Essays: Ransom and the owl |
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Ransom and the owl

IN the Royal International Horse Show (BBC1) a horse called Ransom voided his bowels at the camera.

Ransom’s gaffe (the onomatopoeically apposite word, when you think about it) happened during the Everest Double Glazing Championship. As Ransom turned towards the first fence the camera majestically zoomed in on his well-groomed hindquarters. As if in welcome, Ransom lifted his tail and let go with everything, leaving the stunned viewer in some awe at the amount these horses can eat.

The barn owl’s manners are no better than Ransom’s. A fascinating Wildlife On One (BBC1), hosted by David Attenborough, showed the barn owl in all its aspects, including a spectacular set of digestive habits. Swallowing small animals whole, the barn owl sits there looking inscrutable while its stomach gets to work like one of those scrap-metal yards where motorcars are reduced to a suitcase-sized block of metal.

In a brief time the barn owl is ready to regurgitate a three-inch-long black pellet full of tiny skulls and bones. Apparently it prefers to do this when a BBC camera is present. As the barn owl yawned and the glistening pellet hove into view, I found myself deciding that Ransom was on the whole better company. Definitely the Bad Sight of the Week.

But in all other departments the barn owl is a miracle. Its eyes are fixed facing forward but work a hundred times better than ours on a low light input. The ears are even more efficient than the eyes. The barn owl moves its head until it gets an equal signal from each ear. Its head is then pointing directly at the target, like the nose of a beam-riding night fighter. The wings are arranged for silent flight, so that the bird’s own noise won’t interfere with its direction finding.

Slow motion, image-intensified photography showed what happens when the barn owl picks up the sounds emitted by a short-tailed field vole going about its lawful business. The predator approaches eerily at low level and drops on the short-tailed field vole like a ton of bad news. The barn owl has the grace to look ashamed while the short-tailed field vole is having its neck broken. Then — down the hatch. One pair of barn owls gets through 5,000 short-tailed field voles a year. ‘Who’d be a short-tailed field vole?’ was the cry that sprang unbidden to the viewer’s lips.

A Good Human Story (Granada) was a first-rate play by David Nathan. Hack reporters were shown working on the case of a murdered child. The script gave evidence that its author, like Arthur Hopcraft, knows popular journalism from the inside. As the reporters lurched about crassly extorting information, it was hard to decide whether they were concealing their emotions or simply didn’t possess any. This was the proper doubt for the viewer to be left in. It would be too simple if we were led to suppose that vulgar work is always done by vile men.

As the plot thickened, the reporters — Kenneth Haigh, Warren Clark and Michael Elphick — turned out to be a not entirely unamiable bunch, with a job less easy than it looks. Haigh was assigned the inevitable speech about the public demanding slop. An intelligent approach had been tried and found wanting. ‘We probed, we spotlighted ... and circulation dropped.’ He was a good devil’s advocate. Finally it was revealed that the mother had killed her daughter for sleeping with her son. It could easily have been a bad play, but tight dialogue and Gordon Fleming’s naturalistic direction made it a good one.

Ask a Silly Answer (Southern) is far more entertaining than you might suppose after being told that it is a panel game hosted by Terry Wogan. The panellists — Spike Milligan, William Rushton, Alfred Marks, Graeme Garden and similar — are chosen for improvisational flair. The questions are designed to elicit performances. The result is a tumultuous upstaging competition, fraught with off-colour remarks.

In the latest episode, Milligan was in splendid form, improvising single lines that other people would have written plays around. ‘Let me take you away from the squalor you live in to the squalor I live in.’ Perhaps energised by the surrounding brio, even Terry Wogan showed signs of organic life.

Dinsdale Landen is Devenish (Granada). It could be a winning series. Devenish is the office creep at Universal Pastimes. Sucking up to those above and handing out stick to those below, he manifests sadism, sycophancy, chicanery, cowardice, jealousy, treachery and paranoia. You can depend on finding something in him to identify with. He is everything that you might have done but had the grace not to. Worse, he is everything that you did but hoped to forget. ‘I can kill a man without leaving a mark on his body.’ Fantasies of power drive him onward.

It is too early to tell how far the idea can be developed. But whether or not the writing can hold up, Landen is certainly well away with his performance. As usual, he is working outwards from a single physical effect. In Michael Frayn’s stage play ‘Alphabetical Order’ he built the whole character around a fixed smile. For Devenish he has created a terrible snort, like a dead body being pulled out of a bog.

An Horizon (BBC2) about Sir Isaac Newton featured Jack Shepherd in a wig. Supplying his own voice-overs, Newton described some of the key events in his life. These included his death, strangely enough. Newton was capable of great things, but surely speaking from beyond the tomb wasn’t one of them. Far from being good television, the script was scarcely even bad radio. Nevertheless, things did their best to hum. Newton explained the inverse square law. He started to explain calculus but sensibly skipped through to the end, correctly divining that I would not be able to follow his reasoning.

Jack Shepherd acted well as always but found himself restricted by what he was given to say. The programme was not a complete write-off, but should have been a thriller. What more dramatic intellectual adventure has there ever been than Newton reducing the mysteries of the universe to an inexorably logical system?

In the repeat of I, Claudius (BBC2), which addicts are watching all over again, Brian Blessed’s Augustus stands revealed as a superb performance. I rather underestimated him the first time around, wanting an Augustus with less juice and more savvy. Aquarius (LWT) ended with a whimper. The last programme of the series featured Anthony Caro arranging some of the National Gallery’s masterpieces around one of his own sculptures. Since the masterpieces were very interesting, and his own contribution was very uninteresting, you couldn’t help wondering why so much time and energy should be expended in carrying them to it, instead of it to them.

I missed 84 Charing Cross Rd (BBC1) the first time it was shown and so was grateful for the repeat. If BBC news announcers talk about a ‘war situation,’ they mustn’t be surprised when a man interviewed in Notting Hill talks about a ‘carnival situation.’

The Observer, 24th July 1977