Essays: The ultimate sin |
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The ultimate sin

A REPEAT series of Shoestring (BBC1) and a brand new series of Minder (Thames) helped convince the viewer, by way of these two deservedly popular vigilantes, that good triumphs over evil in the end.

Back in the real world, a rapist was let off with a £2,000 fine because the girl brought it on herself by hitch-hiking after dark. The news that you can rape a hitch-hiker for only two grand will no doubt soon spread. A victim would be very foolish to co-operate with the police if she had nothing in prospect except to compound her agony and watch her tormentor get a small endorsement on his credit card. She would be better off ringing up Shoestring or Minder. They don’t exist, but at least they don’t disappoint you. They always come though with the goods, even if the goods are only dreams.

One of the most satisfying daydreams is to imagine yourself apparently defenceless in the presence of powerfully armed foes. They laugh at you. They mock and deride. Har har har. But you have taken a vow not to use your super strength. The only trouble is, if you never use your super strength nobody will ever know you’ve got it. Then they dare to interfere with your girl. At this point your code of silence allows a certain discreet demonstration of martial arts. The heavies don’t know what hit them. They go backwards through windows. They hang upside down from trees.

An archetypal fantasy which males start having at about the age of six and are in many cases still having on their deathbeds, this daydream provides the plot outline for at least half the American vigilante series made for export. In Kung Fu (BBC1), now being repeated in ‘selected episodes,’ the enchanted reverie can be examined in its pure form. Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine, is an oriental monk with martial arts training, a shaved head and an infinite capacity to remain immobile when taunted, mocked or derided. He roams the Wild West of America, in perpetual search of a group of heavies who will not taunt, mock and deride him. They all do, however, and he must suffer in silence until they make the mistake of taunting, mocking and deriding someone else. Then he erupts into a series of flying kicks which keep all the stuntmen in Hollywood busy falling into horse-troughs, going backwards through windows, hanging upside down from trees, etc.

During the long wait before he unleashes his secret knowledge, Kwai Chang is chiefly occupied with looking thoughtful, in a multitude of reaction shots which are probably all secured in one long take, cut up into short lengths and spliced in throughout the programme. Sometimes the pensive look dissolves into a flashback. Suddenly we are in the temple where he received his training. ‘Ah ... I am not worthy.’ Bong. Ancient monks transmit nameless secrets to young adepts, such as the secret of how to shave your skull without nicking it and having to staunch the flow of blood with styptic pencil or small pieces of toilet paper.

The latest episode was one long flashback and so gave you a good idea of the layout. Disciples are trained in the use of every conceivable weapon, but only on the understanding that to Take Human Life is the ultimate sin. They are also trained in the ancient art of speaking their dialogue as if each sentence had a full stop every few words. ‘I have seen. Something which. I cannot. Hold back.’ The occasional rush of eloquence is allowed, but it must sound like a poem. ‘The one at the gate you call a man. He is more than a man and less than a man.’ ‘If it is written, then it will be so.’

The man at the gate is possessed by evil. He has come to Take Human Life. Disciple Wu gets the job of fighting him. ‘Disciple Wu is beyond any in the use of the lance.’ As Wu and the hairy challenger join battle, Kwai Chang strides off in the company of a beautiful princess to find the castle in which evil has set up headquarters. ‘You will. Think me. Foolish.’ The evil spirit calls itself the Force, but doesn’t say whether or not this is by arrangement with ‘Star Wars’. ‘I am the Force. Know too that I will be the destruction of your temple. You think I could not destroy you where you stand? You are an ant that crosses my path.’ Using contemplative techniques, Kwai Chang totals the Force, whereupon the man at the gate recovers his sanity and apologises for having attempted to Take Human Life. ‘Forgive me, master, for bringing violence to so holy a place.’ ‘It is over,’ says the old man. ‘Master,’ says Kwai Chang, ‘I do not. Understand. All that has. Happened.’ ‘Nobody understands all.’

Spiritual depth is something everybody thinks he’s got, like a sense of humour, personal magnetism and the ability to drive. There are several reasons for Iris Murdoch’s wide appeal, but the ability to convince her readers that they are plugged into something profound is undoubtedly one of them. The Bell (BBC2), as dramatised by Reg Gadney and produced by Jonathan Powell of ‘Tinker, Tailor’ fame, is the Kung Fu temple without the flying feet or the halting dialogue. Instead we have a lay religious community in which people talk like novelists in full spate. ‘Your escapades,’ says weirdo Paul to his errant wife Dora, ‘have diminished you permanently in my eyes.’ Try saying it. Everybody on the premises is either crackers or in the grip of spiritual ecstasy. There is an alcoholic, a philosopher and a bully. Tinker, Drinker, Thinker, Stinker. Deep in the lake, the bell tolls, daring you not to watch next week.

A grown-up spin-off from ‘Tiswas’, OTT (Central) is the most original show on the air at the moment. In ‘Tiswas’ children stuck their heads through holes in the back of the set and this helped fill the screen with life. Of necessity that can’t happen in ‘OTT’, but there is still a lot going on, and the penalty for getting the question wrong remains the same — your chair tilts forward and down you go into the suds. Fronting the show as well as producing it, Chris Tarrant is a lesson in relaxation to everybody else on television. His quick mind enables him to look exactly as if he is making it all up.

By way of ‘Tiswas’, ‘OTT’ goes back to ‘Nice Time’, the brain-child of Andy Mayer, now in charge of The 6 O’Clock Show (LWT). The show is anchored by Michael Aspel, who like Terry Wogan discovered his real self in radio and now re-emerges as a front-man of charm and resource. He will need all that and more if he is to make sense of the programme’s brief, which is to take a Light-hearted Look at the news. The news becomes harder and harder to take a Light-hearted Look at. Just ask any father with daughters, for example, how Light-hearted he feels about that rape-case judge.

But a Light-hearted Look at the news is at least a possibility. The many-itemed arts magazine is a non-starter, as the new Omnibus (BBC1), flown by the very brave Barry Norman, instantly demonstrated. It is no secret that this revamped format is meant to pull back some of the high ground taken by the ‘South Bank Show’, but somebody at the Beeb has forgotten that the ‘South Bank Show’ got anywhere only when it abandoned the many-itemed approach and started treating subjects at length, if not in depth. Barry Norman is too clever a fellow not to feel uncomfortable when fronting a series of turns clearly designed to sugar the art pill for the punters. Edward Heath was roped in to help explain Japanese painting. I suppose that in Japan they get Prime Minister Suzuki to talk about Jane Austen.

The Observer, 17th January 1982
[ An excerpt from this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]