Essays: Just good friends |
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Just good friends

As episode two of Goodbye Darling... (BBC1) forcefully revealed, I was all wrong about Lady Brett and the wispy Maude being lesbians. They are just very, very good friends.

‘We came out together,’ one of them said, to which Anne’s snobby husband riposted: ‘Oh, you mean you were debutantes.’ It is a measure of the sublime innocence underlying the script’s air of sophistication that this interchange was evidently not seen as a joke by anyone concerned. Maude’s problem, it transpired, comes in bottled form. As she became blotto the awful truth unfolded. Awful dialogue unfolded along with it. Lines the actors could do nothing with accumulated in heaps. The only way to play it would have been to get everyone into Scuba gear and do the whole thing underwater.

But back to the viewing week’s beginning, marked by a particularly rich edition of World Cup Grandstand (BBC1). This took the form of a live telecast from Basle, where England had to defeat Switzerland in order to qualify for the World Cup. ‘Tonight is a vital night for England in Switzerland. They must not only not lose, they must win.’ So the writing was on the wall from square one, despite the facts — disgorged by John Motson at the touch of the usual button — that in 1963 England had won 8–1 at Basle and had never been beaten by a Swiss side since 1863, or it could have been 1763. You could take comfort from these statistics if you were an expert. If you were an ignoramus like me, you were too busy being overawed by the Swiss side as they lined up to face the camera.

They all looked like film stars. Clear skin stretched over rippling jaw muscles testified to yoghurt, muesli and mountain air. All the experts were agreed that the Swiss must lose, but for men haunted by doom they looked pretty calm, although it was always possible that the endless strains of their incredibly soporific national anthem had lulled them into unconsciousness.

The Swiss had lost at home to Norway — a good sign. Yes, it was practically in the bag for England. ‘A defeat would be disastrous,’ said Jimmy Hill. The whistle blew and it was instantly revealed that several of the Swiss could run very rapidly past the England defenders while yet retaining the ball. One of these Swiss was called Herman Hermann. A Swiss German rather than a German German, Herman Hermann was a real problem, but it took an ignoramus to see it. Experts like Bobby Charlton said that England looked ‘safe at the back.’

Hardly were these words cold on Bobby’s lips when the Swiss put the ball in England’s net. ‘He was given so much space.’ Hardly had these words been uttered when the ball was in England’s net again. ‘England two goals down!’ shrieked John Motson, translating the disaster into statistics. There was only one thing for the England fans to do — stage a diversion. Putting their Boy Scout badges in their pockets and artfully adopting fierce expressions, they pretended to riot. Alas, this imaginative tactic only half worked. England managed to score one goal while the Swiss team gazed puzzled into the stands, but one goal was two too few. Now England will have to beat Hungary 46–0 in order to get a match against San Marino.

Football hooliganism was one of the subjects in yet another riveting edition of Question Time (BBC1). Sir Robin Day, as he now is, ably contained a potentially explosive panel made up of Lynda Chalker, Denis Healey, Paul Foot and (deep breath) Admiral of the Fleet the Lord Hill-Norton. The contrast in forensic styles between the two last named pointed up the importance of manner on television. Paul Foot sat relaxed under his re-entry vehicle hairstyle and pithily made points. The admiral, burdening himself with that upper-class drawl by which near inarticulacy presumes to disguise itself as a stiff upper lip, could not convey even the simplest opinion in under five minutes and looked outraged when Robin cut him short.

Yet forced to a choice between the admiral’s view of life and Paul Foot’s most people would probably choose the admiral’s, if only because it shows fewer signs of having been hatched in a cosy upper-middle-class incubator. Paul is absolutely certain that outmoded institutions must be swept away. You have to be brought up in sheltered circumstances to have that absolute certainty. Popular conservatism, which people like Paul always interpret as inertia, springs from a perception that society is too complicated for anyone to have all the answers.

Paul looks and sounds as if he has all the answers. His television manner might thus not be as effective as it is impressive, whereas the admiral, who bored you into the wall, probably succeeded in reinforcing the suspicion of a majority of viewers that when it came to hooliganism the idea of National Service might have something to it. Paul characteristically erupted into scornful cries about ‘training them to kill,’ but most people would be prepared to give the admiral the benefit of the doubt and presume that he only meant keeping them out of Switzerland until such time as British society regained its sanity.

The week in politics, however, belonged to the man who calls himself Tony Benn. It remains a mystery why, having decided to adopt a revolutionary sobriquet, he did not go for broke and call himself, say, El Tornado or Tony Terror. Anyway, he had Weekend World (LWT) all to himself, with Brian Walden asking every question except the awkward one about just how democratic the new democracy within the Labour Party really is. Benn’s absolute certainty on this point resembles Paul Foot’s absolute certainty about everything and will result, I suspect, in a similar reluctance on the part of many averagely intelligent people to back up their admiration with a vote.

Billed as ‘a Victorian comedy,’ Landseer (BBC1) took a superior line about the supposed frailties of its eponymous hero. Tableaux vivants and other elements of Victoriana were employed in order to bring out the old boy’s unhealthy affinity with dumb animals, especially dogs. As a sworn dog-loather and lifelong enemy of anthropomorphic whimsy in all its forms, I would normally have been ready to go along with the programme’s thesis, but in the event there was an air of arch self-satisfaction that left me resolved to look at Landseer with fresh attention: anyone who can attract that much condescension has probably got something to him.

Live from Monaco, Grand Prix (BBC2) was a thriller, especially after Alan Jones got into trouble. When Murray Walker shouted that it was ‘all over bar the shouting’ you knew Jones’s long lead was due to melt away. Jones’s car caught hiccups and Murray did his nut. ‘I am going mad with excitement!’ he told us — a necessary item of information, since even in moments of tranquillity he sounds like a man whose trousers are on fire. James Hunt tried to inject a note of sanity. ‘Alan’s car,’ he ventured, ‘is doing something funny.’ But Murray was beyond help. ‘For once in my life I am at a loss for words!’ he wailed, obviously never having realised that the reason why he continually screams like a bat out of hell is that he is always at a loss for words.

The Observer, 7th June 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]