Essays: Bouncing raindrops |
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Bouncing raindrops

The first week of Wimbledon (BBC1 and 2 recurring) starred Harry Carpenter and his famous Rain Commentary. During the opening days there was hardly any tennis, but there was more than enough rain for Harry to perfect his commentary, if perfecting was what it needed.

It has been years now since Harry began calling Wimbledon Wmbldn. Later on he contracted Wmbldn to Wmln. This year it is back to being Wmbldn, possibly because Harry’s lockjaw has been loosened by the amount of rain demanding commentary. ‘Covers still on the outside courts. Thousands of people waiting, hoping against hope... Not a pretty sight is it?’ The cameras zoomed in elegiacally on the canvas covers as the raindrops bounced. ‘Still, we’re pretty cosy here in the BBC commentary box under the Centre Court, and what’s more I’ve got Ann Jones with me.’ Obviously it was a Beatrix Potter scene down there in the burrow.

The downpour lifted long enough for Borg to demolish El Shafei and his own racket, which exploded. To be more accurate, it imploded, since it is strung to a tension of 80 lb. As we saw in Borg (LWT), the young champion strings his rackets so tightly that they go ‘ping’ in the night, thereby waking up his manager. Borg runs a taut ship. He likes his headband tight too, to bring his eyes closer together. He likes them touching. ‘Do you think it’s going to make any difference to Borg’s play, when he gets married?’ somebody asked Gerulaitis. ‘I hope so,’ was the sad reply.

Like a Volvo, Borg is rugged, has good after-sales service, and is very dull. There is no reason to begrudge him his claim to the title of greatest of all time, although it is not only Australians who believe that Rod Laver would have won Wimbledon 10 times in a row if the absurd rules against professionalism had not kept him out during the best years of his career. But Borg’s role as chief mourner in a Bergman movie becomes positively treasurable if you compare him with Nastase, as it was possible to do when the rain briefly stopped on a later day.

I turned on the set hoping to see more rain, but instead found Nastase on his hands and knees banging his head against the turf. Then he got up and pretended to skate. Then he got back down on his hands and knees and had a lengthy conversation with the electronic eye, a machine which threatens to crab his act, since he will be able to dispute no more line calls. Imagine how exhausting it must be being Nastase, especially during those terrible few minutes in the morning when there is nobody to show off to except his own face in the shaving mirror. You can imagine him drawing moustaches on himself with the foam, sticking the brush in his ear, etc.

‘There’s a drain down both sides of the court where the water can escape,’ Harry explained. ‘Brighter weather is apparently on the way. But it’s going to be some time...’ More rain next week. But now, a word of praise for Jonathan Dimbleby’s In Evidence (Yorkshire), a double-length programme which set out to investigate the police force. Dimbleby deserves points for his ability to go on asking awkward questions long after the people he is talking to have shown signs of wanting to steer the conversation into a blander channel. Such admirable tenacity should be kept in mind when you are reflecting that he writes with a trowel and expects us to be stunned when he uncovers corruption in South America.

‘Yesterday almost a child. Tomorrow an officer of the law,’ announced Dimbleby as a new recruit to the police force went through the mill. The training was very interesting and I would like to have seen more of it. Prospective bobbies were shown how to talk with choleric citizens. ‘It appears to me, sir, that you’re a bit irate.’ This contrasted nicely with what would presumably have happened in America, where the recruit would have been holding a large gun and the irate citizen would have been spreadeagled against a wall.

That the British police do not as a rule go armed still seems to most of us a healthy tradition. As Chesterton pointed out, tradition and democracy are the same thing. Dimbleby is very properly worried about the Special Patrol Group, but his concern would have been more forceful if he had explained that he objected to it as an innovation. By his relative silence on this point he tacitly aligned himself with those Left-wing wiseacres who believe that in becoming overtly brutal the police are at last revealing their true nature. This approach is neither as true nor as useful as saying that ‘saturation policing’ is something new and causes more trouble than it is worth.

Dimbleby had no trouble digging up horror stories in the big cities. An entire and clearly law-abiding family had been picked up for no reason and suffered a lot of inexplicable bruising while being run in. The police investigated themselves and found themselves innocent. You don’t have to be a member of the Anti-Nazi League to find that unsatisfactory. On the other hand one would have welcomed from Dimbleby a more forthright acknowledgment of the possibility that the British police force does at least as much to hold society together as to pull it apart.

Dimbleby doesn’t seem to realise that the police force is the only thing that keeps him from being carved up by people who don’t like the way his face is currently arranged. The tip-off came when he explained that the police force attracts people of ‘authoritarian’ sympathies. Undoubtedly it does, but it also attracts people who simply believe in authority, which is not the same thing as being authoritarian. A fine distinction but a crucial one, which a television reporter should be able to make.

The BBC’s Dance Month has been more robustly enjoyable than its twee title sequence might have led you to expect. A programme about Nureyev called I Am A Dancer (BBC2) dissuaded you from any notion that he might have been a bricklayer, but like many independent productions it suffered badly from sclerosis of the script. ‘This routine of training, day in and day out, year in and year out, it never stops. It never stops, this routine of training...’

During one modern ballet performed to the sound of what could have been fifty or sixty of Borg’s tennis rackets gradually exposed to intense heat, Nureyev and a drowsily sexy ballerina engaged in a long attempt to pull each other’s tights off without using fingers, toes or teeth. It sounds difficult, but was fun to watch, although probably not as much fun as it was to do.

No Maps on My Taps (BBC2), an excellent import from American public television, gave you the essence of black tap-dancing. The technique, lovingly fostered during long years of harsh neglect, came up as fresh as paint. There was some attempt to suggest that white tap-dancing was done by numbers rather than from a true rhythmic sense, but this was an understandable case of racism in reverse. As was proved by the miraculous dance numbers in You’ll Never Get Rich (BBC2), Fred Astaire had as much rhythm as a human being can have. So did Rita Hayworth, who incredibly succeeded in dancing to the standard set by her own beauty.

The Observer, 29th June 1980
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]