Essays: Drama of JFK's finest hour |
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Drama of JFK’s finest hour

BAD Sight of the Week was on Opportunity Knocks (Thames): an adagio team called Adam and Eve who did their number in G-strings, boots and silver antlers. ‘Some lovely dancing,’ droned the unspeakable Hughie.

In contrast, there was quite a lot of good television around, including a work of real stature — The Missiles of October, made by ABC-TV in Hollywood and screened here by BBC1. It told the story of the Cuban missile crisis and for a dramamentary had extraordinary quantities of both dramatic and documentary interest. (Usually each mode suffers in the synthesis.) The sets dripped with boom-shadow and never once did the camera pan without fluttering, but the technical faults mattered little, so densely terse was the script and dedicated the acting. Without being ringers for their originals, the actors resembled them sufficiently to suspend a tolerant disbelief, and they handled the script with that racy, laconic eloquence which in America is the demotic obverse of mandarin waffle. The whole thing raced along like an exchange of dialogue in ‘The Front Page.’ The two and a half hours plus of transmission time simply flew.

Kennedy was played by William Devane, an accomplished mimic who can act in depth below the dazzle of his copy-cat vocal technique. Subtly he showed how the build-up in pressure over the crucial fortnight hurt Kennedy in his bad back and behind the eyes. Though Khrushchev (the excellent Howard Da Silva) was given a fair chance to speak, the sympathy was mainly directed toward Kennedy. As one who has always found the Presidential office equally frightening when it is filled imaginatively as when it isn’t, I have never believed in Kennedy’s myth and in particular am convinced that his foreign policy was potentially — and in the case of Vietnam actually — catastrophic. But there is no denying that he handled the Cuba crisis in a masterly fashion, given his assumptions.

What this programme showed was the force of character, the quickness of mind and the ability to lead which that mastery involved. It was a knuckle-biter to watch him weighing advice when most of the advice he was getting was bad. The Joint Chiefs loomed, the rookie knights of Camelot buzzed and scurried, Bobby wheeled and dealed, and JFK lived his finest hour. He had a lot of class, which was partly the trouble. Walter Benjamin once said that all aesthetic politics lead to one end — war. Kennedy was too aesthetic to be a great President. Ideally he belonged to art, a fact which this exceptional programme brilliantly caught. ‘The Missiles of October’ was rather under-publicised, and ought in fairness to be repeated at an early date. Besides, I’d like to watch it again.

Dr Watson and the Darkwater Hall Mystery (BBC1) was an entertaining spoof by Kingsley Amis, about whose recent episode of ‘Softly, Softly’ I found it hard to he enthusiastic. This time Amis was obviously enjoying himself — the necessary prelude, with him, to concentration. The show was full of learned minutiae to delight the Sherlock Holmes addict, but for healthy people there was still plenty of amusement. Watson, it turned out, was a stick-man of no mean prowess. The pretty maid at the house he was visiting fell into his bed on the first night.

Played by Edward Fox with a comic touch I never suspected he possessed, Watson conversed in a self-confident bellow and solved the crime by picking on the most likely suspect and walking steadily towards him until he surrendered. Holmes was not missed. Dogs howled at night, but meant nothing. The noble young householders appeared to be dressing up for sex, but it turned out they were rehearsing a play. Mysteries abounded, then evaporated. A madman lurched through the shrubbery, his countenance hideous, his relevance nonexistent.

David Attenborough fronted a wildlife special called Spectacular Britain (BBC1). A shot of the DA ankle-deep in a sewage farm echoed his famous immersion in the bat-poo of Borneo, but otherwise the approach was decorous, as befits these non-toxic islands — which, he assured us, handle their duties of conservation with a competence we can all be proud of. This was nice to hear, and the fauna was nice to watch. Seals cavorted, gannets dived, badgers congregated in the dark and birds rose in millions over the mud-flats.

In Bangladesh things are distinctly less enticing. Pilger (ATV) presented a forceful analysis of that sad country’s agony. He prefaced his report with a bitterly effective harangue which dared you to stop watching. You were then shown what your baby daughter would look like if she had just finished starving to death. There were bodies stacked like kindling and graveyards where the last lot of dead were being dug up to make room for the next lot — the second shift coming on. Pilger strove nobly to bring home the impact undiminished. His scorn for Kissinger and the World Food Conference was surely not misplaced. As often happens, the detail that chilled the blood was verbal, not visual. The American tents supplied to Bangladesh apparently bear the stencilled message: ‘Important, campers: don’t forget to have fun.’

Robinson Crusoe (BBC1) was played by Stanley Baker, who has something of the character’s improvisatory flair in his own personality, and was thus very much at home in the role. Nimmo in Australia (BBC1) has been surprisingly good: an episode on shearers managed to track down an authentic outback wit, a species which foreign film-makers usually seek in vain. S’Wonderful (BBC2) was an American programme on George Gershwin which featured some impeccable singing by Fred Astaire. The Sweeney (Thames) is a new series about the Flying Squad, so toughly intended that all the actors we have got used to seeing as villains are cast as coppers. Boring and unsettling at the same time.

The Observer, 5th January 1975