Essays: Bumpy landings |
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Bumpy landings

IN THE ladies’ final of the World Figure Skating Championships (BBC1), held this time in Tokyo, practically every contestant ended up on her behind. It was the Year of the Frozen Fanny. The theme was crushed slush on the tush.

Perhaps the girls found the ambience unsettling. On the fence around the rink there were the usual advertisements to remind them of Europe: Kukident, Jägermeister, Piz Buin und so weiter. Beyond, however, the seats were only very thinly occupied. Where were the Japs? It was a mystery. Trying to solve it, the girls lost their concentration. One after the other they coldly assumed the sitting position. Even Linda Fratianne, the all-conquering American No. 1, contracted a severe case of frosted duff.

But apart from the voice-overs of Alan Weeks (who typically called the British girl’s marks ‘good’ when they were bad) there was nothing that the viewer, particularly the male viewer, could complain of. For the suitably detached connoisseur, there is no more aesthetically pleasing sight than the line formed by a lady skater’s upper thigh as it blends with her lower rear. A dusting of ice crystals merely enhances the picture.

Things get more equivocal when the girls start inflicting pain as well as receiving it. Rodeo Girl (BBC1) showed that Arizona and California are just as prone as Japan to a high incidence of women flying through the air and landing on their bottoms. But since, in this case, the girls were being flung about by horses and bulls which had been deliberately goaded to anger, it was permissible to feel that they deserved all they got. Rodeo is cruel to animals: the flank-strap is premeditated torture.

As always, cruelty was accompanied by sentimentality and rhetoric. Narrator Barry Norman did his best to stress the girls’ femininity, but it was plain that they were as heartless a gang of ball-breakers as you could ever hope not to meet in a dark alley. ‘Get on him, Sherry, and ride him. You can do it, Sherry. Now feel him, Sherry. Get your spurs right in there.’ And out of the trap came Sherry, bouncing on top of what Barry Norman permitted himself to describe as ‘two kicking, twisting tons of wild-eyed bull.’

It was encouraging to see the ground come up and hit Sherry in the arse. Undaunted, a man in a large hat shouted into a microphone, describing these events as a World Championship. His message was relayed to grandstands which the camera could not avoid proving were largely empty. Where were the Yanks? It was another mystery.

Just William (LWT) is preceded in my district by the execrable ‘Woody Woodpecker Show’ and the local link-man ineptly reading birthday cards. (‘And here’s a card for little ... little ... Johnny? Could be Jimmy. Anyway, Happy Birthday little Johnny or Jimmy Romberts. That’s probably Roberts.’) The recipient of this heartfelt message no doubt spent the next half-hour in tears, but for all the other children William was bound to have been good value. He was far too kempt, however. Adrian Dannatt is a natural actor, but for William he is unnaturally clean. The whole point about William is that no matter how carefully Mrs Brown spruces him up he is a wreck before he gets out of the room.

But Bonnie Langford makes an excellent Violet-Elizabeth Bott, described by her mother (Diana Dors) as ‘a girlie ’oo won’t do your little boysie any ’arm.’ Sensibly eschewing subtlety, Miss Langford lays on the lisp with a trowel. ‘Don’t you like little girlth’ she asks the petrified William. ‘Kith me.’ Adoration fills her button eyes. Widely spaced teeth gleam hungrily. ‘William darling, I thaw you fwom the window and ethcaped.’ Hers is no conventional beauty. In fact she lookth a bit like Printheth Anne. But she brims with the kind of interfering energy most likely to drive William up the wall.

Lumbering on its mammoth way, Tony Palmer’s megabudget pop series All You Need is Love (LWT) got as far as ragtime. Actually there was not a heck of a lot in this episode. Mostly it was built around two long interviews with Eubie Blake and Rudi Blesh. Eubie, 92 years old, knows all there is to know about playing the stuff. ‘I’ve been hearing it all my life.’ He knew everybody, including Scott Joplin, the man whose name came up most often.

As for Rudi, his message was recognisable to anyone who had ever read his magnum opus, ‘Shining Trumpets.’ Deeply under its influence in my early student days, I used to go around saying that only black men could play jazz. Louis Armstrong changed my mind, by saying that nobody else could play like Bix Beiderbecke. I listened, and he was right: nobody else could play like Bix Beiderbecke. But Rudi has clung to his inverted racism. ‘To be really frank about it,’ he told Palmer’s camera, ‘“Alexander’s Rag-time Band” is not much of a melody.’

To be even franker, it’s an excellent melody: Blesh is just objecting, in a roundabout way, to the fact that Irving Berlin’s talent was able to flourish, whereas Scott Joplin’s withered on the vine. How the blacks got robbed was a tragedy all right, but doesn’t need to be theorised about. The reality was all there in Eubie’s face, when he said that what really annoyed him about playing in whore-houses was having to take his hat off to the pimps.

Don’t look now, or rather do look now, but the BBC current affairs units seem to be getting their courage back. Panorama (BBC1) investigated Her Majesty’s Prisons and even Nationwide (BBC1) found an awkward subject — the high-handedness of immigration authorities. Man Alive (BBC2) had more on the same topic, usefully running Ben Lewin’s independently made film ‘Welcome to Britain!’

There was a good Omnibus (BBC1) as well, featuring Barry Humphries in Dieppe. Elegiacally on the trail of his decadent fin de siècle heroes, he followed their ghostly footsteps where once they had walked ‘with mistress, catamite and hangover.’ The script was not as good as the accompanying article he wrote for Radio Times, but the visual delicacies more than made up for the lack.

In Patterns of Faith (STV) ‘Dr’ Billy Graham was interviewed by some burring gullible, keen to sympathise with Billy’s putative ‘loneliness.’ ‘How have you come through it?’ ‘It’s not quite as lonely as you might think,’ Billy explained, ‘because I’ve got Christ in fellowship with me every day.’ Two kicking, twisting tons of wild-eyed bull.

The Observer, 6th March 1977