Essays: That sinking feeling |
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That sinking feeling

ACCORDING TO Grandstand (BBC1), Cambridge’s sinking in the Boat Race was the biggest Easter tragedy in 2,000 years.

Everything began normally with Oxford stroking along to their usual win, Cambridge on their way to oblivion and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ still likely to be the chief media talking-point over the weekend. But then tragedy struck. It struck gradually. First less and less of Cambridge’s frail shell was showing above the choppy water, and then none at all, leaving the crew still rowing staunchly away but going nowhere except downwards. The commentator did his best to prepare us for our coming bereavement.

‘It could be a sinking ... yes it is ... they’ve gone into the dolphin effect ...’ (There was no time to explain the dolphin effect. I suppose that when dolphins get into trouble they go into the Cambridge effect.) ‘And now it’s panic ... unbelievable how they could go down so quickly ... they’re all still alive ... what a tragic finish...’

Particularly impressive at this point was the way in which several of the Cambridge crew refused to give up, but went on rowing even though nothing still protruded from the water except their heads and shoulders. ‘Unbelievable ... what drama we’ve had ... I’d like to see them get aboard and safe ... that water is cold...’

Finally even the most determined crew-members latched on to the fact that their chance of completing the race was now slight. ‘One or two grins ... maybe they’re enjoying this ... let’s go back to Oxford, because as far as they’re concerned the race is still on ... and here are Oxford, triumphant Oxford, not quite a hollow victory...’

It seemed to be all over. ‘Scenes of jubilation at the finish ... 1951 was the last sinking, when Oxford sank ... this time it was Cambridge ... tragic...’ But then the action replays started. ‘Let’s have another look at how this all ended ... in slow motion this time ... they were doomed from this moment...’

For all the attendant hysteria, the unbelievable tragedy could yet be said to have justified its air-time on the Saturday afternoon. But when it turned up as the leading item in that night’s Late Night News (BBC2), you began to wonder whether things might not be getting out of hand. How can you lead with the Boat Race when the Israelis are still trying to decide whether or not to back Begin? The fate of the Middle East had to take second place to the epic story of eight and a half Cambridge hearties playing submarines.

The Beeb’s news editing seems to have gone haywire again. Out to catch a man who threw a girl off a train, the police have apparently taken to dressing up one of their women constables as the girl and putting her on the same train. It is hard to see what they can hope to achieve by this manoeuvre, except perhaps to attract a policeman dressed as the girl’s attacker.

It is even harder to see what the BBC thinks it is up to when it sends a camera crew along for the ride. There was film of the dressed-up woman constable getting on the train. There was film of her sitting down in the train. There was film of nothing happening in the train while it went along with her sitting in it.

The BBC’s principle seems to be that any film footage speaks louder than words, even if the footage is staged. ITN seems increasingly to be a victim of the same idea. The girl who was thrown off the train is lying in a coma. Roy Orbison sends her a get-well tape. The tape is played to the girl in her hospital room. While the voice-over is saying this is what happened, the camera is pointing at a tape-recorder being switched on in a hospital room. But is it her room? If it were, we would probably be seeing her. Since we aren’t, it seems likely that the shot has been set up somewhere else. Either way, it’s a lot of palaver for a nothing item, quite apart from the questionable ethics.

Affectionate parody was the dominant mood of the season. The Rutles (BBC2) was an affectionate parody of the Beatles. I suppose the next step will be an affectionate parody of the Rutles. Eric Idle composed the show with impressive care for detail, but inevitably the prevailing sound was of people taking in one another’s washing.

In Ulysses (BBC2), an Open Door programme made by the Community Film Unit, the pupils of Shelburne Girls’ School gave us an affectionate parody of Homer. Rock opera being a limited form in the first place, and the pupils having obvious limitations of their own, nothing sensational occurred, but the show still made good viewing.

It even made good listening. Most of the lyrics were along the lines of ‘Cyclops, Cyclops, oo, oo, uh, uh,’ but the music had melodic punch. The girl playing Ulysses was so beautiful that you feared for her future. All she needs is a few voice lessons and she’ll be ready for showbiz, God help her.

Christ’s biggest look-in on his own season was ITV’s re-run of the 1961 blockbuster movie King of Kings, an affectionate parody of the New Testament directed by Nicholas Ray. The film made news at the time because the crucifixion scene betrayed the fact that Jeffrey Hunter, the blue-eyed actor in the title role, had shaved his armpits. In those days it was generally held that Christ’s Passion ought to suggest revelations more striking than a mere whiff of after-shave.

Apart from Robert Hughes’s eloquent programme about Bernini (BBC2), the holiest thing about Easter was Horowitz’s White House concert, brought to us by the South Bank Show (LWT), courtesy of President Carter and Melvyn Bragg. Carter might be ineffectual in other directions but he really loves music and was obviously well aware that he was in the presence of a great artist. At 74 Horowitz plays the slow movement from Chopin’s second sonata as if marching downstairs into his own tomb.

The Observer, 2nd April 1978

[ An excerpt from this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]