Essays: Caught by the throat |
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Caught by the throat

ON Z Cars (BBC-1) a lady answered all our prayers by crowning Sgt Haggar with a bottle. Hip Warboys nailed straight-arrow Taylor on the ITV tennis series, a disguised cigarette ad calling itself the JOHN PLAYER TROPHY. The BBC, not to be outdone, faithfully telecast cricket results in the JOHN PLAYER LEAGUE.

If TV channels are going to make programmes from sponsored events, they might as well just allow sponsored programmes and quit being coy. Direct sponsorship is less corrupting, if cornier. In Australia once a commentator described how a famous batsman had just been run out, promised that the batsman was on his way to the microphone to have a chat, and filled the intervening half-minute with an hysterical encomium for the sponsor, Turf cigarettes. When the batsman finally arrived the commentator said loudly: ‘Have a Turf.’ The batsman said, equally loudly: ‘No, thanks, they hurt my throat.’

World in Action (Granada) featured a multi-millionaire with a joke moustache who gave two of his millions to the Nixon campaign because he wanted to be a Part of a Great Man’s Life — the bad buy of the century. With its first episode screened out of synch and sliced into optical salami by pre-prepared fadeouts for American commercials, the new Kenneth Clark art series (Romantic v. Classic Art, ATV) nevertheless lost no time in revealing itself to be one of the best things yet from television’s premier talking head. His elegant, perspicuous sentences proved all over again that telly talk need not necessarily slobber the English language to death with its big, dumb, toothless mouth.

Out of the screen and into your living-room rode horsemen by Delacroix. ‘Having conquered the civilised world,’ Clark enunciated evenly, ‘they have no idea of what to do with it: they will destroy it out of sheer embarrassment.’ Written like a gentleman. An ad for Dulux managed to worm its way in while Clark was plugging Gericault, but it didn’t much confuse the issue. Dulux doesn’t sound like a painter — although Gericault, when you think about it, does sound like a paint.

Every week I watch Stuart Hall on It’s A Knock-Out (BBC-1) and realised with renewed despair that the most foolish thing I ever did was to turn in my double-O licence and hand back that Walther PPK with the short silencer. Some poor klutz running flat out on a rolling log with a bucket of Gericault in each hand is trying to spit greased ping-pong balls into a basket held between the knees of a girl team-mate bouncing on a trampoline with her wrists tied behind her back, and Hall is shouting: ‘The seconds count, Robert. Are you going to do it? Are you going to do it? Ten seconds to go, Robert! Yes, YOU MUST DO IT NOW, because if you don’t, you... OOH! Will you make it? AAAGH!’

As trained attendants scoop Robert’s remains on to a stretcher, Stuart goes through the adding-up ritual with the dreaded Arthur. ‘That’s four points from before and two points now,’ Arthur announces, supported in his cogitations by Stuart’s arm around his shoulders, ‘and four and two make...’ ‘Yes Arthur?’ ‘Six.’

Cut to Eddie Waring at the marathon, ‘Knock-Out’s Augean Stables. ‘Ahn eeh ahm da whey,’ bellows Eddie, rocking from foot to foot like a man in the early stages of the hully-gully: ‘oom wah boom there’s still one more go to game.’ Behind him, on a beam over a tank full of water, two shivering comptometer operators slug each other with pillows. The rain pours down.

I, you and millions upon millions of others watch on. Panem et circenses for the last Romans. But the divertimenti, thank God, are gladiatorial only in the metaphorical sense: bursting a balloon full of orangeade with your teeth before falling head-first into a barrel of flour is a lot better than a poke in the eye with a burnt trident.

Harry Nilsson did a special called A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (BBC-2), consisting of a batch of standards sung in a recording-studio setting to the accompaniment of Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra. Even in his usual incarnation as a rock idol, Nilsson is essentially a stunt singer, with vocal cords like an embroidery hoop. But at least he’s some kind of artist, so it was nice to find him occupying the slot just vacated by John Denver. Nice also to be able to praise Stanley Dorfman, who with this Nilsson effort partly makes up the miles of ground he yielded to the enemy by producing the Denver series, which was schlock-rock all the way — a great big yucky expensive no-no.

One thing about a plastic pretty-voice like Denver, though — you can depend on him. On the Whistle Test (BBC-2), Grace Slick and Paul Kantner blew in and proceeded to run naughty rings around worthy Bob Harris. Although looking these days as plump as Beverley Sills, Slick remains the impetuous rock queen who was the focal point for the key band of the whole Californian rock explosion — Jefferson Airplane. I wish she and Kanter had played it straight and told us more. The moment when he heard the Airplane delivering the beautiful song ‘Today’ in the movie ‘Monterey Pop’ (Slick was slimmer than a reed and singing clearer than a glass guitar) was the moment when your reporter realised that there was no way back — loser takes nothing, rock and roll takes all.

As a movie, M.A.S.H was interesting not so much for its direction as for its writing. Based on a funny but shapeless novel, the script bore the accomplished imprint of Ring Lardner Jr, who had spent too many years sharing with Abraham Polonsky the distinction of being one of the two most important talents put out of business by the blacklist.

‘M.A.S.H’ was a special film and I assumed that a TV series using the same material would get rid of the special qualities straight away. So far, though, it hasn’t — or not entirely. There aren’t as many jets of blood as there should be, and Hotlips can’t be played by anybody except Sally Kellerman, but Alan Alda is fully as good as Donald Sutherland was in the key role of Hawkeye Pierce. A friend just back from America says the standard is not maintained. But so far it’s worth watching.

Granada have got a killer-diller series on the way — Sam, by John Finch. The first episode was very good. A considered verdict will be published here in the near future. BBC-2 did an endless play about plague called The Roses of Eyam. A village got wiped out with indecent slowness, while actors in conical hats rabbited philosophically on. I fought sleep and lost.

The Observer, 17th June 1973

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]