Essays: Robin and the bullets |
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Robin and the bullets

WELL established as a classic format, Question Time (BBC1) showed two of its limitations this week. One limitation is that if a member of the audience goes berserk it is extremely difficult to shut him, or in this case her, up. The other limitation is that Robin Day as chairman has such wide discretionary powers that he can use them to squash a point.

The point arose during a discussion of the coroner’s inquiry arising from the Iranian embassy siege in London. Some time was spent on mulling over the question of whether it wasn’t a bit hard on the SAS to investigate their conduct after they had risked their lives doing what they had been told to do. All the panellists from Eldon Griffiths down to Clive Jenkins thought that the SAS had done well. It was generally agreed, however, that the coroner had done well too, since if any sudden deaths were exempt from investigation it would be a bad precedent. That much of the discussion rated as lively rather than edifying. Things threatened to get a lot more interesting when a young man in the audience pointed out that some of the terrorists seemed to have been shot with a heck of a lot of bullets and not always from in front. Robin gagged this line of thought pronto. It was a pity, because the point so briefly raised had to do with the advisability of judicial murder.

There is no doubt in my own mind that those who perpetrate terrorist crimes involving the taking and threatening of innocent hostages should be thought of as having already sentenced themselves to death. But until there is a law to that effect the matter ought to be open for serious debate. It is, of course, never easy to have such a thing when Clive Jenkins is around. Yapping like a pekingese with its paw caught it a pop-up toaster, he made sure that any good cause he chanced to favour earned a full measure of discredit. But I’m bound to say I found Eldon Griffiths even less enlightening. All that talk about the glamorous infallibility of the SAS is going to rebound all over the place when the inevitable occasion arrives that the terrorists pull the pins.

A man has written in to inquire whether, when I asked what Delacroix had ever done to deserve the programme the Beeb had just done on him, I meant that he was a bad artist. No, I meant that he was a great artist and that the programme was boring. Degas (BBC2) while being slightly less boring, was nevertheless yet another boring programme about a great French artist. Perhaps a new television genre is being founded. If so, there is still time to stop it.

The paintings looked as beautiful as you would have expected, but great heaps of verbal platitudes kept being dumped on top of them. It had also been decided to show us a real girl standing in a tub, perhaps to remind us that long ago a real girl stood in a tub so that Degas could paint her standing in a tub. There was also a real ballet class, at which everybody spoke English. You can imagine how all this breathed Paris.

By now Triangle (BBC1), a series about the glamorous life led on an international passenger ferry, has become generally accepted as the long-awaited successor to ‘The Brothers,’ the series about the glamorous life led by the owners of a trucking firm. Regular viewers will already be aware that the international passenger ferry plies between Folkstone and the far-flung exotic port of Amsterdam, where the surf glitters in the pink sunset and they serve drinks in decapitated pineapples. The international passenger ferry is crewed almost entirely by vampy females. A vampy soubrette sings ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ while the international passengers dance. There is a vampy international jewel thief, who in the latest episode was arrested and slung into the brig by the vampy purser, played by Kate O’Mara in full war-paint.

The international passenger ferry is actually steered along through the water by a few men, who hide on the bridge to get away from the vamps. One of the officers is violently attracted to the purser, but is such a yob that he can express his affection only through aggressive display. They have misunderstandings on the wind-blown deck. They have misunderstandings in the companionways, on the shuffle-board court, on top of the lifebelt locker and under the compass.

Michael Craig, the captain, is more up-market. He has a Scandinavian wife who talks vid an accent. She drives him to drink. ‘Nothing a woman does will ever surprise me ... women are a different species ... just a word of warning, my friend ... nothing is too low for a woman ... you never can tell what they’re going to do next.’ And so the international passenger ferry ploughs on, towards the distant rattle of maracas that has always meant Amsterdam.

The towering presence of Alan Howard merely serves to confirm that Cover (Thames) is the last gasp of the spy-series format. Philip Mackie is a competent enough writer, but there is so little left to say on the subject that all the dialogue fits templates in the viewer’s head. ‘She’s an agent for the CIA ... suppose she was deliberately misleading me ... extreme prejudice ... how are you going to find out ... CIA ...’ By this time most of the old spy series production teams have packed up and moved out, like television companies who have lost their franchise. For the actors it is a long, hard slog to get shot of their spy type-casting and get type-cast as something else.

There are several ex-spies in Partners (BBC1), an otherwise nothing comedy series which might just keep your attention if you respond to the challenge of trying to figure out which of the frantically gabbling leading players used to be the grim-visaged head of MI6 or the virtually inaudible agent for DI5. Paul Daneman, for example, was a very big cheese in ‘Spy Trap,’ a series I adored. But the old order changeth, giving way to an inexorable plethora of series about marriages breaking up.

Winter sports continue to be must viewing. On Ski Sunday (BBC1) the stellar attractions are commentator David Vine and Britain’s lone downhill skier Konrad Bartelski. Barely surviving one brave attempt after another, Konrad is invariably referred to by David as ‘Britain’s sole representative, the man with the Union Jack on his helmet, Konrad Bartelski.’ At the downhill before last, held on some ferocious slope with a name like the Knackenschnitt, Konrad’s helmet was for a long time the only part of his equipment in contact with the snow. Yet Konrad always manages, after he regains consciousness, to join David in the commentary box for an exchange of informed views about what the other skiers are doing wrong.

In both Sportsnight (BBC1) and special programmes devoted to the subject, the European Iceskating Championships at Innsbruck were well supervised by Alan Weeks, whose commentary is really much more informed than I have sometimes had fun making out. It will take the World Championships, however, to tell us the true standard of pairs-skating at the moment. In the Worlds you get Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner. In the Europeans you mainly get the Russians, who are at a low ebb, with no athletes to match Rodnina and Zaitsev and no artists to match the Protopopovs.

The true successors to the Protopopovs are undoubtedly Babilonia and Gardner. Until we see those two skate again, the best we can do is watch the way the Russian girls accelerate in the turns. It’s spectacular stuff, like a Bolshoi ballet, but there is no pathos in it. There was plenty of pathos in the Taiwan two-man bob, however. Making its first visit to Innsbruck, it went down upside-down the whole way and everybody assumed it was empty until the two guys crawled out with their hands up looking for somebody to surrender to.

The Observer, 8th February 1981
[ An excerpt from this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]