Essays: A load of burst balloons |
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A load of burst balloons

DOWN on the Flying G Ranch in Hampshire, Dave Rio (Look Stranger, BBC2) practises daily to maintain his position as the fastest draw in the British Fast Draw Association. ‘I like to win because I like to, you know, be pointed out in a crowd ... I like people to think, don’t tangle with Dave Rio, he’s greased lightning.’

Since it is against the law for people to tangle with Dave Rio, or for Dave Rio to tangle with them, Dave Rio tangles with balloons. Fast draw fanatics, the programme revealed, shoot against the clock by bursting balloons wired for sound. In .29 of a second Dave Rio can draw his pistol and kill a balloon standing several inches away. It is practically the least breathtaking feat I have ever seen, but apparently potential fast draw devotees are turned on by it. ‘They see guys ... bursting balloons,’ Dave explains, ‘and it really gets into them.’

Dave Rio changed his name by deed poll, although the voice-over didn’t say from what. Cuthbert Rio? Hipped on anything American, he has never been there, but owns a left-hand drive car, so as to feel close. The father of five children, who pretty well fill up the Flying G, Dave Rio drives a truck for a living. The old days of the West are gone, when there was bounty to be had for bringing in a wanted balloon. Nowadays the only reward is prestige — that, and the pride of knowing you’re the best.‘I’m supremely confident in my own ability,’ says Dave quietly.

Before going out in the lonely morning to send another bunch of balloons to Boot Hill, Dave Rio dresses unostentatiously in stetson, dungarees, shirt covered with badges, boots, spurs, dark glasses and a special quick-draw holster that sticks out at the precise angle which would allow a tyro to drill himself through both thighs.

But Dave Rio is no beginner. He crouches, his right hand poised. A light comes on. Faster than the eye can follow his revolver leaps out and spits lead. Nobody hears the little sound the balloon makes as it dies. There is a patter of applause from Dave’s admirers, of whom I am one. ‘I’ve got an older brother who plays with model trains,’. Dave points out. ‘Every man to his own thing.’ An unexceptionable sentiment, provided nobody gets hurt. And it seems that nobody does. Dave Rio doesn’t even believe in shooting birds and animals. It’s those distended rubber envelopes he’s after. In a week of tiny Irish coffins, I found him a welcome change.

The Girls of Slender Means, one of the best series ever, is being repeated on BBC2. Bill Brand, another of the best, has just come to an end on Thames. A remarkable job of executive production on the part of Stella Richman, who had the imagination to see the vitality of the project, and the gall to foist it on the ITV network, the series wouldn’t let you go. It staged a sit-in in your living room. I suppose the writer, Trevor Griffiths, deserves most of the credit, but there should be a little bit left over for those elements of the dreaded Capitalist Media who, instead of doing everything they could to keep such a pile of undiluted radicalism off the screen, did all they could to make sure it got on.

In the last episode, the right-wing smoothie Venables was reigning unchallenged as head of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of Britain. A mixture of Roy Jenkins, Anthony Crosland and Paul Johnson with lower blood-pressure, Venables was unashamedly bent on defending social democracy from socialism by detaching the party from the unions.

David Last, the Michael Foot figure (played by Alan Badel, a fine piece of acting throughout the series), at last resigned — something which the real Michael Foot has never yet been able to bring himself to do. Bill was left with the choice of whether or not to vote against the Government (and therefore, this time, with the Tories) in the forthcoming vote of confidence. Would Bill take the responsibility of bringing down his own Party? We weren’t told, an omission on Mr Griffiths’s part which looked less like forbearance than a cop-out.

Battered, but intact, Bill’s values were reaffirmed at the end by the Chief Whip, who, while still disagreeing with him, turned lovable (an unlikely volte face for a Mellish-figure); by the lovable agent Alf, who became more gruffly lovable still; by lovable Winnie Scoular, with whom Bill, against his nature, had succeeded in not going to bed; by various lovable proles on his home patch; and by a lovable itinerant radical theatre group to whose members he offered lodgings for the night. It was this last lot that set me wondering, since it was hard to see why their habit of singing ‘Venceremos,’ thereby pronouncing their solidarity with the tormented people of Chile, should be of much help to Bill in solving the problem of whether or not to bring down a Labour Government in Britain. (Nor were they, for a clumsily idealistic theatre group, anything like clumsy enough.)

‘They can’t win,’ Alf gruffed lovably, ‘because reality isn’t on their side.’ He was referring to the social democrats. Bill smiled his awed corroboration, in the face of all the evidence that reality is on their side. Capitalism, according to Alf, ‘splits us up,’ denying us our ‘chance to be human.’ There is a lot to this contention. But since the historical evidence suggests that the extra-parliamentary action Bill was always on the verge of favouring would be bound to split us up even worse, it seemed strangely pusillanimous of Griffiths to finish on so cosy a note. Anyway, it was all a dream, since in the real world Venables didn’t get the job. The unions’ man did, thus revealing ‘Bill Brand’ to have been a romantic fable. But it was an unusually interesting romantic fable.

Advocating the retention of pay-beds, a doctor asked the flakey star of This Is Waugh (ATV) ‘how could a man leaving a bus-queue to catch a taxi be called queue-jumping.’ Neither the doctor nor his interviewer tackled the problem of what happens to the bus service if all the best bus-drivers want to drive taxis. It is characteristic of Bron’s trilogy thus to raise awkward topics by one corner, stare at them briefly through rheum-caked eyes, and then claim that they have been subjected to pitiless scrutiny.

Nevertheless there are moments of high comedy, not to be missed. I particularly liked Bron’s encounter with Viscount Exmouth, represented as a noble whose qualities of leadership the country had foolishly deprived itself of through inundating him with the minutiae of running a stately home.

Inside Story (BBC2) did a worrying piece on how immigrant families are kept split up. Sailor (BBC1) is still fascinating on the level of physical action, but the first episode’s sociological content has not been followed up.

The Observer, 22nd August 1976