Essays: Boredom enigma |
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Boredom enigma

PREOCCUPIED last week with weightier matters, I had no space to examine a strange new type of programme currently invading the schedules. I mean the Very Boring Programme.

The Very Boring Programme seems to take pride in being as narcotic as possible. Special writers are hired to ensure that any potentially interesting idea is ironed flat and that anything flat is made paralysing. A case in point was an Horizon (BBC2) dealing with manganese nodules.

Manganese nodules, it appears, litter the ocean floor. ‘Very little about them,’ said the voice-over, ‘is yet certain.’ There was consequently ample scope for referring to ‘the enigma of manganese nodules.’ Footage of nodules being tested was accompanied by an assurance that this was only one phase in what should rightfully be considered as ‘a many-pronged scientific attack on the nodule enigma.’

Whence came the manganese nodule? Some say that the manganese nodule is a faecal pellet. Some say not. A sea-bed laboratory, or nodule module, was shown working on the vexed question of the manganese nodule’s provenance. ‘They vary in every possible respect.’ Nodules were produced in order to back up this contention. One nodule was described as being ‘what is known in nodule jargon as humburger shaped.’ The possibility that some hamburgers might be what is known in humburger jargon as nodule-shaped was not considered.

A theory that manganese nodules might be of riverine origin was advanced only to be discounted. ‘Neither does the river theory hold water.’ But you begin to see what I mean. After more than an hour of hearing about ‘these humble blackish stones,’ confidently described as belonging to ‘the common heritage of mankind,’ you had barely enough energy left to ask what the ulterior motive was. What were the programme makers after? Perhaps they were trying to find out how much we could take without running amok.

After a week or so of reasonably normal scheduling, another Very Boring Programme showed up, once again on BBC2. It was called Skateboard Kings. There ought to be at least a few interesting things to say about what a skateboard is and how to ride it. One was even prepared to hear details of a many-pronged scientific attack on the skateboard enigma. Instead the programme elected to celebrate the skateboarding ‘life-style.’

As opposed to actual life, which is various, a life-style concentrates on one activity and flogs it to death. Californian youths with headbands were shown sleeping in their clothes and waking up for a new day. You could tell they were waking up because they rubbed their eyes with their fists, stretched, yawned, etc. Their plan was to bale out a swimming pool so that they could do ‘incredible things’ in it with their skateboards. There would have been some point in showing us these incredible things. Alas, what we saw mostly consisted of the swimming pool being baled out. Trash-cans were employed as baling devices. ‘I’m gonna get a better trash-can,’ cried one youth. ‘There’s a better trash-can up there.’ Then he ran up there and got the trash-can.

Thus, by ingenuity and determination, the skateboard kings overcame the obstacles set for them by society. ‘All those jerks really loused it up for us,’ they averred. ‘They’re so hyperactive, man.’ The skateboard kings didn’t make the mistake of letting too much skateboarding get in the road of more important activities such as acting out their life-style with the assistance of improvised dialogue. ‘Skateboarding is a gas,’ they told each other. ‘It’s what I dig to do.’ Surfing movies like ‘Tubular Swells’ similarly tend towards philosophical speculation, but are usually careful to include some surfing. ‘Skateboard Kings’ was like a surfing movie with the water let out.

A pot-holing series called Beneath the Pennines (BBC2) has manifested all the characteristics of a Very Boring Programme, but occasionally errs in the direction of being moderately engaging. The latest episode, dealing with Alum Pot, was billed as having won first prize at the Grenoble International Pot-holing Film Festival. This piece of news was in itself sufficient to stimulate the imagination. One was keen to see something of what goes on at the Grenoble International Pot-holing Film Festival. You could imagine the spectators lowering themselves into an auditorium situated somewhere deep beneath Grenoble, with stalactites in the foyer.

Alum Pot was less of a thrill, although not to be viewed with entire equanimity. More than, or it could have been almost, 200 ft deep, it was formed ‘some 15,000 years ago’ and is so large that ‘you could lose a 20-storey block of flats inside it.’ Certainly you can lose any number of pot-holers inside it. They die down there all the time. There are three separate routes to destruction. On the shallowest there are excellent chances of bouncing from one slimy shelf to another and on the steepest you get an opportunity to fall vertically.

‘The history of pot-holing can be told in Alum Pot.’ Since the history of pot-holing seems to be composed mainly of a long list of people getting stuck upside down in holes, there was no reason to doubt this. Nor was there any doubt that danger, as always, potentiates camaraderie and encourages fraternisation between the social classes. ‘Since its beginning pot-holing has been one of those classless sports that has its own dry sense of humour.’ The dry sense of humour is most often demonstrated by the merry cheer that goes up from a team of pot-holers when one of their number falls into the water.

The thrill of getting stuck upside down in Alum Pot is made even more piquant by the rapidity with which the place fills with water. Five minutes after a storm, Alum Pot is on its second rinse. ‘A man would be flushed away like a twig.’ Imagine what would happen to a twig. But man was not made to cower with his nerve untested. ‘There is danger of death,’ announced the voice-over, ‘in jumping off a chair in your own kitchen.’ It sounded like a convincing argument until you remembered that nobody with all his marbles spends much time jumping off chairs in his own kitchen.

A plodding but commendable documentary series, Stalin (LWT) concluded by admitting that the Stalinist system is still in existence. This was a large concession to reality. If the beginning of the series had been as tough-minded as the end, there would have been at least a hint of the possibility that Stalin was merely developing a repressive apparatus which had been dreamed up and put into action by Lenin. But that would have been too much to hope for. As usual, footage ruled, and most of the footage from the first decade of the Soviet Union shows things being built, not people being broken.

In Panorama (BBC1) Tom Mangold faced the same problem. Back in Vietnam, he found little except positive achievements to point his camera at. The real story came from interviews, and even then only in dribs and drabs. Where are the Buddhist monks? What is happening to the Chinese minority? How do you film holes in the air? A worried man, Mangold did his best.

On Live from the Proms (BBC1), Rozhdestvensky stood fully revealed as a ham of the Russian variety. Mugging as hard as Leonard Bernstein, he made Solti look like Klemperer. Solti’s appearance at the head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was in fact the star turn of the Proms. Between them they almost got me interested in Bruckner, whom until now I have always thought of as Wagner with beri-beri.

The Observer, 17th September 1978

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]