Essays: Enter the Chancellor |
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Enter the Chancellor

BUDGET week was sombre, grim with the rattle of girded loins. Safe in their time capsule, only The Brothers (BBC1) knew prosperity. ‘I’ve arranged a centre-fold in a monthly haulage mag,’ wily Julie told David. Behind every great man there is a great woman, a point made explicit in the unspeakable Night and Day (‘Film of the Week,’ BBC1): ‘Somebody had to help Mr Shakespeare over the rough spots and it was probably Mrs Shakespeare,’

It’s to the credit of Women’s Lib that such dialogue now sounds not only phoney — it always sounded that — but vicious. Woman’s role is nowadays for her to define, unless she is Princess Anne. If she is Princess Anne, she will learn from the news programmes that her function is to be safe from attack. Daily bulletins informed us that she was surrounded by detectives, by mobile policemen, by whole regiments which she was inspecting in Germany. There was footage of a tank, accompanied by the verbal assurance that Anne was snug inside it. One sincerely hoped that this plethora of coverage was not inspiring every nutter in the land to step up production of kidnap notes and home-made pistols.

Enervating as these moments of bathos were, they shone like magnesium flares through the gloom generated by the Budget. Of the scores of politicos and commentators who suddenly clustered around this largely innocuous document, only its author, Denis Healey, could he described as a personality. His elevation to star status is now complete. The trick of staying at the top in show-biz, however, is not so much to attract publicity — it arrives unasked — but to control it. On Budget Eve, Healey was the subject of a Panorama profile fronted by Alan Watson, whose new trick of sincerely adjusting his glasses in the cutaways proves that although practically anybody can strike a note of falsity in large matters, it takes a master of the medium to be bogus in minor details.

Dans cette galère Healey had small trouble looking like a pillar of integrity. All the more regrettable, then, that he should fall for the producer’s bright idea about dressing up and going out to tend his garden. Enter, camera left, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, rustically attired. We pan with him as he squelches forward and linger as he potters. In close-up we see a piquant combination of the capability with which he approaches affairs of State and his manly relief at getting away from them. Over to you, Alan Watson.

Mr Healey will quickly learn that the only way to keep your telly image in shape is to reject the producer’s first idea and make him have another. The first idea will always be a cliché — that’s Rule One. For another example of this iron law, there was the first in a series of Electric Folk concerts featuring Steeleye Span (BBC2). Steeleye are a magic band, with a terrific stage act that can pack the Albert Hall and set it on its ear. Even roaring on full amplification they still sound sweet, and never look more characteristically elfin than when lit alone on stage, with a giant hall full of ordinary mortals stretching away in the murk. But most of their music is from Britain’s past, and no producer is going to resist that for a second. Off to Warwick Castle then, where the band could be upstaged by the setting and the invited audience could consist of a few coachloads of embarrassed revellers leaning their evenly lit elbows on huge refectory-tables.

At the best of times, a domestic television set has the sonic fidelity of a dishwasher. Add to that the additional hazard of the castle’s acoustics — presumably it was those which forced the engineers to balance the band’s output in such a weird fashion — and the result, aurally, was a no-no. Maddy Prior’s voice is supposed to slice through the ensembles, not vanish into them. It is also difficult to make her blithesome step-dancing look uninteresting, but this was managed by a careful placing of cameras. The show left me thoroughly depressed, looking forward to the rest of the series with trepidation.

Max Bygraves (Max, ATV) told a dumb-Irishman joke and slipped in a noisome innuendo about an erection — one of his, as far as I could gather. Why is he allowed to do that? As England massacred Wales in the Come Dancing final (BBC1), booing broke out. ‘Still a lodda dancing to go,’ soothed Terry Wogan — but let the taffeta fall where it may, the sequins were already cast. Does Wogan’s blandness go all the way to the bottom, like mousse, or is there something gritty down there, like syllabub?

There were a few good shows though. What on Earth Are We Doing? (BBC1) has finally become watchable: quite a change from its initial episode, which was full of assurances that the Earth consists mainly of water and dry land. Philpott has started a promising new series, Four Corners of the Marketplace (BBC2). The first show was on Naples, where people live in one square yard each. One woman had to sleep every night in a bed containing nine children, but even when Philpott and a camera crew climbed in as well, she was still smiling. I’ve spent time in Naples myself: it saddened me into inattention. Philpott is made of sterner stuff, and digs deep. The thing that really gives him the edge, though, is his determination not to brush away paradoxes — he incorporates them into his writing. That the poverty of Naples has something to do with its appetite for life is an awkward fact he didn’t blink.

The World at War (Thames) dealt with genocide. Once again the use of authentic film was exemplary. I thought my fear of such glimpses into the Pit had reached its apex years ago, but now, as a family man, I find my terror is on a whole new plane. For those capable of being reminded, here was a reminder. Here also, however, was a reminder that television is rarely any competition for books as a means of education. The script, as so often in this series, was glaringly silent on the thornier problems. ‘Not many countries opened their doors to the Jews,’ Lord Olivier was asked to say — and that was as close as we got to hearing about Britain’s catastrophic Palestine policy. Jeremy Isaacs deserves all the awards going for his film research. But the series, whatever the more gullible critics say, is not distinguished. Instead of attempting compression, the writers leave things out.

The Observer, 31st March 1974