Essays: The fallible critic |
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The fallible critic

LAST WEEK I made a confident factual assertion which turns out to have been wrong, thereby leaving myself looking almost as foolish as I feel. I have the cameraman’s assurance, as well as Angela Pope’s, that the shots in The Best Years? which I said only a genius could have secured with a hand-held camera were secured with a hand-held camera. Whether or not that makes the cameraman a genius, it certainly makes your reporter a chump.

It follows that I should not have been so quick to pour scorn on the programme’s claims to spontaneity. As it happens, I don’t think I was unique — whether among critics or among interested citizens writing to the newspapers — in finding the programme by no means as convincing an exercise in objectivity as it set out to be. Nor do I cease to believe that the ‘fly on the wall’ concept is fundamentally wrong-headed, especially when applied to schoolchildren: the idea that a camera can go unnoticed in a classroom is surely wishful thinking. But the programme made me so angry that my judgment was affected. Angela Pope takes exception to my impugning her professional integrity and on reflection I can see why. Her programme would have been under attack from several directions even if I had never written a line, but in calling her insincere and unscrupulous, I added injury to insult, and I regret it.

The threat to Western civilisation posed by international Communism grows apace. In table tennis, for example, it is doubtful if the ground we have lost can ever be made up. As the World Table Tennis Championships (BBC2 recurring) amply conveyed, the Chinese are so far out ahead they’re a speck in the distance.

Equipped with a stunning arsenal of crazy-foam bats and a bewildering repertoire of misterioso serves, the Chinese wiped the floor of the Birmingham Exhibition Hall with their desperate opponents. The Chinese serve, a strategic breakthrough comparable to the Cruise Missile, comes in two main varieties. In the first variety, the ball is thrown so high in the air before being struck that the recipient becomes mesmerised watching it. By the time it streaks across the net he is fast asleep.

In the second variety, the ball is held balanced like a raindrop in the open palm while the server contemplates it, usually for some time. It is possible that during this period he composes a short poem to it in his heed. Buckling at the knees, the server gradually sinks out of sight below the table. To his opponent, he must look like the sun dropping below the horizon. It is somewhere about here that the bat abruptly imparts a neurotically eccentric trajectory to the ball, which bounces lethargically, wobbles low towards the net, wearily climbs over it, and drops dead on the other side. The recipient either smashes at the empty air or bursts out crying — sometimes both.

Alas for the Free World’s hopes of survival, the serve is only the beginning of what the Chinese have up their short sleeves. There is a backhand loop that makes a low-altitude circuit of the table before expiring in the opposite corner to the one against which the victim helplessly splinters his bat. There is a particularly deadly ball that looks as if it isn’t spinning but is, and an even more lethal ball that looks as if it’s spinning but isn’t.

In these circumstances, it was no surprise that Britain’s worthy amateurs were annihilated, five matches to zero. Practising in draughty church halls and subsisting on £3 per week expense money during the tournament, they were hardly likely to stand up against a squad of fanatical adepts ruthlessly chosen from the zillion Chinese who are at it full time, shoulder to shoulder, like a hail-storm on a lawn. More surprisingly, the Swedes also lost 5–0.

If there was a revelation in the whole tournament, it was the game between Lee Chang Shi of Sweden and Johannsen [**] of China... wait a second. Notes a bit confused here. As well they might be, the match being so exciting. There was a 36-stroke rally that looked like a gunfight even in the action replay. At its real speed it had you falling out of your chair. The Swedes have got some hard-bitten pros, but not even they could take a trick from the Yellow Peril.

Day in, night out, the tournament was unexpectedly compulsive viewing. Nor, for a change, was the commentating all that bad. We heard about ‘the expedite situation’ (an anti-boredom rule comparable to ‘the tie-break situation’ in full-sized tennis) and there was frequent reference to ‘the long haul,’ as in ‘It’s going to be a long haul back for England.’ More realistic, if no less otiose, was ‘It looks, Alan, as if we’re in for a real drubbing here.’ But some of the chat was informative and of the girl players ours looked easily the prettiest. Unfortunately it begins to seem that winning requires bow legs, slant eyes and limitless support from a totalitarian government.

As if in anticipation of the Annan Report, BBC current affairs programmes have been visibly attempting to wear their socks higher on the leg lately. Even Nationwide (BBC1) has been probing around a bit — mainly into consumer affairs, which are normally Esther Rantzen’s bailiwick, but there’s always room for a good investigation. On the international scale, Panorama (BBC1) put a team into Namibia, alias South West Africa. RTZ, who mine most of the diamonds and uranium there, didn’t let the Beeb through the front gate, but there were some thought-provoking interviews with representatives of the emergent black political movements. As usually happens in colonialism’s twilight phase, the reds sounded more formidable than the moderates we are supposedly pinning our hopes on.

Meanwhile, back among the commercials, World in Action (Granada) interestingly compared Danish productivity with ours. Stepping down temporarily from the executive floor to reinvolve himself in the nitty-gritty (a humble move which other communications big-wigs could copy with profit), Mike Scott accompanied a task force of our workers to Denmark. According to the figures, Danes are more productive than Brits, but some of the Brit union men think Danes cook their figures. Scott coped nobly with the haggling and niggling.

In a Tonight (BBC1) drone-in on otter-hunting, an otter-hunting type, when asked whether the hounds tear the otter to pieces, said: ‘Let me put it this way. The otter is eaten by the hounds.’ With a knife and fork, his tone of voice implied. It’s all in how you say it, except if you are Terry Wogan, when it all comes out sounding the same whatever you say. But not to quibble: Come Dancing (BBC1) is back, and it wouldn’t be the same without Terry.

Taken gently out of his foam-lined box in the back of the Wogan-wagon (sometimes the Wogan-wagon goes to Wigan), Terry was set up, plugged in, switched on and announced that he was thrilled to be back. There is a new style of ladies’ frock in the Latin American section this year, cut away daringly in front to reveal the knickers. ‘There’s nothing like the old Latin American to set the pumps a-twitchin’,’ said Terry obscurely, but you could sort of see what he meant. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (all channels) was more forthright. He said ‘I’ when conferring benefits and ‘we’ when demanding sacrifices. An open book.

The Observer, 3rd April 1977

[ ** Li Zhenshi (李振恃) and Kjell Johansson ]