Essays: The fallible Pope |
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The fallible Pope

AN alert reader spotted my Annual Mistake last week. I shouldn’t have written ‘redolent of the smell of death,’ because redolent means smelling of, so the statement is tautologous. Damn.

On the question of proper usage we all live in glass houses, but what wou1d happen if nobody threw stones? The language would go to pot. For example, my esteemed colleague Elkan Allan, writing in his Sunday Times one-page television supplement last weekend, announced that in the debate over education only those who had absorbed the message of Angela Pope’s forthcoming documentary on comprehensive schools would henceforth have credence. He meant credibility. Such mistakes among people of our generation are to the point and not beside it, since they make you wonder just how good was the old educational system that the comprehensive approach is currently supposed to be worse than.

Anyway, the Elk got it wrong in more ways than one. So did several other people who cried up Ms Pope’s programme ahead of time — a roster of illuminati which strangely included The Observer’s own Michael Davie, who in normal circumstances is one of the sharpest characters at large. Here was further evidence that previewing is not the same as criticism. The previewers were united in thinking that Ms Pope was about to put a question mark over comprehensive education. In the event, all she put a question mark over was her right to be making documentaries.

Or this documentary, anyway. Entitled ‘The Best Days?,’ it went out as a special episode of Panorama (BBC1). Faraday Comprehensive, which we were asked to regard as a representative school of its type, quickly emerged as being shambolic. Some of the teachers didn’t seem to know anything. ‘We’re not going into this in any detail,’ said a history teacher, rapidly mugging up on Prussia only a paragraph ahead of the class. ‘David,’ enunciated another teacher, ‘Put. Your. Chewing. Gum. In. The. Waste. Paper. Basket. Now

The children were in uproar during class, fighting off every attempt to coax knowledge into their heads. ‘I doan wanna know about that, do I?’ asked a blonde girl with false eyelashes long enough to catch flies. ‘When I get a job they woan wanna know what I know about the War, will they?’ She played all this knowingly towards the camera. As a scholar she might have been a bean-brain, but as an actress she was a natural.

That was just the trouble. The kids were all acting their heads off. Luckily Ms Pope’s technique is so rudimentary that this was quite apparent, otherwise the programme might have been even more tendentious than it was. It has subsequently emerged in the newspapers that the school was not necessarily all that representative and that within it neither the teachers nor the pupils were necessarily all that typical. But even if Ms Pope’s modus operandi had been genuinely dispassionate instead of purposefully selective, this would still have been a ham-handed documentary.

There is social conscience and there is artistic conscience. It is fashionably supposed that if you have the first you don’t need to worry about the second, but in fact the truth can only be got at by those who worry about how they get there. People who are unscrupulous about means are insincere about ends. Ms Pope is so carefree about palming off concocted effects as cinéma vérité that you start wondering if she knows the difference between fact and fiction. Such is her clumsiness that anybody could notice something wrong about the vignette of the girls smoking in the loo — they were obviously pretending not to notice a cameraman lying on the floor. Unfortunately the general public probably doesn’t know enough about how film is put together to have noticed that some of her more authentic looking scenes were equally contrived.

Unless the cameraman was the greatest since Raoul Coutard, a good deal of the spontaneity had to be rehearsed, since it was shot from the dolly or the tripod and not from the shoulder — you could tell from the steadiness of frame and focus. Action in front of a mounted camera always has to be planned. The preliminary hoo-ha. about the cameras going unnoticed was a load of crap. Everybody concerned was as camera-conscious as Liza Minnelli. As always happens, the hams — among the teachers as well as among the pupils — worked their way closest to the lens.

Registering my own prejudice, I’m bound to say that the comprehensive system looks steadily more uninviting the nearer my own children get to becoming involved in it. But what we want to hear on the topic is informed argument, not blather. ‘The Best Days?’ comes at an unfortunate time for the BBC, which in the field of current affairs was just getting its courage back, but will now probably get nervous again. One trusts that it will not get nervous for the wrong reason: the question is not about what Ms Pope believes, but about how she operates. The most decisive criticism that can be made against Faraday Comprehensive, incidentally, is that they were stupid enough to let Ms Pope inside the gate. Who wants to send their children to a school where they have to spend half their time futzing around making movies?

As if to show how a documentary can be angrily committed and still respect the truth, The Poisoning of Michigan (Thames) ranged deep and wide through that stricken State, uncovering the sorry tale of what happened when a large quantity of PBB flame-retardant got mixed up with cattle-feed. The result has been deformed cattle, poisoned people and a tainted society. Instead of teaming up with the small farmers against the erring Michigan Chemical Co., the Michigan Department of Agriculture teamed up with the chemical company against the small farmers. The regulatory agencies dedicated themselves with uncanny energy to covering up the facts. ‘They screwed up right from day one,’ said one smallholder. ‘Cattlegate,’ said another. It was clear that the State administration would have buried the whole mess in an unmarked grave if the media had not persisted.

Every channel let Barbra Streisand plug her new movie. The screen dripped with ego. ‘Maybe I’m really dull, you know?’ she laughed, not believing herself. Söderström was wonderful in the Glyndebourne Capriccio (BBC2): the thinnest of Strauss’s scores, but the last pages are beautiful.

Romance (Thames) once again combined a ridiculous story with a marvellous cast. The script was based on ‘High Noon’ by Ruby M. Ayres. Lynn Farleigh was Heather, the elder sister who gave up love for responsibility, etc., and Celia Bannerman was the flighty Villette. Together they made the preposterous plausible. Miss Bannerman, an extraordinarily gifted actress, brought thoughtful depth even to being a feather-brain. The British Academy Awards (BBC1) were co-hosted by Esther Rantzen and Roger Moore. Beauty and the yeast.

The Observer, 27th March 1977