Essays: Fighting over food |
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Fighting over food

On Horizon (BBC2) it was shown that chimpanzees can he taught to communicate with scientists by sign-language. There was speculation as to the wonders which might be in store if the training were to he continued past the age of sexual maturity. Planet of the apes?

Not all that wild a proposition either, considering that as a planet of the humans the Earth seem to be running out of resources both material and spiritual. Panorama (BBC1) and World in Action (Granada) coincided on this topic. Unfortunately they also, as always, coincided in transmission time. Critics have been pressing the point for years, but still the clash has not been sorted out. This week, by dint of judicious button-punching, I watched both, and so was faced with mass starvation on one channel and moral degradation on the other.

‘Panorama’ was concerned with the world food shortage. It appears that when the Russians bought up all that grain from America, they reduced the world’s food reserves to a mere 23 days. There was some well-known film, taken from an earlier documentary, to evoke the covert ruthlessness of the Russian deed. Disembodied, heavily shod feet arrived stealthily in New York. Mysterioso fingers dialled telephone numbers. Vodka was passed around. Target: the alien corn. Shots of the waving crop were accompanied by gems from ‘Oklahoma.’ ‘There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow...’ President Ford told Iowa it was a great State, and that prices would be kept up. On the other hand, grain would continue to be distributed impartially, since food was not a weapon.

Most of this was standard stuff, but things hotted up when Mr Butz, Secretary for Agriculture, said food was a weapon. The Secretary for Agriculture is renowned for undiplomatic truth-telling. Hubert Humphrey, still running, said the Sec for Ag was using unfortunate language. Food, said Hube the Cube, was not a weapon. No, it was a ree-source. Hube was on his way to the World Food Conference, where he intended ‘to have something to say.’ The WFC, we were reminded, was Kissinger’s personal baby. And Henry Kissinger, we were further reminded, ‘is a man who, more than any other, has dealt in the realities of power and influence.’

In view of the dubious realism demonstrated by Kissinger’s interventions in Chile and Cyprus, there was no reason for the viewer to...

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...respectable. The Russians, we were told, don’t care, and are simply ratting on their promises of fertilizer to India. To wrap up, we were shown a few of the millions of starving people.

‘World in Action’ was back with the torturers — a theme on which it has harped to great purpose. Out-of-work Greek interrogators are in hiding all over Athens, still waiting for the crackdown. Perhaps it will never come: the Government is moving with strange tardiness, considering that half of its members did time as punch-balls of the old regime. ‘World in Action’ leg-men made the rounds of the addresses, garnering a rich harvest of nervous wives and ancient mothers-in-law, all insisting that their loved one was not available for interview.

Finally three men agreed to talk, God knows why. One of them was a torturers’ trainer — a super-bastard who brought the mere bastards up to scratch. Here was a character over whom, surely, no one would weep if he were coated with mango chutney and fed to the ants. Instead, he was on television, and loving it. Not that he had enjoyed his work — it was the other guys who had enjoyed it, not him.

Sitting beside him was Nikos, who had flunked the course. Nikos hadn’t been able to stand the preliminary beatings which all torturers must undergo as a stimulus to beating other people. These were simple folk, hard to condemn because there was nothing wilful about their lapse. Ethically they were zombies: from them, the plea about Just Obeying Orders sounded plausible. There is an answer, but a tough one: Hannah Arendt thought of it. Nobody can he ordered to do these things — only tempted to.

On Globe Theatre (BBC2) an imported German play called Smog was grim as well, but luckily only foretold the unthinkable future, instead of analysing the unspeakable present. This was a ‘semi-documentary drama’ about an industrial town in the Ruhr choking its inhabitants with fumes. An inversion layer moves in, the smog hugs the ground, exhaust fumes boil up around toddling kids, and all in all it steht schlecht aus — bad scene. The industrialists don’t want to stop production. Here was the moment for Quist of ‘Doomwatch’ to bound lithely forward and beat their brows, but it seems that the Germans have not yet produced his like. (Remember Quist and the giant rats? Golden days, fans.) As ponderous in structure as it was massive in budget, the play faded on the unrepentant polluters: no wonder their wives hated them. The capitalists looked bad.

On Who is Buying Up Britain? (BBC1) Christopher Brasher warned us that the City was flogging the countryside to the Arabs. In Eliza Armstrong (BBC1) things are no longer going well for the heroic William Stead. (David Jones’s relaxed narrative has made this series the gripper it is: he is a valuable property, and should smoke less.) This Week (Thames) cast valuable doubt on the conviction of three boys for the murder of a male prostitute. Among all this gloom, there was a ray of cheerfulness cast by the Anna Scher Children’s Theatre in Islington, as celebrated by Aquarius (LWT). But really it took the Australians to lighten the week’s tone. A World Wide (BBC2) screened a compendium of recent Aussie triumphs in television. These included a man-to-man chat with Prince Charles, an unstartling probe of the very exclusive Bowral Gold Club, and a good report on Papua-New Guinea. But the stand-out item was an extract from a chat show hosted by Mrs Whitlam, who was to he found interviewing an hilariously outré botanist who had ‘brought along some mint and parsley.’ Victor Borge (BBC2) was funny, if familiar. Monty Python (BBC2) was familiar.

The Observer, 10th November 1974