Essays: Bombing the bombshell image |
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Bombing the bombshell image

AFTER earning its place by providing food for thought — or anyway instigation for hurling abuse at the screen — with at least every second programme, Don’t Quote Me (BBC2) ended its maiden series. In the old ‘Line-Up’ days, before Joan Bakewell became very Sanderson, discussion shows of this ilk were thick on the ether, but the moving finger writes, and having writ, splits, and most of the old topic-balancing talk-fests have long since gone wherever it is that old formats go to die.

Bryan Magee, DQM’s front-man, is of course sui generis and not to be thought of as a typical BBC2 late-night talking head. Magee is a man of first-rate mental powers. Scarcely the ideal choice, then, to referee a verbal tag-wrestling match organised on the old ‘Line-Up’ principle of letting four pundits — two from each side of a burning issue — hurl themselves around for a period precisely five minutes shorter than the time required to get anywhere.

But on the other hand, who better qualified? The distinction of his appearance, the polished carpentry of his sentences, the perspicuity of his intellect! Surely here is the man to bring order out of chaos, even when the topic is Women and the Press — as indeed, this time, it was. Present in the studio were Margo Macdonald, Mike Molloy of the Mirror, Anna Raeburn and — slow on the draw but tall in the saddle — Jean Rook, who is reputed to earn more money than any woman in Fleet Street, for reasons which escape me. Probably she draws the bulk of her massive screw in danger money, to offset the lacerating cortical damage she must sustain when reading her own prose.

Macdonald was understandably cheesed off at being described by the Mirror as ‘the blonde bombshell MP’ who ‘hits the House of Commons today.’ Molloy pointed out that this particular fatuity had less to do with the perpetuating of a stereotype than with the fact that hundreds of people are involved in getting out a newspaper and some of them are more tardy on the uptake than others. His objection was overridden in a general rush, headed by Macdonald and Raeburn, to agree that the Press still tended to put Woman in her Place, propagating the idea that no career-woman is quite normal unless she is a housewife to boot, and continually focusing on the irrelevant issue of personal appearance.

Rook shared their opinion, but also shared Molloy’s opinion, which was that the Press treated men in roughly the same way. Molloy can only have meant — Magee failed to press him on the point — that the newspapers talk as trashily about men as they do about women, a point made overt by Rook, who quickly assured us that she herself wrote the same kind of vivid, fact-filled prose about either sex. Such details were the stuff of journalism, she asserted. But there were limits. ‘I’d slit my throat before I’d use certain emotional words,’ she announced, apparently unaware that the proposition was self-refuting. ‘They call me the biggest bitch in Fleet Street.’ But she was a liberal deep down where it counted.

It became obvious that to Rook being liberal meant keeping up with the new trends. Unusually prone to writing and talking in clichés (‘I’m a classic case,’ she averred, correctly), she nevertheless commands a sure sense of the proper time to trade in one set of bromides for another. Magee read some of her own prose to her. It bore out the Macdonald-Raeburn case in all respects, but Rook was in no whit abashed. That was written in 1971, she protested confidently. Everybody thought that then.

Margo Macdonald said the most sensible thing of the night, which was that the real problem had less to do with the way the Press treated well-known women than with the way society treated millions of anonymous ones. But nobody mentioned that an ideal of justice can be only partly realised in life, since a great part of life is the result of natural dispensation, and nature has no conception of justice. Even when all other things are equal, certain gifts must still be portioned out unfairly. For example, both Margo Macdonald and Anna Raeburn are very beautiful, a distinction between them and other women which is likely to increase as other distinctions narrow.

Both women are obviously enraged that opinions of their merits should be mixed up with appreciation of their looks. It’s an unselfish rage to have, but it ought not to obscure the possibility — which Magee might have asked them to consider, given time — that the freedom for the individual which both favour could in the long run entail misery for the unattractive, who will be deprived even of their dreams.

Women’s Lib-wise, television lags some distance behind the Press, and within television itself ITV trails the BBC. Considering the amount of self-congratulation ITN goes in for when comparing itself to fuddy-duddy BBC News, it might be salutary for the dynamic youngsters to contemplate the increasingly obvious fact that whereas Auntie has got Angela Rippon running a whole News Extra on her own, News at Ten is still sending Angela Lambert to Ascot. Miss Rippon (I will not call her or anyone else Ms) is fully as adroit as the men while being equally easy on the ears — the latter point being of no small importance, since the cruel fact is that the voices of most telly women are too high for comfort.

The fatale component of the femme stereotype as currently receiving a jumbo boost from a real-life mystery called The Poisoning of Charles Bravo (BBC2). The first of its three parts, transmitted last week, introduced us to Florence, played by Maureen O’Brien. An extraordinary amount of mayhem goes on in Florence’s vicinity while she stares dewy-eyed in wonder. It is only occasionally, such as when in bed with her future husband, that you see a demonic gleam in those lacustrine orbs. ‘I shall marry you, and treat you very badly. It will do you good.’ The dramatisation is by Ken Taylor.

I switched away a third of the way through to watch Only On Sunday (BBC1), a one-off by the redoubtable Clement and La Frenais. This featured Peter Bowles and Trevor Bannister, thrashing strenuously about in a script which was a straight pinch from ‘The Egyptologists,’ even down to the ending, where it turned out that the girls had been Bunburying, too. Lord Chalfont interviewed The Shah of Iran (BBC1), who spoke mystically about the ‘very specific and special relationship between me and my people.’ There’s nothing like absolute power for facilitating an insight into the people’s will. ‘I can claim,’ he claimed, ‘to have the pulse of my people in my hand.’ The pulse being especially prominent in the throat, this seemed more than likely.

The Observer, 22nd June 1975

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]