Essays: The Borneo bomber |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

The Borneo bomber

CHILDREN of the lens, give thanks: it was a rich week, crammed with food for thought and thickly sprinkled with glittering images.

On the continuously sensational Eastward with Attenborough (BBC1) the DA’s camera-operator brought off the panning-shot of the century, presenting us with the first-ever footage of the legendary Flying Snake of Borneo doing its Stuka number out of an enormous tree. Nothing, not even a frenetic soirée of gliding squirrels, could quite match this, although the opening sequence of Springhill (BBC2, produce of Canada) got close: through a steeply inclined and tightly fitting tunnel, the camera rode with a gang of miners on a well-oiled rail-car 13,000 feet into the earth. But what happened next — a cave-in, followed by many days of hideous privation — was not for children, and indeed it was only the genteel squareness of the direction that made it palatable to adults. Images, one was reminded, may be united in sensationalism but can always be divided according to their implications. To remind one further, there was ITV’s appeal for Ethiopian famine relief, containing footage that scorched the retinas. People believing that television had made them blasé could have a go at being blasé about that.

On Coronation Street (Granada), Ena Sharples had a heart attack, manifested by an eerie burst of heavy breathing and a niftily executed nose-dive on to the pub table. Could this be the prelude to the most earth-shaking write-out in television history? Meanwhile, Diana, an imported American sit-com built around our own Diana Rigg, clocked up its second episode on BBC1. Diana’s show is uncannily similar to Mary Tyler Moore’s in being about a career-girl who lives in a flat (with entertaining visitors) and works in communications (with entertaining colleagues). It is also similar in being reasonably entertaining. Diana, like Mary, is a pleasure to the eye. That she is also one of our finest actresses, and in lavishing her talents on this elementary stuff is in the position of Madame Curie devoting a year’s research to the perfect milkshake, may be a matter for regret but ultimately is more her business than ours. For the moment, let us content ourselves with noting that BBC1 have now got ‘Diana’ and ‘Spy Trap’ slotted one after the other at the entrance to Tuesday night’s prime time — it’s a closed shop.

Free-lancing away from BBC2 after 10 years of working in a three-camera presentation studio no bigger than a telephone booth full of hair-dryers, Joan Bakewell was handed a producer’s powers for Thank You, Ron, her absorbing ATV documentary on Scientology. The sudden rush of wealth didn’t affect her sense of balance: if anything, if you get me, the programme was over-balanced, being far too ready to throw Scientology’s esteemed founder a bone when it should have got on with the job of shredding his few remaining claims to significance. The idea that L. Ron Hubbard’s writing was ever ‘stylish’ must have been of profound amusement to anyone with a working knowledge of the science-fiction milieu from which this most gaudily charismatic of modern spiritual leaders first emerged. Ron’s fiction was no more stylish then than his mystic exhortations are stylish now, and indeed Scientology’s thought-divining toy, the E-meter, inspires in the experienced student a gush of nostalgia for the dear old days of the SF boom, when John W. Campbell Jr filled the pages of Astounding with articles about telepathy and the fans at the conventions wore propellers on their beanies.

As a thinker, Ron rates somewhere about the level shared by Gurdjieff, Ouspinsky and Major Douglas, but this easily ascertainable fact doesn’t stop his fervent disciples estimating him to be the greatest Philosopher the world has ever known. The drear truth being, of course, that Ron is merely the greatest philosopher they have ever known, who don’t know Hegel from Schlegel. The Scientologists have never been notorious for allowing insults and betrayals to go unremarked, and it was brave as well as clever of Joan Bakewell to talk them into exposing their humourless personalities so damagingly. If any writs start clustering around my name, incidentally, I’ll keep you up to date. Meanwhile, let’s all sing along with the Scientology choir (‘Thank you, Ron/For what you have done...’) and relish the memory of the poor bastard who claimed to have perfected himself upward through every level of the hierarchy all the way to Ron’s presence aboard the fabled yacht, only to be chastised for a minor misdemeanour by having his legs lashed together and being thrown 40 ft into the sea.

The new Colin Welland play Jack Point (BBC1) was a pioneering incursion into previously untouched reservoirs of embarrassment. The local, ageing Gilbert and Sullivan star is fated to be replaced in next year’s leading role by a fresh, and genuinely gifted, young upstart. Can the sweet, weak headmaster summon the guts to break the news? A prisoner in a hick town, his shrike of a wife cossets the new boy and sneers her derision from the wings. Marvellous stuff, which at one stage had me leaping from the room on an imaginary errand in order to avoid having to watch the scene where the old man got the bullet — a scene which Welland cunningly postponed so that I got caught by it on the way back. Apart from the unbelievable eloquence of the upstart’s girl-friend, the play’s only fault was that the standard of the G & S Society’s performances was far too high: in both ‘Pinafore’ and ‘The Yeomen,’ choir and orchestra sounded as if Giulini had been rehearsing them for years, and the splendidly spiteful Glenda (Abby Hadfield) sang like Fiorenza Cossotto triumphant on top of Aida’s tomb. If they were that good, the head’s wife wouldn’t be aching to get out of town, and Joan Sutherland would be aching to get in.

Don’t let the pre-emptive overkill by the BBC distract you from The World at War (Thames), which in its first episode has already shown us an astonishing proportion of film previously unknown. Must viewing.

Horizon’s documentary on Niels Bohr (The Steadfast Tin Soldier, BBC2) had effective graphics, instructive film, patient interviewing of aged witnesses, and an extremely silly binding image about a soldier with one leg. The way they were telling it, Bohr (who wanted international control of atomic weapons) was a realist about the nuclear threat and the allied war leaders were fantasists. In fact no such international control was possible, which made the allied leaders realists and Bohr a fantasist. Still, good try.

John and Rosemary Letts, parents of the quins in Quite a Family (BBC1), were as notable for their patience as for their guts: while the good commercial boys found good commercial reasons for terminating contracts, two nice people inundated with five children nodded sadly at the pusillanimity of mankind. The Black and White Minstrel Show is back on BBC1. Sorry about that, Ethiopia.

The Observer, 4th November 1973