Essays: Facilitated to death |
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Facilitated to death

BY a stroke of luck, on the day the miners’ strike was called, Nationwide (BBC1) had a few of its best men free to cover the action, instead of deeply involved in probing Chippenham’s biennial bee-eating contest or interviewing the man in Bury St Edmunds who builds working models of Cunard liners out of cake-crumbs.

Martin Young was packed off to the valleys to hear the views of the men in the pits and — even more revealing — the men who had already left the pits, never to return. There was some hard, bitter news about how £59 for a week of five night-shifts is no money at all. This sounded to me like a message that needs to keep on getting through, and plain language from the men involved is the best way to ensure its transmission.

The union leaders may well represent their membership in firmness, but their language represents nothing intelligible to the human mind. It takes more of my imagination than is commonly on offer to go on thinking about the real circumstances of the miners’ lives when their union’s spokesman is standing in front of No. 10 stating categorically that he wouldn’t want to speculate at this point on the likelihood of his executive facilitating the implementation of bringing the Secretary of State and the negotiating committee into a position where the opening of talks might be facilitated within the framework of leverage by the other unions. The politicians can’t manage plain talk either, but they realise the importance of trying to fake up some kind of substitute for it. Every time one of those union men says ‘facilitate’ on the tube, Heath gets a present of another few hundred votes.

As all hope drained, cheerfulness flooded back, and with it, like a tattered length of bladder-wrack thrown up eternally by the tide, came the first episode of a new series of The Brothers (BBC1), the trucking-firm soap opera with the poor, creamless lather. Of all this goofy sudser’s rare beauties, the most to be treasured is its uncanny knack of lifting its roots proudly to the clouds while planting its head firmly in the earth. In a week when Britain’s already withering growth-economy began to implode like the Incredible Shrinking Man, what could be more natural than to switch on the Brothers and find them deciding to expand?

Yes, I speak the truth: this most rickety of all business organisations will be engaged, over the next few months — months that for you and me could well mark a return to barter and wheelbarrows — in facing the problems brought about by prosperity. How this prosperity happened, considering the human resources available on the board of directors, is a puzzle comparable to the decipherment of Linear B. ‘Things are going well now,’ gruffed one of the Brothers, all unblushing: ‘We’re out of trouble.’ Meanwhile Brian’s hotcha wife, trying to go straight, is bravely resisting the advances of that snaky art-teacher who used to batten on the lame-brained Barbara. And in another part of the loading bay, David’s brand-new spouse needs to keep a close eye on her so-called Friend, Julie. On top of that, is something finally brewing between Edward and Jennifer? When will Ann buy a bra? Tune in next week and blow your mind.

The Brothers’ supernatural gift for prevailing against entropy would be a boon to the Central Electricity Generating Board, who in Panorama (BBC1) were shown to be involved in a gigantic and costly demonstration of the tendency of things to fall apart. There was a day when Britain Led the World in atomic energy — MAGNOX reactors like the one at Calder Hall were productive and reliable. But they weren’t as cheap as coal, and the inevitable decision was made to achieve cheapness at any cost. The new baby, the AGR, was 5O times as complex and guaranteed to solve everything.

You guessed it. Nine hundred million pounds later, not a volt. Michael Charlton, fronting the programme with his customary purposeful competence, refereed a sour argy-bargy between the CEGB, who now want to buy American reactors to plug the gap, and a Parliamentary Select Committee which has advised against this move on grounds of safety. What a reactor core melt-down might look like was indicated, in reduced but still luminous form, by the CEGB rep’s face as he strove, in the context of how fabulously wrong the Board had been about its old requirements, to sound authoritative about its new ones. Airey Neave, of the Select Committee, was kind but firm. Later that same night he was one of the Six from Colditz (BBC1), cryptically explaining how he got out. The CEGB must be wishing he’d stayed in.

An amateur of technology, I have a theory about postwar British achievements which states that it’s more likely to succeed if the bolts show. The first BRM racing car (the 16-cylinder one that revved at 12,000 and led for two laps before grinding to a halt due to an overheated molybdenum de-emphasiser in its gyro-stabilised gunge-transponder) was the most advanced racing car of all time — which is why Fangio, who wanted to win, wouldn’t drive it. The true status of British creativity depends on robustness. Charlie Barlow, for example, after a brilliant career at home, is now a dizzy success as an export. Last week, in Barlow (BBC1), he was in Italy telling a dubiously accented Italian police chief how to catch art thieves. ‘You can’ta stopa them,’ saida the wopa copa. Barlow cleared his nasal passages like a steam Ironside, flexed his jowl, and went to work. The Syndicate hada meta itsa matcha.

‘Football,’ sighed Bob to Terry, remembering his ancient dreams while they stood watching the local kids at play: ‘the short cut away from the capstan lathe and the thin seam.’ Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads (BBC1) still has the gift of tongues. Facilitate yourself a look at it.

The Observer, 10th February 1974