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition now stands revealed as being either cynical or dense, it is probably still a bit early to start crying for Britain. On The South Bank Show (LWT) Dennis Potter made it clear that he, at least, was not yet ready to throw in the towel. He was full of what television could give the nation, if only its playwrights could learn the language of true nationalism. You got the impression that if the airwaves were to be occupied exclusively by the works of Dennis Potter, the country might yet be saved. Potter was unusually soft on the BBC — an anomaly, considering that in his Sunday Times column he was recently able to diagnose the Corporation as a terminal case by noting that the ashtrays were overflowing in the foyer of the Television Centre. Potter is right to flay the Beeb’s cowardice in scrapping plays after they have already been produced. The same thing has happened to some of his. But he always seems to have a few dozen left over.

There is a season of Potter originals scheduled for later in the year, and meanwhile there is his adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge (BBC2). If you don’t mind the din of bulldozers shifting great hills of misfortune into position so that in due course an avalanche of bad luck can descend on the central characters, then you don’t mind Hardy. I do, and I mind Alan Bates’s mannerisms even more, but the women are excellent.

Stanley Dangerfield was your commentator at Crufts (BBC1). ‘Already it’s go, go, go!’ cried Stanley at the mere sight of a corgi. ‘This is where the action starts!’ He went into reminiscent ecstasies about last year’s supreme victor, called, if my notes are correct, Champion Whorehouse Dancing-master. ‘There’s a Hungarian poodle!’ he yelped, pointing to a ball of wool with its tongue hanging out. But how could he be sure?

The Observer, 19th February 1978