Essays: Votes for Babs |
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Votes for Babs

SINCE it took only two minutes to count the votes, programmes like Decision for Europe (BBC1) offered their panellists plenty of scope to hold forth. Barbara Castle was the only face among the new Euro-MP’s that anybody could recognise.

Beamed down from Manchester, where she had been elected by an overwhelming plurality of 11 votes to eight, with 12 million abstaining, Babs had a set-to with Edward Heath, who was sitting in the BBC studio wearing his Euro-statesman’s face, the one with the far-seeing gaze. Robin Day was the referee. Ted challenged Babs to repeat what Willy Brandt had said to her at some recent Euro get-together. Ted alleged that there had been a ‘flaming row.’ Babs assured us that Willy had shown ‘great comradeliness.’

Out in Pakistan, political disagreements take a less restrained form. There is no Robin Day to establish a climate of fairness by being equally bloody to everyone. Benazir Bhutto was interviewed on Tonight (BBC1). At what must have been great risk to her own safety, she was passionate in defence of her father’s memory. Articulate, energetic and unnervingly beautiful, she will clearly be bad news for General Zia. One can only hope that the people she is surely destined to rule will have cause to give thanks. A few years ago I debated against her at the Cambridge Union. Her inability to connect two statements logically set some sort of world record. But the audience, female as well as male, was too dazzled to notice.

A low-budget, made-for-TV movie called Red Alert (BBC1) did very well what the big-budget, made-as-a-movie movie ‘The China Syndrome’ actually does rather badly — i.e., show what happens when Panic Hits the Nuclear Power Plant. ‘The China Syndrome’ is well enough served by its star actors, but the script underneath the performances is not really very sharp. In ‘Red Alert’ hardly anybody could act for nuts, but the story had been closely plotted and the directing was outstandingly sympathetic when it came to explaining how the machines worked.

This last is no minor matter. Movies which presume to grapple with technical subjects often shy away from the details for fear that the viewing public will not understand. The emphasis is switched to character study. The results are invariably weak, since a film-maker who can’t cope with the task of explaining a technical subject in dramatic terms is unlikely to be very illuminating about character either. But William Hale, director of ‘Red Alert,’ knew how to make the machines act like people, even it he didn’t know how to stop some of the people acting like machines.

‘Code 9 Emergency! It can’t be!’ The rogue reactor was supposed to be situated at Silver Creek, Colorado. The whole lay-out reeked with authenticity. If it was built in a studio, it was built well. The control panels looked the way control panels actually look, with a lot of steady little lights instead of the intermittent bloops and bleeps that bad designers fondly believe represent the electronic age. Computer read-outs indicated grim tidings. Activate the main valve-flange! Stand by to scale down the fuel-feed knocking-rod!

It turned out to be sabotage. In revenge for the FBI having accidentally killed his daughter, an engineer went ape and programmed the computer to tell him how he could penetrate its security screen. He then planted thermite bombs at critical points. Only by overriding the computer and relying on human initiative did the heroes defuse the last of the bombs before the reactor could blow up and burn a hole through the world.

The message was no less important than the one pedalled by ‘The China Syndrome’ and twice as well put. Television, even American television, should stop feeling diffident vis-à-vis the movies. The average TV programme might not be up to much, but the average movie is not up to anything.

Bombers (BBC1) was composed of two colour films made during World War II. One of the films was Wyler’s ‘Memphis Belle.’ This was impressive enough, but it was the other one that floored your correspondent. An amateur effort shot in colour with a single Bell & Howell camera, it recorded the progress of a bombing raid flown by a Lancaster of No. 1 Group at a time when it was losing 70 aircraft a month, thereby making a large contribution to the grand total of more than 158,000 allied aircrew who failed to return from air operations against the Reich. I have never seen film quite like it. The footage had an immediacy which knocked any fictional treatment of the same subject into a cocked hat.

The film would have been eloquent enough as a silent. Supplied with an excellent, informatively detailed modern-day commentary by David Savile, it brought the whole business roaring to life. It was even permissible to forget in the excitement of the moment, that the rigours faced by the RAF crews paled beside what was happening to the people they were dropping their bombs on.

By now it has been generally realised that strategic bombing was inhuman. It by no means follows, however, that the RAF night bombers made no contribution to winning the War. Wars are not won by a single factor in isolation. The idea that the bomber crews died for nothing is a calumny. Glibness thrives on lack of information. Now that this astonishing little film has been restored to existence, it will at least be a bit harder to pretend that the bomber offensive was anything less than a pitched battle of strength against strength, in which the enemy was first to falter.

The Paper Chase (BBC2) is an imported American series about working your way through law school. The title song echoes Simon & [missing lines] moved on a bit since ‘The Graduate.’ The mood is like ‘Love Story’ only more so, with all concerned opting in instead of out. In fact the show would be unwatchable trash if it were not for Logan, a beautiful young firebrand who cares deeply about social issues. ‘You’re polarising the entire student body!’ shout her worried friends. Logan is played by Francine Tacker. The lines she is given to speak are cut from rough cloth, but you can’t take your eyes off her, even when she is acting with her back — a trick she probably picked up from Garbo.

Watch out for The Deep Concern (BBC1), a series about a high-powered conference centre. It’s the Last Ditchley. The dramatis personae include, inter alia, a deaf pianist, a moustached Australian pederast and a Southern Fried writer. Cast as the writer, Beth Porter sensibly does a Miss Piggy number. Playing scenes from ‘Pig on a Hot Tin Roof,’ she traipses up and down the grand staircase while persons unknown sabotage the cars so that nobody can get away. Nobody except us. Click.

The Observer, 17th June 1979