Essays: Confusing the issues |
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Confusing the issues

THE blood-dimmed tide is loosed, giving way later on to scattered showers and sunny intervals in the south and east. World in Action (Granada) screened the results of nine months’ digging into the question of the British Army and/or the Special Branch of the RUC using torture in Northern Ireland. Visual aids were supplied: photographs of men lit up with purple blotches all over. There can’t be much doubt that Sensory Deprivation — the technique the Compton Commission mainly concerned itself with — was a long way from being the roughest ride the authorities were making available during that period, let alone later on when the war stepped up. The programme insisted that it’s the RUC, rather than the Army, which has been responsible for the worst of the horrors. A crumb of comfort could be got from this, and a whole crust from the attested readiness of our politicians to see that no good end could result from such means. Nevertheless, common sense tells the shaking viewer that torture is terror’s soul fellow — they thrive on each other.

Still on the same horrible subject, Midweek (BBC-1) carried an excellent report by Tom Mangold, who has done some home-work on recent murders in Belfast and come up with the conclusion that there are scores of motiveless ones hidden among those which can reasonably be said to have a purpose. The prospect of roaming gangs knocking people off on a freelance basis did a lot to demolish this onlooker’s lingering conviction that the situation might be graspable. The war in Northern Ireland finally turns on differences that no ordinary man can detect.

This is where television helps lead us astray: those pictures of cruising Saracens and exploding cars lull us into the belief that the war we are watching is a modern one. In actual fact it is as out of date as some long-gone, hideous, hundred-year struggle between two halves of a minor Hussite sub-sect split by a question of transubstantiation and clubbing each other to pulp on a piece of marsh-land which subsequently wasn’t even incorporated into Belgium.

And still they came, out of Pandora’s box: goblins, winged embryos and sliding, scaled nasties. The firemen in The Bronx is Burning (BBC-2) are required to face hazards more devastating than mere conflagration can offer, although by normal standards the flames burn fiercely enough — apparently the Bronx is on fire more or less continuously, which makes you wonder how the camera-crew managed to get their footage of the firemen leaping from the cot and springing to their places on the engine. Wouldn’t the engine already be at the fire? ‘The concept,’ said the fire-station’s resident highbrow, ‘of running into buildings everybody else has run out of is insane.’ The bull-fight was invoked, and Joseph Conrad.

These men were plainly proud of their work, as well they might be, considering that the already far-above-average ration of mortal danger is compounded by the diabolical ministrations of delinquent pranksters who booby-trap abandoned buildings before setting them alight. Firemen can crawl along a blazing corridor and discover, too late, that a piece of cardboard on the floor conceals a hole of the precise size and placement to send them down to death. Piano-wire is strung at throat height, and petrol-filled balloons are suspended to go off in firemen’s faces like fatal, late-flowering cherries: This was a riveting programme: an apocalyptic vision of New York in which the fire engines were the only bright and functioning things in a wilderness of junk.

Abandoning Western civilisation to its fate, Granada looked east: A Subject of Struggle re-created an episode from the Cultural Revolution in which Wang Kuang-mei (played superbly by Tsai Chin) was hazed by the Red Guards until she owned up and declared herself a reactionary bourgeois element. The producer/director, Leslie Woodhead, laid careful emphasis on the fact that Wang Kuang-mei had herself promoted dozens of these entertainments for earlier unfortunates. Nevertheless, our Western sympathies could not help but flow as Tsai Chin crumpled up under the pressure supplied by a team of young actors doing a perfect job of imitating a remorseless pack of screaming little bastards. Known among themselves as ‘fighters,’ the Red Guards had lured their victim into the open by pretending her daughter had been injured. Cruel deceit, like squint-minded fanaticism and a piercing treble, is apparently a standard component in the revolutionary struggler’s kitty.

Journalists — such as the otherwise rational Jill Tweedie — had been telling us for days that we wouldn’t understand the programme, unless we could step outside our Western expectations of conduct. On Line-up the following evening, Tsai Chin (looking like a million yen) told us the same thing, pointing out incontrovertibly that Chinese history during the hundred years before the Revolution had been nothing but a slaughterhouse. But just because the revolution had to happen doesn’t mean that free men should feel obliged to fall for its myths, such as the one about Chairman Mao being against the cult of personality. Even Tsai Chin, obviously no slouch at politics, seemed to think that all those photographs of Mao sprang into being spontaneously. It was cunning of the ‘Line-up’ squad to top off this interview with some footage from an American film showing platoons of dim-witted crumpet learning to twirl batons and absorbing valyers, so that they could become rangerettes.

Still on the subject of interrogation, but emerging at last into that sun-lit land in which suffering is voluntary, Mastermind (BBC-l) has now settled in and is ripe for judgement. This is the kind of élite-seeking stuff that would send Mao into a positive frenzy of contemptuous inscrutability. Magnus Magnusson — who, unless my dazed ears deceived me, is actually called the Interrogator — comes on accompanied by doomy music, like the Grand Inquisitor in Act III of ‘Don Carlos.’ At a signal from Magnusson’s omnipotent forefinger, the patsy is released on to the catwalk and stumbles forward to where the Chair awaits, like the beginning of the long fall in San Quentin. A fierce overhead key-light picks him out like a rabbit in a fog-lamp.

I won’t go into what happens next, except to say that the toll in ruined lives must already be a national disaster. Men who have spent 30 years enjoying an unchallenged reputation as the village wise-acre are revealed, after only two minutes in the hot squat, to be riddled with ignorance even in their formidably recondite specialities. The programme is compulsive viewing: a really gripping, totally useless quiz. Out of the Box (BBC-2), on the other hand, is a problem — particularly for Denis Norden, who in holding it together on the air is in the position of a man trying to Sellotape a running wound. Norden’s cool is without limit. The programme depends on panelists trying to recognise bits of old programmes while the audience tries to recognise the panelists. This week Robert Robinson will be joining in: things might pick up.

The Prospect Hamlet (BBC-2) contained some marvellous people but was the merest journey-work as a production. Susan Fleetwood (Ophelia) I praised last week, so can hardly praise her again, except to say that she is very welcome. Welcome, too, is Morag Hood, who played Breeze Anstey (Granada) in the last of the trail-breaking ‘Country Matters’ series, and is now to be Natasha for the next 19 weeks. More of War and Peace when the time is ripe.

The Observer, 1st October 1972