Essays: Beauty and the Beeb |
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Beauty and the Beeb

INDUSTRIAL action, the British name for industrial inaction, tore great holes in Miss World 1979 (BBC1), but the surviving fragments should have been enough to convince the three hundred million frustrated potential viewers that they had come within a whisker of viewing a masterpiece.

Seventy contestants paraded in national dress while a production number of riveting fatuity occurred nearby. The song which inspired the dancers to their gyrations had to do with the qualities that the eventual winner of the ‘Miss World’ title would evince. ‘She may be tall or even small, oh yeah.’ It was also predicted that she would have ‘that special glow,’ a contention which suggested that in a lean year the crown might possibly be won by a decaying mackerel.

Sacha Distel then came on. Either his smile had been sutured into position or else he wanted to sing. He wanted to sing. Meanwhile the national dresses were still going past, most of them looking like floats in a procession. One of the South American girls was the point of origin for a towering wicker-work structure covered with feathers. She upstaged all the other contestants by the simple expedient of rendering them invisible. Another girl had a collection of flags growing out of her back.

They all went off to be cut out of their national dress with acetylene torches and axes. Time for Sacha to be joined by Esther Rantzen. Esther managed to mention her pregnancy in her first sentence. Everybody in Britain already knew, but among the remaining two hundred and fifty million people scattered all around the world there might have been several who were still in ignorance. Either Sacha was one of these or else he was busy trying to remember his next line, since he did not react. Esther and Sacha then fell to delivering a cross talk act so deadly that they could not have done worse if they had written it themselves.

Back came the girls in evening dress. Miss Austria was a honey. Miss Spain nearly killed herself falling down the stairs. Somewhere about here the pictures gave out, leaving us with nothing except the head and shoulders of the Beeb’s new number one link-man for non-events, Ray Moore. I have tried hard to appreciate Ray’s qualities but I keep failing, possibly because he has a way with words that leaves you wondering whether the human race is not perhaps fated to lose the power of speech altogether. ‘We’ve got a little surprise for you,’ said Ray, and on came Ronnie Barker’s least inspired creation, a dreary little movie called ‘Futtock’s End.’

Who does the BBC think we are? If we have to miss a chunk of the show then we have to miss a chunk of the show. We didn’t need a lolly to suck. I had to switch over to News at Ten (ITN) to find out what the strike had been caused by. Apparently 40 sound technicians had walked off in a huff. Perhaps they had not been allowed to appear in national dress. Why Ray Moore could not have been instructed simply to give us a few facts is a mystery. ‘It’s a marvellous picture, isn’t it?’ asked Ray when the movie was over. It wasn’t, but the picture of Miss Bermuda was. She had won. On top of that, she was decidedly pretty.

Beauty contests are very silly but then so are brain contests. Mastermind (BBC1) gets battier all the time. In the latest instalment a man took agriculture as his special subject. Yes, all of agriculture, any time, anywhere. He did not do well. A woman, on the other hand, took the Dragon Books of Anne McCaffrey. Not surprisingly she did very well indeed. When I go on ‘Mastermind’ I shall elect as my special subject the Throth Books of Wilbur Plartz. Magnus Magnusson will ask such questions as: ‘Why did the Elf Barf return to the Kingdom of Schnurk?’ I will know all the answers.

Someone else who knew all the answers was the second Mrs Mao. She got frequent mentions in The Arts of Chinese Communism (BBC2), a highly informative documentary fronted by the Beeb’s excellent China hand, Philip Short. It seems that the arts in China are now being allowed to recover from the damage done to them by the Cultural Revolution in general and the vengeful puritanism of the Mk II Mrs Mao in particular. She was obviously an even bigger bitch than we thought.

Ballet is getting back on its points again, but all too slowly. The lady now running the resurgent ballet school spent most of the Cultural Revolution tilling the fields. The high spot of her re-education was looking after pigs, since at least the pigs did not deliver vituperative lectures about bourgeois decadence. Mrs Mao did, and even gave instructions on the correct positions for dancers’ feet. Like all cultural commissars, she was an artist manqué.

The Peking Opera is also on its way back, but many of the performers are missing, having been persecuted to death during the period when Mrs Mao was supervising the destruction of traditional forms in favour of truly revolutionary works whose ideological purity was proved by the fact that tickets for them could not be given away with free rice.

The BBC’s new drama season has started strongly. Frederic Raphael’s School Play (BBC2) was one of his best things. I did not share the general admiration for ‘The Glittering Prizes,’ mainly because it gave no idea of how university changes people. It occurred to me at the time that for Mr Raphael university might have been a comparatively pale experience after what had gone on at school.

‘School Play’ bore out my suspicion. It did a far more convincing job than ‘If’ of anathematising public schools. Denholm Elliott, equipped with sardonic lines almost as tart as the ones Mr Raphael wrote for him in ‘Nothing But the Best,’ was good at being the bad senior boy who had once been good. Michael Kitchen, as the good boy who turned bad later on, was good too.

G. F. Newman’s Billy (BBC2) was about child battering. Cleverly directed, it raised all the issues and left them hanging there. As with ‘Law and Order,’ written by the same author, I felt the need to see another programme, the programme about the programme. Nevertheless this was a solid example of the kind of lower-depths naturalism in which nothing sounds written and everything sounds overheard.

In Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (BBC2) everything sounded written. Tom Stoppard is the opposite of an anonymous writer. The play works better in the theatre but it still worked well enough on television to remind you of what real talent sounds like. The Soviet persecution of dissidents is a subject serious enough to bring out the full range of Stoppard’s comic gifts.

The Observer, 18th November 1979
[ An excerpt from this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]