Essays: Blake's balderdash |
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Blake’s balderdash

SHARP-EYED correspondents have pointed out a sinister new development in that most compulsive of eerie series, Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way (BBC2). Some of the dog-owners have been disappearing.

It happens quietly, from one week to the next. Either because they have not come up to scratch, or because they have shown signs of rebellion, the dog-owners in question are discreetly eliminated. The process of liquidation takes place somewhere in the background, while the foreground is being dominated by the Pooch-teacher Extraordinary. ‘When I say “Face your dog!” you will turn around and face her. Don’t be a leg-clinger.’ Not wanting to be a leg-clinger, a poor wimp with large feet wheels awkwardly to face his dog. ‘Get your legs together!’ bellows the Mutt-moulder General, doom in her eye.

Barbara Woodhouse has her commanding personality in common with Servalan, the only reason for watching the otherwise worthless Blake’s Seven (BBC1). Played by a statuesque knockout called Jacqueline Pearce, Servalan is President and Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation. Being this, or these, she is obliged to spend an unconscionable amount of time pursuing Blake’s dreary seven through fitfully shimmering time-warps and into the awkwardly whirling vortices of low-budget black holes. ‘We will attack!’ she cries.

For some reason the attack never succeeds, even though Blake’s seven scarcely add up to one brain. On board their space-ship, a tasteless light-fitting known as the Liberator, they shout orders at one another while Servalan closes in. ‘Give me a parallax scan of the alien craft!’ ‘Alien craft eclipsed at half a million spatials!’ ‘Parabolic orbit exit alpha four!’ But even the photon-scrambulator is no match for Servalan’s bacterial spasm guns. Accompanied by a platoon of her myrmidons, who would look embarrassed in their hastily repainted motorcycle helmets if they were not wearing World War II gas masks, Servalan teleports aboard.

Once again the ruthless Servalan has only to turn down her immaculately manicured thumb and Blake’s rebarbative associates will be transmogrified into seven small piles of dehydrated molecules. Unfortunately Servalan is continually distracted by her irrepressible inner stirrings towards romance. Such tender feelings were meant to have been suppressed by her training as President and Supreme Commander. She zaps planets without a qualm and would gladly feed her own mother to the muff-diving molluscs of Mongo. But what really interests her is men. Why else would she be wearing that slinky white sheath evening gown with the external seams and the wired gauze whatsit erupting on one shoulder? Flaring nonsense from beyond the galaxy.

Barbara Woodhouse and Servalan got where they did by asserting themselves. So did a charming South Korean character called Mr Moon, hero of a cult called The Moonies (ATV). By now there are Moonies all over the world. In theory they are all members of something calling itself the Unification Church, but in practice they are simply dedicated to carrying out Moon’s wishes. What those wishes might happen to be is not easy to fathom, partly because Moon talks like the leading heavy from an episode of ‘Batman’ made in about 1946. ‘Many people will die. Those who go against our movement.’

Fronting the programme, Sue Jay conjured up the gruesome spectacle of Moonies arriving in force on our shores to steal the souls of our children. There can be no doubt that the Moonies are very unpleasant. As with the Scientologists, they offer all the attractions of an organisation that is easy to join but difficult to leave. Such groups have a strong appeal for people who are simultaneously self-obsessed and deficient in real personality. But you can’t legislate against inadequacy. People who want that sort of thing will find it one way or another.

The term ‘brain washing’ should be reserved for cases in which there are brains to be washed. On the subject of religious cults there is always a body of expert opinion ready to prate about how people have had their brains washed. A less sentimental onlooker might reflect that nothing more elaborate has happened than the filling of a vacuum, and that if it hadn’t been filled by one brand of nonsense it would have been filled by another.

There was more of the same in Andrew Carr’s play Instant Enlightenment Including VAT (BBC1). A hectoring twerp called Max (Simon Callow) brow-beat a group of truth-seekers until they became his creatures. It was convincing but tedious, since the awful truth is that the whole subject is essentially a yawn, even when it ends in catastrophe. After the disaster in Guyana there was a concerted attempt to witter on about the dimensions of the tragedy, etc., but in fact only the children involved met a tragic fate. The adults had already suicided simply by the completeness with which they had handed over their lives to the beloved leader.

The Tuesday night clash between Hollywood (Thames) and Movie Showcase (BBC2) was particularly fierce this time, since the subject of ‘Hollywood’ was stuntmen and the Beeb’s movie was ‘The Getting of Wisdom,’ one of the best products of the resurgent Australian film industry. Having seen ‘The Getting of Wisdom’ already, I tuned in on the stuntmen, just in time to see a pilot fly a large aeroplane into a small barn.

Quite a lot of stuntmen died in harness, but when you tot up the figures it becomes clear that pretending to be John Barrymore diving off a building was a lot less dangerous than being John Barrymore. John Barrymore spent most of his short adult life plastered. He disintegrated rather than died. The man who doubled his stunts is still in fine shape and can face the camera like an honest artisan.

Playing a key role in the conspiracy to waste the talents of Liza Goddard, Watch This Space (BBC1), already established as the least funny comedy series in history, somehow managed to attain new depths. Magnus Pyke was brought on to play himself. One strove to imagine what the script conference must have been like at which this was thought of as being a good idea. Alas, that part of one’s imagination has already been taxed beyond the limit by Company and Co (BBC2), which plays a key role in the conspiracy to waste the talents of Maria Aitken.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of Maria Aitken playing a detective. Indeed she ought still to be playing Antonia Fraser’s Jemima Shore, but somebody failed to realise that Jemima was a potential hit of huge proportions. So now she has to play one-third of the world’s worst singing trio.

The Observer, 10th February 1980
[ An edited and truncated version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]