Essays: English as she is sung |
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English as she is sung

‘EACH school will have to raise the cost of their computer,’ announced Sarah Cullen on News at Ten (ITN). Each channel will have to clean up their grammar: this are getting ridiculous.

By now not even the editorial writers at The Times can tell the difference between ‘credence’ and ‘credibility.’ They just bung down the one that sounds posh. The English language will probably survive somehow. Its corruptibility has always been one of its main strengths. Almost everyone in the world feels about English the way Dr Johnson felt about Greek — that you should have as much of it as you can get. On the other hand scarcely anybody feels the same way about Norwegian. These twin facts should be taken into consideration when viewing the Eurovision Song Contest (BBC1), in which an English-speaking song, even if sung by Sweden, often wins, whereas Norway, gamely sticking to its own lingo, invariably finishes last.

This year’s contest, staged last weekend in Dublin, ran true to type. Britain won and Norway got no votes at all. Count them: none. To the objective viewer it was hard to tell why Norway should be singled out for opprobrium, since most of the other songs, including the winner, seemed not notably less unexciting than their entry. (I use the plural pronoun ‘their’ in connection with the singular noun ‘Norway’ because in this context the singular noun has a plural sense, so put down your pen, Sarah.) Terry Wogan showed signs of scepticism, especially when reading aloud from the press-kits of the more obscure performers. ‘A born artist,’ the man from Spain was billed as, ‘who swells when faced with a difficult task.’

Finland’s was a typical entry. Sung by Riki Sorsa, or it could have been Saucer, it was called something like ‘Bef norka wumple gorst Reggae OK’ and had the same connection with reggae as a dead budgerigar has with a live eagle. If you had leaned two corpses together the resulting dance would have reflected the rhythm exactly. Backed by a red-hot band featuring an accordion, Riki looked like a contemporary of Bertrand Russell and was clad in a pink sloppy joe plus patchwork pants. One got the sense that the only boutique in Finland had been in on the sponsoring. ‘You can’t say you aren’t getting a variety of costume here,’ said Terry vaguely.

The only other international language apart from English is French. I think it was Switzerland who featured a Frenchman singing a dreary little something called ‘C’est peut-être pas l’Amérique,’ which sounded like the complaint of someone who had arrived at the wrong airport. In the pre-song filmette he wore a bomber jacket avec dark glasses and carried on like Yves Montand’s older brother in order to indicate weather-beaten creativity. For the song itself he donned a white tuxedo. His name was Jean-Claude Pascal if it was not Claude-Jean Pascal or Pascal-Jean Claude: it is perhaps not important.

And so they droned on. Buck’s Fizz from Britain did a hotted-up hokey-cokey which ought to have been no more impressive than the sound emitted by Ireland’s Sheba, except that the three Sheba girls retained their upswept-collar Blake’s Seven silver glitter frocks until the end of the song, whereas the two girls in the Buck’s Fizz line-up were divested of their skirts by the two boys at the point where interest might otherwise have flagged, or at any rate where lack of interest might have turned to torpor.

Then came the scoring, featuring the usual nonsense from the scoreboard (‘It gets very hairy,’ intoned Terry, ‘at the old electronic scoreboard’), the inevitable communications breakdown with Yugoslavia (‘I am calling Dublin. Do you hear me? Are you there? Here are the results. Dublin, do you hear?’), and the routine embarrassment for poor doomed Norway, whose song ‘Aldri I Livit’ really hadn’t been all that terrible, especially if you translated it into a language that you, Sarah Cullen and the editorial writer of the Times could understand. ‘Never in my life, my friend. Not until I join with the wind.’

Two other events occurring on the same day and the same channel were the Boat Race and the Grand National, but there is no need to spend much time on them, since the result was perfectly predictable in each case: the Boat Race was won by Oxford and the Grand National was won by a horse. You could tell from Harry Carpenter’s voice that Cambridge were dead ducks before their shell was even in the water. ‘Having safely got the boat afloat, back to get the blades. And they really have got a monumental task ahead of them.’ Cambridge had the monumental task and Oxford had the monumental crew. The only occupant of the Oxford boat smaller than a house was the coxette. ‘Sue Brown, twenty-two years old,’ enthused our Harry, ‘who really has stirred up a lot of interest.’

Weighing about as much as the stroke’s left thigh, Sue sat looking at her enormous colleagues while her enormous colleagues sat looking at Cambridge, rapidly disappearing astern. Meanwhile the Cambridge cox, Chris Wigglesworth, sat looking at Oxford and the Cambridge crew sat looking at nothing. ‘Cambridge not looking very happy,’ intoned Harry. ‘Not covering the water,’ said an expert called Penny, who gave a good commentary rich in technical terms such as ‘fast water’ and ‘actual flow.’

This helped distract your attention from the actual flow of Harry, who tended to rave on about Sue Brown. ‘The young lady having no problems at all with this powerful crew in front of her.’ Clearly she had aroused his protective instinct, but really there was no call for him to worry. As long as the boys were rowing flat out their hands were fully occupied — which is more than you could say for a man in one of the stake-boats, who had spent an unconscionable time helping Sue get set. ‘I think you can see there the rhythm,’ Penny explained, ‘the feel of the length, which Oxford have got.’

‘Cambridge did their best,’ gritted Harry, adding weirdly, ‘they won the toss, which was no mean achievement.’ Back at the Grand National, David had the feel of the length. Attired in his usual ghastly hat, he gave an admirably detailed run-down on the field as a helicopter went over the jumps at nought feet, thereby making you wonder why any horse should agree to race at all. Film and videotape from past Grand Nationals showed horses nose-diving over Becher’s and jockeys turning mid-air somersaults at Valentine’s. The actual event fully lived up to its heritage. To the long lens the course looked like a terrace of rice-paddies in which a battle staged by Kurosawa was taking place, with riderless horses plunging sideways and jockeys falling on their heads among thundering hooves.

Cupid’s Darts (Yorkshire), a play by David Nobbs about an ageing philosopher’s love affair with a darts groupie, was well enough written to help you solve the mystery of why the theatre is always in the doldrums — it’s because all the best ideas go to television. Robin Bailey was the philosopher and Leslie Ash was the groupie, unfortunately called Ros Bedwell, which gave you yet another reason for suspecting that the author had been influenced by Stoppard. The time will come when authors are influenced by Nobbs. In Omnibus (BBC1) the Royal Court Theatre was celebrated. Gladly one joins in the congratulations, but suspects that those in charge might not be fully aware of how serious a challenge is posed by Nobbs.

The Observer, 12th April 1981
[ A shorter version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]