Essays: O'er col and cwm |
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O’er col and cwm

ALMOST everyone in the Land of the Media got an award last week. The Fifty-First Hollywood Academy Awards (ITV) was a ceremony exactly answering its host Johnny Carson’s description of it — i.e., ‘two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over a four-hour show.’

Carson rose above the occasion like Gulliver in Lilliput. Alone among those present, he had a sense of humour and consequently a sense of proportion. Everybody else was swept away by the American inability to think small. So was the set. Not even Carson was immune from being attacked by the orchestra, whose various sections were seated in separate shells that moved around like dodgems. The nominated songs were what finally led me to tune out, unable to stand any more.

The British Rock and Pop Awards (BBC1) was an altogether less grand occasion. So inconsequential that it wasn’t even offensive, it had the lasting importance of someone breaking wind in the middle of a hurricane. The ‘Nationwide’ team claimed responsibility, along with Radio 1 and the Daily Mirror. Apparently the viewers, listeners and readers of these three media outlets had all scribbled in to vote for their favourite artists and albums. The venue was the Café Royal, once the haunt of Oscar Wilde and other fin de siècle wits, but now resounding to the shafts and sallies of Bob Wellings and Kid Jensen.

Bob is a ‘Nationwide’ standby. Square as a brick. Kid is some sort of disc jockey. He has a face to match his name. Like many people in the pop world he has apparently not considered the likelihood that a time will come when the personality he has adopted will no longer be matched by his appearance, but for the moment there he is — a typical British DJ, right down to the American accent. Bob welcomed us to ‘a moment for which we’ve all waited ... Britain’s biggest ever national pop music popularity poll.’

It was a typical music business occasion. The speakers were tongue-tied and the audience was drunk. The stars made it clear that they were doing the event a huge favour by turning up at all. The representative of the Electric Light Orchestra, which won the Best Album award, was unique in having bothered to prepare a speech of acceptance. ‘That’s right, yeah. It’s fantastic, this. We can’t believe it. It’s wonderful. Yeah.’

Bob and Kid hailed the Bee Gees as a British triumph. One of the Bee Gees lolled into view. Then Kid gave the game away. ‘Is there any chance of a tour of Britain in the near future?’ It transpired that the Bee Gees were in America most of the time. Still, one Bee Gee had turned up. Kate Bush had turned up too. Receiving her award, she congratulated herself for being in attendance. ‘It was well worth it, reely.’

Everest Unmasked (HTV) started with a question. As the mountain loomed in vision, an awe-fraught voice-over asked: ‘Is it possible to climb Everest and stand on its summit without using oxygen? Even more important, is it possible to return without brain damage?’ The italics are mine. What he should have said, of course, was ‘even less important.’ No importance of any kind can nowadays be attached to the increasingly routine business of climbing Everest. Mad Japanese poets have gone up it on skis. The West Helsinki chapter of Mensa have been up it on pogo-sticks. The San Diego skateboard expedition is even now nearing the summit. Régine has plans to open a club up there. There is something to be said for man testing himself against the unknown. Where boredom sets in is when man tests himself against the known.

Star of the new expedition was a German called Reinhold Messner. Insulated against the cold by plastic boots, silk knickers, eiderdown-lined jump suit, three pairs of gloves, two hats and a beard, Reinhold positioned himself against the pitiless Himalayan skyline and explained why the challenge he was about to face was of crucial significance for the history of the human race. ‘It is inneresting to try zis climb whizzout oxychen ... what is important to explore is myself.’ Reinhold forgot to add that exploring Reinhold’s self was important mainly to Reinhold. For the rest of us, exploring Reinhold’s self was bound to rank fairly low on any conceivable scale of priorities.

Up they strove o’er col and cwm. ‘This is what separates the men from the boys,’ warned the voice-over. Playing strange instruments, monks in lonely monasteries placated the gods. Hoo-woo. Bong. Sherpas loyally fell into crevasses. One of them was crushed to death 150 feet under an ice-fall. Another had to be brought down on a stretcher and sewn back together. Obviously the sheer volume of tourist traffic is tempting the previously sure-footed Sherpas to work hazardously long hours, despite the guide-lines laid down by their union, NUTCASE — the Nepalese Union of Trained Climbers Assisting Suicidal Expeditions.

Reinhold made it to the top. But the peril was not over. There was still the danger of brain damage — or, in Reinhold’s case, further brain damage. The chances were that this would first manifest itself in the form of burst blood-vessels in the eyeball, loss of memory, impaired speech functions and the sudden, irrational urge to participate in stupid television programmes. Most of these symptoms duly appeared. Nevertheless Reinhold’s achievement could not be gainsaid. He and his friends had proved that it is not enough to risk your neck. It is in the nature of man to risk his brains as well. Fighting his way upwards through drifts of empty beer cans and Kentucky Fried Chicken cartons, Reinhold had added his name to the select few thousand who have conquered the Lonely Mountain.

The Wings of the Dove (BBC1), a play adapted from the novel by Henry James, clashed with Wings Over the World (BBC2), a documentary starring Paul McCartney. Saving Henry for later, I started with Paul, but apart from the songs there was not a lot in the programme. Touring Australia, the Beatle emeritus found himself faced with typical representatives of the antipodean Press. ‘Don’t you think you’re a bit old for rock and roll?’ asked one of these, his face twisted with hatred and envy. Paul invited him to come and see the show, instead of inviting him to go and jump in the lake.

To the hurrying eye, the people in Henry James’s novels, below their calm exteriors, have calm interiors. But in fact there is a great deal bubbling under. As adapted by the late Denis Constanduros, ‘The Wings of the Dove’ was a lava-pit of gurgling implication. The production was uniformly well cast, but Elizabeth Spriggs was especially good as Maud Lowder. Able to play everything from the strident earth-mother in ‘Leeds United’ to the Jamesian grande dame, Miss Spriggs is, in her undemonstrative way, a continual astonishment.

Featuring ancient Roman galley slaves who suffer from exhaustion after taking Caesar waterski-ing and have to he revived with lager, the new Heineken commercial is outrageous but funny. Sir Robert Mark’s commercial for a tyre company is just outrageous. Apparently he is giving the money away to charity. Unfortunately he is in danger of giving his reputation away too. No matter how good the product, a man renowned for impartiality can’t promote it without seeming partial. Perhaps, like many honest people, Sir Robert is a bit innocent.

The Observer, 15th April 1979

[ An incomplete version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]