Essays: Bus-ride to Armageddon |
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Bus-ride to Armageddon

SOME lame-brain with no authorisation invited the media to Duke Ellington’s rehearsal for last week’s Sacred Music concert in Westminster Abbey. Ellington insisted on a clear floor, and in News Extra (BBC2) could be seen sitting patiently waiting for the cameras to leave, impatiently waiting for the cameras to leave, and, finally, furiously waiting for the cameras to leave.

While the accompanying commentary throbbed with appropriate concern at this intrusion of vulgar curiosity on genius, the ‘News Extra’ camera faithfully ground on, eventually securing footage that demonstrated Duke’s particular anxiety to be rid of, well, the ‘News Extra’ camera. It was a low moment in communications, boys. In future, when a master musician requires you to get out of the way, it would be good manners to wrap the gear and scram.

While the United States went to a Level Three Alert, powering up the launch circuits in the Minuteman complexes and end-loading the regimental-capability Pepsi-dispensers into the Star-lifters, your reporter was delving faithfully into the minutiae of a phenomenon that threatens to drive us crazy in the few days left before the flailing Nixon transmits the command code which peels the atmosphere off the planet.

I refer, of course, to Nationwide (BBC1), whose mannerisms are by now applied indiscriminately to news items of whatever import, with the result that the same air of desperate lightness would undoubtedly infect even their reportage of Armageddon. ‘Up here in Glasgow,’ a face would say, laying heavy vocal emphasis on the word ‘Glasgow’ in case the viewer had found the large sub-title ‘Glasgow’ an insufficient deterrent from assuming that the reporter was domiciled in Leningrad, ‘we’re wondering if the threat of atomic war [lopsided grin, twinkling eyes] won’t make bus drivers think again about that strike they’ve planned for next Monday.’

The television reporter’s urge to act out what he is saying springs mainly from the immemorial fantasy that his reading of the autocue will go undetected if only he can keep his head moving in a different direction from his eyes. There is also the fear, entirely justified in most cases, that one’s writing is insufficiently vivid to hold the viewer’s attention unaided. On occasions the resulting thespianism becomes literal-minded to the point of mania. ‘Here in Bradford we’ve been doing a lot of homework on this problem [silent whistle of fatigue, wrinkle of strained eyes] and we’ve reached the conclusion that the reason for the shortage of bus-conductors [clenched teeth of grim acceptance, puckered forehead of scientist faced with an irregular result from the proton-synchrotron] is that there just aren’t enough conductors to man the buses.’ A demented insistence on using props is part of the same syndrome. ‘What many people are now asking here in Birmingham is why, when the bus companies issued pamphlets like this [puzzled pursing of lips, admonitory shaking of slim booklet that might just as well be a trainspotter’s manual or a tract on economics by a disciple of Ezra Pound] they made no mention of just how a pay-as-you-enter bus could expect to cope with the crowds of people leaving work early on the day the world ends.’

Employing a frolicsome word-play that never begins to astonish you with its dexterity, Michael Barrett handles the link the same way every time. ‘Looks like old planet Earth’s got itself a transport problem there. And all of us here are in transports too [roll of eyes, twitch of cheek, hunch of shoulder] at the news that Mr Yorrick Hicklestraw of Deadenbury has grown a pork strawberry.’

Paul Johnson on One Pair of Eyes (BBC2) gave an elegant, literate and unintentionally intriguing demonstration of his gift for having it both ways. He does not think that Imperial power was the true secret of Britain’s greatness. Nevertheless he thinks that the loss of Imperial power has reduced Britain to the status of a second-rate nation. He thinks that the pomp of royalty has become empty symbolism, now that there is no Imperial power to back it up. Nevertheless he is not conspicuous for failing to be fascinated by rank. For myself, I rate Johnson’s political journalism highly, but feel that his written mixture of respect for office and distrust of officials can’t usefully be simplified for the screen. Priggishness bursts in, overpowering all. The inspired decision, however, to include Edward Heath’s immortal revue-sketch about a Prime Minister pretending to speak French did a lot to haul the programme out of its over-bred doldrums.

Horizon (BBC2) visited the pygmies, who have had a long history of being exploited for their stunt value — early documentaries about pygmies building bridges, it turns out, were all staged — but who on closer acquaintance prove to be a people of unusual social subtlety. Disputes are resolved by clowns, who lower the temperature of potential combatants by mimicry and satire. Your pygmy is homo ludens to the life, crowding hours of diversion into every day. The impact of this enchanting people’s smallness was rather dissipated by the fact that they look absolutely normal unless standing next to a looming Bantu. Their existence, needless to say, is threatened: but then, whose isn’t?

Panorama (BBC1) compiled a good show about the Middle East, wheeling on an Arab spokesman who did a persuasive job of clarifying his position. His idea that the State of Israel could somehow be compelled to abolish itself and re-incorporate its people into a State of Palestine seems to me a toxic fantasy, but I could see why he held to it. For the other side, a camera-team talked to an Israeli Soldier in the desert. The image of resilient toughness, he wanted his people at home to (a) wake up to the fact that the Arabs were serious, and (b) realise that the Israelis were not invincible. These, you felt, were two good men. Get them together in a space more substantial than an electronic signal and perhaps... but no, it doesn’t work that way.

David Attenborough was once again up to his waist in liquid Borneo, on the marvellous Eastward with Attenborough (BBC1). Christopher Brasher did a very good two-part show about pills (Danger — Take Two a Day) in which, after placing an aspirin to dissolve against the inside of his lip, he pulled back his un-made-up skin from his non-film-idol teeth to reveal the ravages the drug had wrought on his liquid pink epidermis: the Bad Sight of the week. Don’t tell me you missed Ego Hugo (BBC2)! You lucky swine.

The Observer, 28th October 1973