Essays: Exaltation on ice |
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Exaltation on ice

CAPTAIN’S log, star date 1973–34. As expected, the week’s exaltation quota was fulfilled by the ladies’ final of the World Figure Skating Championships, which appeared as scheduled on BBC-1 and cropped up a day early as a special on ITV as well. The venue was Bratislava, where they go in for advertising as a way of life.

From left to right around the rim of the rink, the plugs ran from Barum, Marlboro, Kaufhof Kaufhof and FLORIDA BOY to Raventa, PIZ BUIN, Afri-Cola and some irrepressible product called ei, ei, ei VERPOORTEN. Other standard hazards were (a) the crowd’s teutonic tendency to clap rhythmically whenever something occurred in 4/4 time — an accolade which would have been accorded with equal automatism if somebody had raced onto the ice and started beating a cake-mix or mugging a judge — and (b) the British hopeful’s all-too-recognisable addiction, at the beginning of her programme, to that burst of angular semaphore which over the years we have learned to translate as ‘At some time in the next five minutes I am going to make a catastrophic mistake.’

The vibes were bad all round. In the compulsories Janet Lynn had mucked up her double jumps and left Karen Magnussen too far ahead to catch. With the competitive element eliminated, however, the spirit of art was free to flourish, and Magnussen turned in an absolute face-freezer — a display of dramatic power that ran like cold fury on silver rails, propelled by one continuous friction-free impulse from her eloquently stacked centre-section.

Magnussen is not, like Lynn, a lyrical skater: since Peggy Fleming hung up her blades, Lynn has been the only competitor who has even remotely looked like extending the state of the art along the same lines. Lynn’s joy-spring takes place on the edge of cuteness, because cuteness is the name of the territory which lies beyond the point where Fleming quit. Fleming’s rigorously critical creativity exhausted the possibilities of classic lyricism, leaving decadence as the only feasible technical advance: there can never be a more beautiful arabesque than Fleming’s, only a prettier one. Along dramatic lines, however, the options are open for as long as technical dynamism can be unified by imagination — and it’s along these lines that Magnussen is currently heading for immortality, like an angel riding an express elevator.

Fibrillation sets in at the thought of these tapes being wiped. And one wonders whatever happened to the tapes of Fleming’s last competitive programme. and her demonstration programme (skated, impossibly, to ‘Ave Maria’) for the ice galas: were there any, and where are they now?

Back to warm dry land with a dull thud: The Frost Programme featured William Shockley, who wants to pay people with low IQs — among whom black people apparently figure largely — to have themselves sterilised. Presumably the chances of ushering in a Platonic republic would be increased thereby. Trying to prove that intelligence is hereditary, Shockley kept holding up a set of scattergrams. Trying to prove the opposite, rival experts attempted in vain to shake his faith in them. it took a cleric named Father Pius to put an experienced finger on the central fallacy : whatever the factors determining intelligence, intelligence and goodness are not the same.

Frost might have said, at this point, that while there was certainly no shortage of stupid people ready to carry out Hitler’s orders, there was no shortage of clever ones either. Frost might earlier have said, in fairness, that Shockley’s ideas have a longer and stronger pedigree than anybody present was allowing for, having been held in all conviction by men of the calibre of Oliver Wendell Holmes. There was no end to what Frost might have said, but there was no time. There never is. Too many people are too busy trying to get their word in edgeways. Luckily, Shockley managed to prove by his own existence that his political vision is hopelessly truncated: it’s obvious that he is of above-average intelligence, and equally obvious that he is one of the silliest men in the world. Now Frost has made him famous, and people who wouldn’t know a scattergram from a gramophone will be discussing the profundities of race science over the back fence. Thanks a lot.

The inexpungible intellectual inferiority of blacks was further demonstrated by Duke Ellington on Parkinson (BBC-1): when insulted beyond endurance by an inadequately prepared interviewer, they cravenly feign politeness instead of drawing a gun. Ellington is a superb raconteur with a pronounced literary gift: witness the prose evocation he once made of the atmosphere which is musically captured forever in ‘Harlem Airshaft.’ Parkinson struggled successfully to keep all this bottled up, and it was only at the end, when Duke did a fast head-arrangement with the Harry Stoneham Five, that you saw — in the musicians’ exalted faces — the recognition of genius.

Usually I find Parky’s suicidal interviewing habits fascinating (there’s a new one now, in which he keeps saying ‘I was reading in research for this programme earlier on...’) but when the man in the other chair is one of the dozen or so really important modern musical fountainheads, it gets to be a bit much. Better Russell Harty and Nureyev any day. Well, any month.

I’m very much afraid that the host with the most is William F. Buckley, whose Firing Line (BBC-1) was this time concerned with Lord O’Neill and the Irish question. Buckley holds views which I not only disagree with but would probably take up arms against if it came to the crunch. He possesses, however, intellectual stature, and I recommend his programme highly.

The shot of the week was in the programme of the week — Sir John Betjeman missing the golf-ball in Metro-land (BBC-2). Produced by Edward Mirzoeff, this show was an instant classic: don’t worry if you missed it, they’ll be repeating it until the millennium. As is normal with Sir John, the needle on the loveability scale went right off the dial. As is rare, the woolly-bear observations were compressed into a packed narrative. I won’t try to sum it up.

Omnibus (BBC-1) was back to form with a paralysingly dreary homage to the Grierson school of documentary. Apart from the stuff that anaesthetised the sensibilities, the factor that really immobilised the pulse about this programme was the contention that Griersonesque documentary was ‘arguably’ the only original British contribution to the cinema. Look boys, there’s no argument. The original contribution to the British cinema was made by Michael Balcon, and its name was Ealing comedy. A distant product of the Grierson school was the Tuesday documentary The Saboteurs of Telemark (BBC-1), which even kept cutting back to a nozzle ominously dripping the heavy water the Germans were supposed to be using to develop an atomic bomb — a vestige of the rhythmic editing which was the Grierson circle’s main contribution to the history of tedium.

On World in Action (Granada) they were showing how progress was screwing Paris, while at that same hour on Panorama (BBC-1) the superb Olaf Lambert of the AA was proving conclusively that the private car makes no significant contribution to London’s traffic problem. Take us out of our orbit, Mr Sulu. Ahead warp factor one.

The Observer, 4th March 1973