Essays: Consolations from America |
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Consolations from America

‘I CRIED because I had no shoes,’ goes the old Arab proverb, ‘until I saw a man who had no feet.’ To realise that our television isn’t a complete disaster after all, all you have to do is spend a week box-watching in the United States.

Over in Indianapolis to report the 500 Mile Race, I had nothing to do with all of my evenings and most of my afternoons except inspect the contents of the tube. Apart from being slightly less incompetent in their making, the commercials are indistinguishable from the programmes. The man who does the Winchester Little Cigar commercial was in town for the race. This was considered a great honour.

I realised years ago, after seeing a magazine advertisement in which Adlai Stevenson was plugging the ridiculous Great Books, that in America the moral sanction against peddling your own soul was not just thinner than it is here, but qualitatively different. Here, on the whole, it is not all right for respectable people to plug things. It is all right for Michael Aspel to plug things (such as the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’) because he is show-biz (and, incidentally, the shot in the arm that BBC1’s The Movie Quiz needed). It is not all right for Peter Black to plug a brand of television set — as he half-confessed by writing an article to pre-empt criticism just after he had done so. It is just about all right for Denis Norden to plug a brand of television set, since he is half show-biz, like Aspel, and half proper writer, like Black. It would not be to any degree all right if Lord Olivier were to plug, say, a camera.

Yet in America that is exactly what Lord Olivier is doing. It’s the same camera that Michael Parkinson plugged here — the Polaroid. The Polaroid is undeniably a nifty product and in America that’s as far as the morality goes. If the product is all right, then it’s all right to plug it. (And as Stevenson showed, it’s all right to plug the product even when the product’s not all right, so long as — as in the case of the Great Books — the product might conceivably be better than nothing.) The international advertising fraternity is raving about Lord Olivier’s performance in this ad. As Lord Olivier well knows, his performance is a walk-through, and the ad-men are raving because they are stupid. That Lord Olivier did the ad only on condition that it would not appear in this country is a clear sign that Britain has not yet gone to the dogs. In America the ad enhances his Prestige: he’s the Man in the Polaroid Commercial. In Britain the ad would damage it: he’d be a great actor lowering himself.

I got back too late to see Antonioni’s film on China, which I hope will be repeated. A BBC documentary on The Matteotti Affair was fairly well done, and a salutary programme to screen on a day when half a dozen people had been killed and 79 injured at an anti-fascist meeting in Brescia. Peter Nichols, who wrote and presented the documentary, is The Times correspondent in Italy and covered the Brescia bombing the following morning. One sentence in his report summed up yet another scandal, known as the Valpredis affair, which began with a ghastly bombing in Milan in 1969, ‘The judiciary,’ Nichols wrote, ‘is still arguing whether the trials of a group of anarchists arrested for the crime or a group of neo-fascists arrested later for the same crime should be conducted separately or together.’

Now that is good writing; it is the stroke of wit that gets straight to the heart of the problem. Worthy as it was, I thought the Matteotti programme would have benefited from a commentary composed along those lines. As it stood, the show was overly doughty. Mussolini’s elimination of Matteotti was a typically Italian political effort, i.e., it was bungled. Certainly the Duce was vulnerable when the crime was discovered. But aren’t there other ways of saying this than ‘the fate of Italy, indeed of all Europe, hung in the balance’?

One of the reasons why that statement sounds like a bromide is that it isn’t even all that true. Mussolini’s fears were out of proportion to the situation — the opposition barely existed. The rub being that Mr Nichols knows all this (knows it, indeed, a good deal better than I do) but was so involved in his elementary exposition that he forgot to be intelligent. ‘For 10 years, in Germany, a man watched and waited.’ He did indeed. ‘He was the direct product of Mussolini’s example.’ True enough. But Mr Nichols knows that there is no real comparison, and luckily found time to say so. Nazism was ‘incomparably more evil.’ It certainly was.

And here again Mr Nichols knows very well that the true importance of the Matteotti affair lies not in its being typical of Mussolini’s fascism but in its being so isolated. After the disbandment of the Squadristi Mussolini’s regime functioned with a remarkably low death-rate. It was brutal and bullying, but institutionalised murder on the Nazi scale was simply never in the picture. Mussolini was more of an actor than anything else. His cruelty was mainly rhetorical. Fascism was a rhetorical phenomenon. Mr Nichols got closest to the meat of the matter when he said that Matteotti (very truly an ‘extreme case of moral courage’) was against rhetoric.

In this programme, it seems to me, we had a clear case of a well-informed commentator being held back by what are conceived to be the demands of the medium. The extracts from the Italian film ‘Il Delitto Matteotti’ were appropriately noisy, but Mr Nichols could have been saying something more in the space they took. And he could have been saying something more in the space he took. People should not write baby-talk for television.

Cleo Laine sang a well-produced concert on BBC2. Her vocal equipment is overwhelming, for good and ill. For good when lavished on ‘Friendly Persuasion,’ an old Pat Boone hit of the fifties whose Quaker-talk lyrics she pointed up in their full strange delicacy. For ill when, like Oscar Wilde, she feels that, having the superfluous, she doesn’t need the necessary. ‘I was born on a Friday, married on a Friday too.’ It’s married on a Friday too. The emphasis was in the wrong place. Her danger is to be led away from meaning by a self-delighting technique. But come, gentlemen: now that a great chanteuse is at last with us, I trust we’re all scribbling away?

The Observer, 2nd June 1974