Essays: Great stone! |
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Great stone!

FOR John Weightman and Jonathan Raban, who gallantly occupied the hot pouffe during my absence, life could not have been easy. ITV was off the air, and the BBC could only loosely be said to be still on it.

What, for example, did the Beeb think it was up to in screening Hitler — A Film From Germany (BBC2)? A four-part nonsense written and directed by somebody calling himself Hans Jürgen Syberberg, this trouncingly fatuous epic only went to prove that politics have changed immeasurably for the better. Hitler was a failed artist who took his revenge by wrecking as much of Europe as he could get his hands on. Nowadays, thanks to State subsidies and television’s insatiable appetite for material, there is no such thing as a failed artist.

Most of the last five weeks I have spent in a Swiss clinic having my mind operated on to remove a recurrent audio-visual image of Magnus Pyke getting out of a straitjacket. The condition, brought on by watching too much bad television, was aggravated by the last programme I saw before clocking off. ITV had already packed it in by that stage, so the Beeb must have been the culprit.

The programme** was all about Brecht. It had been assembled by David Caute, who apparently finds something continuously invigorating about Brecht’s gift for mis-stating the obvious. At the very moment when a self-satisfied looking actor, dressed up as Brecht, laid his finger alongside his nose and said something tremendously knowing about Hitler, I heard a snapping noise inside my head. A cortical partition had collapsed.

After a month of surgery, recuperation and analysis, the nightmare is back under control. Capering images of Patrick Moore playing table tennis have retreated. I am ready to continue, and even prepared to admit that apart from the news from Ireland it has not been a particularly depressing week. True, ITV is still confining its transmissions to a soothing white-on-blue caption, but Auntie has begun to stir. Even at the height of a new season it would be hard to match the excitement of International Curling (BBC2).

International Curling takes place in Canada. From all parts of Canada they come to Curl, which is why the sport is called International. Two teams of Curling folk slide large round stones along the ice so that they finish up inside a circle or else knock the opposing team’s stones out of the circle, or both.

The man who slides the stone takes careful aim and for a while seems to have forgotten to let go, since he follows the stone along in the kneeling position, as if he had just made a mistimed obeisance to some Northern king and set off inadvertently down the glacier. Meanwhile the Canadian commentator says things like ‘Great stone!’ or ‘Well, there’s the first break of the seventh end. He wanted to have a raised stone to be socked in behind and boy, does he have it! Wow!’

Adding to the acute fascination of International Curling are the sweepers. Two sweepers accompany the stone on its thrilling journey down the ice, frantically sweeping just ahead of it and just behind. Part of the ritual of International Curling is that the commentator never tells you why the sweepers do this. Are they speeding the stone up or slowing it down?

‘This is an interesting situation from a strategy standpoint, because the rock that should have been the outside guard for the inside straight is now the inside stiff for the outer! Wow!’ Is that bad or good?

‘Interesting decision there by Chemkiwicz and Snarft. They wanna roll that hot snatch for a reverse draw, whack off the shingle and spring the loose shooter across the ice on to that yellow shot rock! Wow!’

Should American courts allow television coverage of trials? Should the BBC show you the results if American courts allow television coverage of trials? Everybody concerned having agonised for the appropriate period and said Yes, we were in a position to wolf down three unswitchoffable episodes of Circuit Eleven Miami (BBC2). Screened on successive nights, this alternately — and indeed often simultaneously — gripping and repulsive trilogy recorded the trial, conviction and sentence of one Thomas Perri, a citizen of Miami who had allegedly killed an 86-year-old man in peculiarly disgusting circumstances

‘Hey, here I am!’ cried Tommy as the arresting officers bundled him towards the camera. ‘I’m a star!’ Pop-eyed, rat-nosed and barely articulate, Tommy was hard to love. But part of what seems to me the overwhelming argument against cameras in courts is that people should not be found guilty and sentenced to death merely because you don’t like the way they look.

The mainstay of the case against Tommy was a charmer called Stephen Weiss, who insisted that he had been Tommy’s accomplice in the murder. Stephen looked and talked like an associate professor of linguistics at a small but high-powered university. The way Stephen told it, helping bring Tommy to justice was his plain duty to society.

‘He was bringing me down,’ Stephen complained. ‘Somebody has to eliminate Tommy. He’s sick.’ Tommy, it transpired, was so sick that he could make an otherwise reasonable man like Stephen do almost anything. Tommy had told Stephen to stab the old man, so Stephen had stabbed the old man. ‘Tommy told me to stab him. I believed in Tommy. I believed in him as a better criminal than I was.’

For saying all this, Stephen had been rewarded before the trial started with a guaranteed maximum sentence of 15 years, which would apparently work out, with time off for good behaviour and television appearances, at a total time behind bars of about 10 minutes.

By sheer force of personality Tommy had induced Stephen to co-operate in the task of beating and stabbing the old man to the point of death. But it was Tommy alone, according to Stephen, who had climaxed this process by kicking a ballpoint pen through the old man’s head. We were shown photographs of what the old man looked like after this had been done to him.

It was hard to see why the perpetrator of such a deed should be kept alive at public expense. But equally there was no gainsaying the fact that apart from a set of fingerprints and a hank of hair, both of which Tommy might conceivably have left behind on an earlier visit, there was nothing to connect Tommy with the crime except Stephen’s testimony.

The Mini (BBC1) was all about a British engineering feat which I had always been under the impression was a huge success, but it turns out that this doughty little car has actually been something of a flop. The five million sold should have been 25 million, but (a) the workers failed to make enough of them, and (b) the managers forgot to include a profit margin in the price.

The Half Million Pound Magic Carpet (BBC2) was about another British engineering feat, an airship whose virtues apparently do not include the ability to get out of its own hangar during a mild wind. Thanks to lack of foresight on the part of British bankers, the airship is now being made in Canada, where its every slow dash across the sky will no doubt add to the heady fervour already generated by International Curling.

The Observer, 2nd September 1979
[ ** ‘Brecht and Co’, BBC2, 10th August 1979 ]
[ A truncated version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]