Essays: It certainly can be bad, Sport! |
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It certainly can be bad, Sport!

SECOND to none in my admiration for Julian Pettifer, I have watched him over the years insinuate his questing self into trouble-spots the wide world round and rarely fail to come up with the straight goods.

The appropriate screen persona is all there: tough (especially in the upper arm, where trouble-spot countries invariably require a fresh set of injections for every visit), cute (for manoeuvring a microphone under the attenuated nose of Madame Bam Bhu Bhong, head of the Taibodian secret police) and smooth (as a lump of halvah sliding on a hot glass ramp). It saddens me to announce then, that Pettifer’s new mini-series about Australia (Reporter at large, BBC-1) is limp stuff.

The latest episode briskly identified itself as Can’t Be Bad If It’s Sport, Sport! and manifested all the daft wit one has come to associate with that kind of title, which falls into the second and marginally less deadly of the two leading categories of crumminess. (In the first category are titles which are not only lengthy, but abjectly pinched from a previous and more substantial cultural event, so that a programme about some woman who wants to bring back hanging ends up being called ‘The Lady’s Not For Burning.’ On shows thus labelled one maintains a Zero Surveillance Posture with few qualms.)

Pettifer ruthlessly suppressed all desire to be inquisitive about the Australian sporting scene, supplying instead a vintage collection of clichés and bromides. Young swimmers, we learned to our amazement, were up early, down to the pool, and ‘battling against the clock’ — as distinct, presumably, from young swimmers in Britain, who battle against the coffee-grinder. Shown babies being taught to swim at the age of six weeks, we were meant to be stunned. But to start training champions at the age of nothing is now a world-wide practice: what’s relevant is why the Australians should be so deeply uninterested in coming second and why, per capita, they actually do come first so often.

Here, as usual on sporting subjects, information was available but resolutely left untouched. Pettifer interviewed the coach, Forbes Carlisle, but forgot to ask him what’s involved in swimming fast. Facts on this topic have been classified Top Secret by the BBC for many years, the only substantial leak being at Munich, where Johnny Weissmuller let slip the datum that the new swimmers were faster than his lot because they swam on top of the water instead of through it — a line of loose talk which was promptly pounced on by the interviewer and buried under yet another question about what it was like to be Tarzan.

What’s truly frightening about Australian sport is its realism, and Pettifer’s British background was obviously the worst possible preparation for assessing this. There is no evidence that the Australian Press, for example, boosts the Australian champions any more fervently than the British Press boosts the British. But the Australian Press is infinitely more realistic, and rarely indulges its fancy in the David Bedford/Virginia Wade build-ups that the British Press lays on as a staple diet. Nor would an Australian delude himself, as Pettifer seemed keen to, that a winning talent can emerge out of work alone. In fact, talent is the word on which the whole thing turns. The selection process is pitiless and no excuses are accepted or even proffered. ‘When you’ve got your man down,’ Rod Laver once said, summing up a way of life, ‘rub him out.’

It would need a nuclear strike to rub out Warship, which has just started up on BBC-1. As a rule one likes to give even a howling bummer a few episodes to settle down before lashing out with the steel-tipped boot, but this one is Something Else — I became a helpless, hysterical fan from the first minute. HMS Hero is a frigate (and if the show had been called ‘Frigate’ my love would have been complete) stationed in the Mediterranean, and in this first episode she was engaged in hunting down a group of extremely bad actors before they got out of territorial waters. Slimly gouging spray out of the pelagic swell, Hero has recently come under the command of Donald Burton, a good actor who bravely conceals his awareness of the full dreadfulness he has been saddled with in a role that combines Bigglesworth with Hornblower.

Morale is low and Biggles-blower has only got about a hundred episodes to pull it back up: the previous captain went spare (‘Mental illness takes some time to be recognised’) and his first officer went to the bow-wows (‘That might explain his drinking but it hardly... excuses it.’). It’s a scriptwriter’s job in the modern Navy, which is plainly supplying the BBC with one spanking-new frigate gratis — to the acute satisfaction, one assumes, of Icelandic intelligence, who must be beside themselves to learn that half the opposition is away making movies.

A Penelope Mortimer play called Three’s One (BBC-1) matched an insensitive, dedicatedly trendy twerp played by Hywel Bennett (‘Cambridge killed my creative potential’) with a sensitive, soul-searching ex-model played by Caroline Mortimer. He from Earl’s Court, she from NW3, they got together through a common psychiatrist, shared a bottle of Hirondelle and hit the sack. The girl’s role was freshly written and, of course, delicately played, but the bloke was a moral cipher, so she gained small merit in getting his number. It would have been more like life if he had been intelligent, self-aware, cultivated, funny — and still a twerp. We ask for complexity, and you give us a cartoon.

Invigoratingly shorn of its usual dire exposition, Omnibus (BBC-1) did a goodie on jazz. I can never get enough of George Chisholm’s chatter. Benny Green and George Melly did their thing, Humph blew well and Alex Welsh was sharp and sweet as always. The avant garde (represented by an outfit called ISKRA 1903 — did things go wrong that early?) exposed itself with touching conviction.

Jonathan Miller promisingly started a new series with Charles Darwin Lived Here (BBC-2). For reasons unknown Miller spent a good deal of the time addressing a camera situated in the roof, but the facts were all very much worth having. He’s right on form. Patrick Moore (The Sky at Night, BBC-1) says don’t send any letters until he gets back from Africa — he’s going there for his fourth eclipse. Brian Trueman on Cinema (Granada) subtly totalled Malcolm McDowell, and all in all has introduced a welcome new element of disbelief into the celluloid wonderland.

The Observer, 10th June 1973