Essays: Through dune and wadi |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Through dune and wadi

‘TONIGHT,’ said the commercial, ‘we’d like to reassure you about the future of coal in this country.’

Since the combined costs of making the commercial and putting it on the screen would have by themselves gone some way towards supplying the miners’ demands, the reassurance wasn’t all that reassuring, and merely added to the air of unreality the tube has for weeks been busily projecting.

The voice-over sounded as if it might be Patrick Allen, of ‘Brett’ fame — associations there, you see, of entrepreneurial dynamism, and the no-nonsense manliness of such other Allen accounts as Castrol and Wilkinson Sword. He also does Harrods’, whose warmth of tone the Coal Board are obviously eager to share.

It’s all in how you sell it, especially when a dream is all you’ve got to sell. Undaunted by the crisis and plainly not to be abashed by anything short of the Last Judgment, the ad-men were still at it full blast, speeding us the good news about such vital resources as Kleenex Boutique (coffee ’n’ gold soft petals that fold) and Cadbury’s Amazin’ (it’s Amazin’ what raisins can do). Meanwhile, back on BBC1, public service broadcasting was sedulously providing, in the form of a programme called Holiday 74, a vision of the consumer society’s dreams fully as micro-minded as any mad ad ITV could ever offer.

‘Holiday 74’ begins with half a dozen pairs of knockers swaying, rolling or running at you through varying intensities of exotic sunlight. The emphasis on the untrammelled mammary is kept up throughout, handily symbolising the show’s basic assumption that sex is something which happens on holiday. If the soundtrack, speculating on how computer-chosen holiday companions might get on with each other, uses a word like ‘compatible,’ the camera provides a visual reference by panning away abruptly to capture a sun-crazed Aphrodite from Frinton burgeoning wetly from the Aegean, while simultaneously zooming in to snatch a close-up of her flailing cakes.

Cliff Michelmore, as you might expect, flaunts a grin naughty enough to suit the mood, and adds to the air of spontaneity by reading the autocue as if he had never seen a line of it in his life before. His companion, John Carter, on the other hand, starts off looking very sleepy, perhaps desensitised by a clairvoyance of the trivia to come. ‘We spend a small fortune in fizzy drinks,’ confides a holiday-maker bouncing through Morocco on a bus. The bus is called a Sundecker, to rhyme with the outfit laying the trip on, who call themselves Suntrekker. Apart from the heat — one of the arcania, such as begging, that the alert vacationer must expect to run into in Marrakesh — we could be assured that the Suntrekker Sundecker was the only way to travel. On through dune and wadi it roared, stopping in villages for fizzy drinks: an earth-shrinker.

Somewhere else — it could have been Elba or Corfu, although it sounded like Finch’s in Portobello Road — a classier party yielded to the probings of John Pitman, one of those Braden alumni who must sorely miss the days when they dedicated themselves to protecting old ladies from pyramid knitting-machine salesmen and faulty refrigerators. Here there was nothing to report on except the hot-fingered frolicking and breathless giggles resulting from a situation constantly referred to as The High Proportion of Men. Someone called Jeremy, billed as a dermatologist, was coaxed forward with small effort to explain that ‘you need some extroverts in a party to get it going.’ Jeremy, we were told, was ‘something of a star turn.’ ‘It’s rumoured that some of the girls are chasing you,’ murmured Pitman. palpably suppressing the urge to suggest a few things they might usefully chase him with — a flamethrower, for example, or a Dobermann Pinscher. We heard from Margot, a sprightly odalisque with a voice like an air-drill. ‘I think the biggis danger is that pipple might not git awn withy chuther.’ But if any of this lot were lonely, it didn’t show. With such a High Proportion of Men it would be an unlucky girl who didn’t contrive to get off with an Extrovert, perhaps even a Star Turn.

Done with Elba, or it could have been Corfu, we were off to Corfu, or it could have been Elba. Here Esther Rantzen, another Braden alumna, was doing the delving, and managed to be a notch less anodyne than her colleagues. ‘I’m here to prove to myself,’ said one of her holiday-makers, ‘that I can get on with other people.’ Basically, he said, he was a very shy person. Basically that myself, I welcomed his humane uncertainty with relief.

Is What’s It All About? (BBC2) a cause of civilisation’s collapse, or merely an effect? That’s the kind of question the quiz-mistress, Joan Bakewell, is not allowed to ask. Instead, she must put recondite queries about the composition of the Pentateuch to Jimmy Savile, attired for the occasion in a sleeveless safari suit with sequinned piping and a pair of V-TOL platforms with horseshoe heels. That the God-slot should so consistently be filled with this kind of dumb garbage is, as they say in the Marxist tracts, no coincidence, and it would be very nice if the whole nutty charade could be wound up, thereby releasing some precious telly-time for worthier programmes like Confrontation at Clay Cross (Yorkshire).

Here Austin Mitchell, a front-man of admirable brain and pen, ably conducted an investigation of the Clay Cross councillors’ law-breaking determination to keep rents down and school milk free. Feelings ran high: rate-payers understandably resent having to subsidise the council’s tenants, a grievance that the councillors will not be able to remove unless they succeed in banishing private property from the world. Less quixotic than their stand on rents, their determination to go on providing free school milk seems to me a clear case of breaking a law for the sake of a higher principle. In a more profound sense than the ad-men realise, symbolism counts, and to withdraw that particular right was the first, and remains the most vivid, symbol of this Government’s contempt for the common people. It won’t be law-breaking, though, that undoes the damage.

Cilla (BBC1) was involved in a cretinous routine about Women’s Lib, featuring rhymes about women’s demand for status, so that they wouldn’t have to spend their lives peeling potatus. But her guest, Twiggy. was delightful. Colditz (BBC1) is back, with a new heavy, Major Horst Mohn (Anthony Valentine). On Z-Cars (BBC1) Bert Lynch has suddenly acquired grey sideburns. News at Ten (ITN) had a piece about the deep-sea fish we’ll soon have to get used to eating. There they were, with drooping tendrils and popping eyes: the ichthy-freak and the weirdocanth, reassuring us about the future of protein.

The Observer, 13th January, 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]