Essays: Checked and double checked |
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Checked and double checked

THE Colonels fell — possibly because Kissinger pushed them, but nothing could detract from the sweetness of the moment. On News at Ten (ITN), Nixon’s attorney, James St Clair, caught his client’s habit of sweating from the top lip. Impeachment sweat. It was a week of big events.

BBC2 bought and screened an American, NASA-approved compilation called Moonwalk One, a programme commemorating, in word and image, the conquest of the moon five years ago. I tuned to this expecting sensational pictures, and got them. There was footage from the expendable cameras placed in the flame-tunnels and on the gantry to secure close-ups of the lift-off. Seen floating slowly past a few inches away as its thrust just balanced out its mass, the rocket looked awesomely lovely.

The show was crammed with top-quality eye-food. Unfortunately the commentary was a no-no. The rocket was never called ‘the stack,’ which is what rocketeers call it. It was called ‘six million pounds of machine,’ which is what nobody calls it, except for hack writers. The phrase ‘checked and double checked’ (the use of which is always an early tip-off to a dud science programme or SF movie) was unashamedly employed. ‘They find their way across the sea of space navigating by the same stars which guided Columbus to shores unknown.’ Given such a subject, dullness was difficult to achieve, but dedicated team-work and a comprehensive lack of imagination brought success.

It would be big-headed to connect a cause pursued in this column with an effect observed on screen, so all one can decently do is note the palpable fact that the BBC is nowadays using more and better-chosen experts to lend its sports commentaries substance. The latest recruit is Jackie Stewart, whose unappealing loquacity when flogging merchandise in commercials (I sadly note that our new hope James Hunt has already joined in the gold rush, peddling the Vauxhall Viva) is more than offset by the fast eyes and the well-stocked memory you might expect from a champion. His running commentary on the British Grand Prix (Grandstand, BBC1) gave the event a whole extra dimension.

We learned that the aerofoils on modern Formula One cars mean that anyone trying to get a tow in another’s vacuum has to drive in troubled air, with consequent handling problems. Stewart knew what gear any car was in whenever he glanced at it. He spotted that Lauda had a puncture several laps before the layman’s eye could see the tyre’s altered profile. His voluble voice-over was just what Grand Prix racing has always needed to make it good television. Far more dignified than asking him to lounge about expatiating to Michael Parkinson on his usual crappy theme of a car being Like a Woman.

Whicker (Yorkshire) went to Rio. Never mind the programme, feel the blurb: the TV Times article presaging the show was penned by Whicker himself and said it all. He was going down there, he said, to ‘get a load of this Brazilian Samba City... she’s sexy and unusually feminine — hot and hateful and loveable, full of graceful, sensuous hills... It all started with her climax: Carnival.’ Rio, you see, is Like a Woman. Not that it’s his habit of talking exclusively in ad-man’s bromides which makes Whicker so hard to take. In The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (BBC1 recurring, for ever) the chat is just as tatty, but there’s an underlying humility — and, of course, a genuine sense of adventure — which makes it tolerable. This time Cousteau’s intrepid band were in the Antarctic. As always, Time was Running Out. No Chances Could Be Taken. In defiance of this rubric, divers descended into the galleries of an old and rotten iceberg. (The Fragile Structure Could Collapse at Any Moment.) The scenes inside the ice were bewitching.

Magnus Magnusson fronted an excellent ‘Chronicle’ called The Ship That Never Sailed (BBC2), all about the Bremen Cog, which sank in the Weser in 1380, having only just been completed. It took from 1962 until 1965 to raise all the fragments from the mud. Getting the main structure out was dead tricky, since Winter kept coming, which meant that Time was Running Out. There was the problem of keeping the 10,000 pieces waterlogged, lest they dry too quickly. (This gave Magnus an excuse to stand eerily in the preservative mist.) In his unfrilled but crafty expository prose, Magnus managed, among other things, to give us a painless run-down on the Hanseatic League. The show was yet another of his educative classics: television that will last.

Kenneth Cope’s play in the Village Hall series (Granada) was good viewing. Richard Pearson played a first-aid fanatic in conflict with the local hearties. Finally they are reconciled to him when he repairs one of their footballers, and help him rehearse the aftermath of a putative disaster. (‘Both legs broken?’ squeaks Pearson, reading a tag. ‘Who allowed you to walk in here?’) Man Alive (BBC2) screened a salutary frightener about untrained baby-minders. The inevitable conclusion was that factories must provide nurseries.

The World About Us (BBC2) had crocodiles. One of the Australian experts was a typical outback prankster, giggling while the scaly monsters chased him. The inside of a 12-ft croc’s gut was the Bad Sight of the Week. André Previn (BBC1) met Edward Heath, and would have learned more if he’d listened. Humphrey Lyttelton fronted What is Jazz (Thames), a frantically crowded hour of small educational value, but nice as a gathering of the jazz people. Miraculously, Adelaide Hall was present and in robust voice. She sang on the original ‘Creole Love Call’ disc of 1927. She must have stepped out of a time capsule.

The Observer, 28th July 1974