Essays: Black horror show |
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Black horror show

‘WIN a trip to Colditz!’ shouted the Sun commercial dementedly. A better deal, at a pinch, than winning a trip to Uganda. Idi Amin — A Portrait (Thames) was the horror show of the week, ruthlessly elbowing The Family (BBC1) out of its usual unchallenged supremacy.

Idi speaks Alan Coren’s dialogue in John Bird’s voice — one’s response to his image has been media-desensitised before he even reaches the screen. ‘Ah nose direckly from innernational peoples dat de Ministry ob Foreign Affairs don’t know what actual has been happenin’ in Uganda.’ He frowns darkly at de Minister ob Foreign Affairs while a voice-over tells us dat de Minister in question was subsequently fished headless out ob de ribber. It’s a nasty laugh, but it’s still a laugh. One imagines that Alan Coren is worried as well as gratified by the immense sales of his Idi book: the purchasers can’t all be liberals guardedly letting slip an ambivalent chuckle — some of them must be nigger-bashers enjoying an outright guffaw.

Idi is just Beria or Himmler blacked up. He’s a standard nut. You could find a dozen white editions of him walking through St James’s Park any day of the week. The catch, though, is that they aren’t running a country. Idi is. I wish his lunacy meant that it will be easy for someone to nail him, but Papa Doc Duvalier was just as kooky and died with his boots on. When Idi tells a Joke, it’s fatal not to laugh. If you laugh when he hasn’t told a joke, it’s fatal even faster.

The quicker spirits amongst his nervous entourage must be well aware by now that they’ll have to get him before he gets them. Unfortunately his armed forces, useless for their planned purpose of invading Israel (we saw a military exercise representing the capture of the Golan Heights, with operations directed by the genius himself), look perfectly adequate to the task of protecting his esteemed person. ‘Victory,’ said Idi as his bewildered soldiers charged about. ‘Big destructions.’ The French camera crew who got the footage were very brave. One smile at the wrong time, and bingo! End ob de line.

Not even ‘The Family’ could top that, but it tried. The daughter got married, and the man she married was run in for theft on the day of transmission. I suppose it was one way of getting out of the fix he had let himself be talked into (he was later acquitted). The incredible Mother was to he discovered bellowing at the assembled photographers. ‘You’re not being fair! Now leave her alone! It’s her wedding day, not a peepshow!’ Since it was Mother’s original willingness to co-operate in this horrible series which had ensured that her daughter’s nuptials would be a peepshow and not a wedding day, these admonishments lacked consistency. Weeks of working to camera have brought out the worst of Mother’s personality in its full histrionic bloom. She can’t help being a silly lady. Nor could her daughter, swathed in lengths of tulle, help looking like a badly packed parachute. The culpable people are at the BBC. They have turned viewers into bear-baiters and an ordinary family into a public mockery.

Insanity was still present but less lethal in Almost a Sickness (ATV), a passable documentary about games-playing. The show’s front-man was Omar Sharif, normally famous for his screen impersonation of a packet of pressed dates smouldering with passion. But as is by now well known, his real commitment is to Bridge. The programme tried to work on the level of being interesting about Bridge, or backgammon, or chess, without actually going into the details of how Bridge, or backgammon, or chess, worked. The result was flummery.

Mark Boxer was an interesting interviewee, saying, incontrovertibly, that chess goes to the heart of one’s personality and that losing is a criticism of one’s essential self. I can vouch for this, having been beaten by everybody I have ever played. A champion British Bridge-player explained how the game channelled his aggression. ‘I’m a giant squashing people like gnomes. Like ants. I have this feeling of power...’ Big destructions.

The World Cup lumbered onwards on both main channels. I was too quick to award the BBC panel the laurels. There is little to choose. The German TV directors are mostly awful, cutting away from a shot at goal to punch up a natty picture of the inside of a trainer’s bucket or a substitute sucking a crucifix. Harold Wilson emerged as an expert on football. Meanwhile Edward Heath was to be seen in China, accompanied by a Panorama team (BBC1) fronted by the excellent Michael Charlton. Heath attended a concert in the Great Hall of the People and listened doggedly to the cacophonous ‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.’ Similar song-cycles of his own devising might well be forthcoming. ‘Shortchanging the Housewife by Deviousness.’ ‘Losing the Election by Overweening Arrogance.’

Jack Pizzey, a questing front-man with a nice line in tart chat, led a Man Alive (BBC2) expedition into Cornwall to check out the tourist problem. Land’s End, it was revealed, is being worn away by feet. One place, Porthallow, has bought its own beach and closed it to interlopers. Another place, Newquay, has turned itself into an ‘industrial centre’ for tourism, with predictable results. The head of the responsible authority, faced with irrefutable evidence of overcrowding, says he is ‘alive to the dangers of overcrowding’ but thinks what Cornwall needs is more tourists. Everyone concerned called tourism an industry, for reasons I can’t fathom.

BBC1 had a documentary called The Secrets of Sleep. Apart from chirpy testimonials from people who hardly sleep at all and thus live three times as long as the rest of us, the show was short on information. Rats with electrodes in their heads ran on treadmills — something I’ve always wanted to see a psychologist do. Sleep research has always attracted butchers, for some reason. The early REM-sleep experiments in America tortured cats by standing them on bricks so that they fell into water if they dozed off. This fact was not mentioned in the programme. Instead, actors dozed glamorously or tossed and turned. Shallow stuff. Idle curiosity.

Seven Faces of Woman (LWT) this week starred Sarah Badel, the highbrow’s gate-fold, in a confection called ‘Let’s Marry Liz.’ It was all about a career girl declining to marry an old boyfriend. Since the boyfriend was given no character, her rejection of him counted for nothing. This left me free to watch Miss Badel at work: a pleasure as always. Jill Bennett’s TV appearances are rare, and usually reserved for classic occasions like ‘The Hotel in Amsterdam.’ Now and again, though, she does something even rarer, and appears in an absolute stinker. This time it was called Intent to Murder (Anglia). Peter Barkworth went down on the same ship.

The Observer, 23rd June 1974