Essays: India to Hillhead |
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India to Hillhead

TERRY WOGAN, currently hosting the best radio show on the air, hosted the worst television show just to stay in practice. A Song For Europe 1982 (BBC1) plumbed new troughs.

Most ghastly development is the tendency for every other singing group to field a sub-Hot Gossip group of leather fetishist dancers. The song ‘Dancing in Heaven’, featuring a lot of space talk about radar and countdowns, was delivered by a squad of people in American uniforms and pressure-suits who gyrated to what they hopefully described as orbital be-bop. In all songs there were frequent mentions of U and R, as in ‘U and R have just begun.’ U might have been able to put up with this, but R couldn’t stand it.

A series deservedly honoured, Arena (BBC1) profiled author Salman Rushdie with a subtle thoroughness which incidentally told you a lot about his strange homeland. ‘You literally aren’t alone, ever,’ was his most telling comment. Trains are a very big deal in India. During one train journey Rushdie looked out of the window and counted the amounts of time between people. Even in the most desolate stretches of countryside there was never more than a 15-second interval. Here was the governing factor of subcontinental politics laid bare.

If you subjugate India to the extent that the Indian ruling class will want to educate its young in your public schools, eventually you will get the occasional Salman Rushdie ready to take on the job of explaining his own country to you in terms you will understand. But who will do the same job for Britain? It is a country far weirder than India. From the window of a British Rail Intercity train the gap is often more than 15 seconds between people, especially if the train is stuck a mile outside Macclesfield ‘owing to the engineering’. But in every other respect Britain is a teeming, jostling daydream of sacred cows, holy men, thugs, curry-merchants and people who will write letters for you in return for money. How, for example, do you begin to explain the mere existence of someone like Tony Benn?

In India the Tony Benns sit semi-naked under gnarled trees and pull greased cords through their nostrils while inhaling water through the penis. But in Britain they are prominent in what was, until last Friday, the leading political party of the opposition. Newsnight (BBC2) was already predicting victory for Roy Jenkins just after 11 p.m., basing its estimate on a poll taken of voters leaving the booth — the only kind of poll, experience suggests, on which you can even begin to rely. Vincent Hanna was ‘Newsnight’s’ man on the spot in Hillhead, with John Tusa anchoring in the studio. In charge of discussions: Sir Robin Day. Biffen, Hattersley and Shirley Williams represented the big three. ‘If Roy Jenkins does win,’ asked Robin, ‘is the mould of British politics really broken?’

‘No,’ said Hatters, adding that even if the SDP did win it would in fact be a disappointment for them, because they would have won by much more had they not been morally defeated by a ‘much underrated candidate’, meaning the mysteriously taciturn Labour candidate with the beard. Robin’s incredulity at this was beautiful to see, but far stranger things were happening on the commercial channel, where Tony Benn was now out of his tracksuit and warming up.

Alastair Burnet was in charge of the ITN studio, with Peter Sissons out in the field. Sissons convincingly argued that Jenkins had peaked at the right time and not by accident: he was a ‘very, very astute campaigner’ who had personally met twice as many constituents as any other candidate. Back in the studio, however, Benn knew that Jenkins was really just Reg Prentice in disguise and that the people had been fooled. Benn’s propensity for going on television and telling the people that they are easy to fool could well bring about, in the course of time, the utter destruction of the Labour Party, but tonight he wasn’t going to let a consideration like that slow him down.

‘I’m absolutely amazed by Tony Benn’, said Jim Prior, representing the Tories. Dr Owen of the Alliance contented himself with a few rational statements while Benn mimed incomprehension and stoked his pipe, another of his delusions about television being that it is a medium which favours histrionics. Actually it exposes them ruthlessly, but some people are hams to the core.

‘CND is four times as big as the SDP,’ Benn announced, forgetting to add that the RSPCA is four times as big as CND. ‘It may be that the SDP is past its peak.’ On BBC2 they were interviewing local Scots politicians. Back to ITN, where Benn was saying, ‘I believe the SDP is now past its peak.’ He had gone from ‘it may be’ to ‘I believe’ in half a minute. ‘I think what we’re witnessing’, he went on, ‘is Jeremy Thorpe reappearing in the guise of Roy Jenkins.’ Back to the Beeb, before Benn could suggest that what we were witnessing was Flash Gordon reappearing as Ming the Merciless of Mongo, Emperor of the Universe.

Hatters was telling Robin that if Jenkins won it would really be a victory for Labour, because in the general election an SDP led by Jenkins would take votes from the Tories, whereas an SDP led by Shirley Williams would have taken them from Labour. ‘I genuinely believe that this is an encouraging vote for Labour.’ This was a pretty mad moment for Hatters, but he still sounded as judicious as Thucydides compared with what was going on back at ITN. ‘I personally,’ Benn was saying, ‘think that the SDP has passed its peak.’

He could say that again and was plainly determined on doing so, but there was a big blur as both channels switched to Hillhead for the announcement. A total of 282 people had voted for the other Roy Jenkins, but in the end it was the real Roy Jenkins who stood up. Back in the BBC studio, Shirley Williams threw away her walking stick. ‘We’ve got back into Parliament the man who will lead that Alliance.’ On ITN, Owen said ‘Fantastic.’

If this wasn’t real generosity in both cases, it certainly sounded like it. If they were fooling the people about their own disappointed hopes, at least they had paid the people the compliment of employing a fairly high level of acting. Benn, on the other hand, the man who goes on endlessly about how the media manipulates the people, went on manipulating to the end. ‘I think this means we’ll have a Labour government ... the SDP is on the way down ... the SDP will disappear.’

Which is my cue. Last year in Las Vegas I met a blackjack dealer who told me there are only two kinds of gamblers, the dumb ones and those who know how to quit while they’re ahead. After 10 years of writing this column I still face the gleaming tube with undiminished enthusiasm, but with increasing frequency I find my own face looking back at me. It is time to quit my chair, before I find myself reviewing my own programmes. Creativity and criticism, in my view, are more continuous than opposed, but there is such a thing as a conflict of interest. There is also such a thing as making way for fresh talent. By standing up and moving aside for my gifted successor, Julian Barnes, I avoid the possibility of finding him suddenly sitting in my lap.

No doubt he will slag one of my programmes first chance he gets, but by then I will be in the habit of damning all critics as fools. The Observer’s readership, with whom it is such a pleasure to be in touch, I will try to court by writing in other parts of the paper. Until soon, then.

The Observer, 28th March 1982
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]