Essays: Donny, Spike and all that |
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Donny, Spike and all that

IN A WEEK of forceful and sometimes devastating images, one picture struck home with the radiant power of an epiphany: Donny Osmond singing the old Tab Hunter hit, ‘Young Love,’ on Top of the Pops (BBC1). ‘Young lerv, first lerv,’ he carolled (and you needed flash-cream to ward off the dazzle of his hyper-immaculate dentition) ‘feeled with deep devoshern’ (which, you realise with a twinge of dread, is made up not out of 32 separate teeth, but out of two highly polished ivory ridges), ‘Young lerv, our lerv,’ (and consequently need not be subject to decay, although they probably feed him intravenously just to make sure) ‘we share with deep emoshern.’ The last time I spoke ill of the Osmonds in this column, a group of psychopathic weenies threatened horrors I forbear to name, except to say that it would have been a fate almost as terrible as watching BBC1 on Friday night from ‘Top of the Pops,’ straight through ‘Star Trek’ and on to ‘It’s a Knockout’ — two hours 35 minutes of unadulterated masochism.

Hidden away on BBC2, Milligan in Summer took another of his quarterly excursions beyond the frontiers of comic knowledge. ‘I want you to pass a specimen into that bottle over there.’ ‘What, from here?’ When Spike’s on focus, there are no other runners. Bird and Wells, however, bravely submitted for consideration an elaborate concoction called The Play’s The Thing (Yorkshire), in which they impersonated between them every character involved in putting on a television drama. The title (it used to belong to a very funny play by Molnár) was the only derivative thing about this effort, which kept this viewer enchanted with its trickery.

Wells adapted his Patrick Garland routine to the task of incarnating the director Myles B. Hinde, and Bird was uniformly accurate as the author Sean Lamb, the actor Gilbert Casaubon and the extremely shifty Peter de Wolfe, who as Head of Drama couldn’t remember the word for ‘studio.’ The verbal (‘Could you help us by cheating your body on to the set?’) and visual (the vision mixer endlessly knitting) accuracy satisfied the media-freak’s requirements at all points. This was television for the adept, and thereby ran the risk of losing itself in its own technique: but the danger was avoided.

Not so with the second and third episodes of the BBC2 mini-series ‘Black and Blue.’ Snappily called The Middle-of-the-road Roadshow for All the Family, the second play was written by Philip Mackie and thoroughly reinforced the view that all comedies with long titles lack humour. The third play, Hugh Leonard’s High Kampf, exploited as much hilarity as exists in the idea of lovable Irish rogues setting off bombs — i.e., absolutely none.

Yesterday’s Witness (BBC2) was about the Spanish Civil War. As in the previous week’s show about the Shell House raid, the imagery was grade A — the footage of the snowy battlefield at Teruel in the winter of 1937 was as fresh as paint. But with all due respect to the witnesses, who had fought and suffered in these battles years before this viewer was even born, the verbal content of the programme sorely needed some kind of objective assessment. It was eerie to hear one of the old Communists declaring that the war, though lost, had been useful as a rehearsal for the Red Army’s smashing of Hitler. The only thing Stalin rehearsed in Spain was his betrayal of the Warsaw uprising. What could be better established than Russia’s pitiless hostility to the independent Left in Spain? Yet from all these witnesses, not a mention. Weird.

Tom Mangold on Midweek (BBC1) fronted three programmes on drugs. The first dealt with the United States, the second with Britain, the third with telephone calls from viewers: a descending order of fascination. In the first programme Mangold ably traced the process by which heroin increases in value 70,000 per cent between the poppy and the street — although we were left to draw on our own the conclusion that the traffic can consequently never be stamped out, since scarcity will always hike the profits to the point where somebody will run the risk. There was a candid-camera insert showing a dealer being busted by narcs. Fuzz against junk!

When the scene shifted to Britain, things cooled down: legalised addiction leaves no room for the mob to move in. The trilogy fizzled out among phone calls. One lady was deadly afraid that her son would come out of Borstal and go straight back on the needle. Don’t go to the police, said an expert. Come to us, said a policeman. We hope that answers your question, said Mangold. But the programmes weren’t entirely without value. At least they left pot with a fairly clean bill of health, an emphasis that needs to go on being placed. If you tell people lies about soft drugs, they’ll think you’re lying about hard ones — that’s still the rule to remember.

Tony Palmer’s film about The World of Liberace (BBC1) sensationally plumbed the nacreous depths of kitsch. ‘This is the outdoor garden,’ the cut-glass hero explained: it turned out that he could heat the atmosphere by means of conditioning units hidden in the trees. Everything was piano-shaped except his mother. The idea of the film was that you should end up liking his outrageousness, but I found that despite steady howls of amusement the questionably toothsome whiff of condemned chocolates was slow to quit the nostrils.

There was more of the same at The Edinburgh Military Tattoo (BBC1), where the hit act Was the Queen’s Guard from Rutgers University — a close-order drill outfit who carry 1903 Springfields with fixed bayonets and perform manoeuvres of mind-bending complication, precision, danger and insanity. Waiting dry-mouthed for one of them to make a mistake and get skewered, you were reminded of Einstein’s dictum that any man who actually enjoys marching has been given his brain for nothing: the spinal column would have been more than sufficient. It was a relief when the Rutgers boys marched off and the pipe band of Scots College, Sydney, marched on — providing, with their kilts and sporrans, that touch of novelty an Edinburgh tattoo needs.

Miss Great Britain (Yorkshire) was once again chosen at beautiful Morecambe, where once again the rain slashed down like chilled pee. This time, though, the girls were ready. Umbrellas. The Most Magnificent and Expensive Diversion (BBC2) was all that and more. Raymond Leppard showed how a Cavalli opera could be reconstructed from its vocal and bass lines. Meanwhile, the carpenters were at work re-constructing the appropriate theatre — a Venetian magic box with cut-out Pythonesque clouds. The finished opera was then performed by Kenneth Bowen, Richard Angas and Anne Howells. A perfect programme.

Bank-holiday gremlins ensured that everything I had crossed out in last week’s column got reinstated. The result, among other infelicities, was an incomprehensible gag about Anna Quayle’s glasses. The pixie responsible has been asked to turn in his wand. Meanwhile, I take the blame.

The Observer, 2nd September 1973