Essays: Blinding flashes |
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Blinding flashes

‘MAYBE what we’re doing is God’s will,’ said Sophia Loren in The Cassandra Crossing (ITV). ‘Who knows?’ The big film of the week, it was directed by George P. Cosmatos, whose creations are much valued by insomniacs, since it is impossible to view them for long without becoming George P. Comatose.

In ‘The Cassandra Crossing’ the TransEuropean Express has been hit by a plague of bad acting. NATO attempts to shunt the train off into Poland and isolate it there until all the bad actors have either died off or recovered, but their plans are foiled by Richard Harris in the role of a famous surgeon, Sophia in the role of his estranged but adoring wife, Martin Sheen as a drug-addict mountain-climbing gigolo, and numerous others. Some, although not all, of those mentioned are good actors in normal circumstances, but even Martin Sheen finds it difficult to turn in an Oscar-winning performance when he is pretending to be a drug-addict mountain-climbing gigolo with plague.

In command of the NATO forces is Burt Lancaster, striding about purposefully in front of lit-up maps of Europe which convey no information at all beyond a rough outline of the Atlantic coast. His hair magically changing from black to grey between shots, he makes the Tough Decision by which the train is sent over the Cassandra Crossing to destruction. Thank God, we laugh, that reality isn’t like this.

Then we turn on the latest instalment of The Defence of the United States (BBC1) and find out that it is. High-ranking American officers preparing for nookoola war in Europe seem to be equipped with the same sort of maps as Burt. They also share his daunting capacity for Tough Decisions, such as the decision to send a plague-stricken train over the Cassandra Crossing, or the decision to start lobbing 10-kiloton warheads in a battle zone where the centres of human habitation are two kilotons apart at the most.

The Soviet Union seems purposeful and monolithic mainly because we know very little about how its forces behave at operational level. The Red Army looks wonderful in the training films if you can forget those tank commanders who arrived in Prague under the impression that it was Minsk. Meanwhile the United States forces are largely open to inspection by the lay viewer, with appropriately unsettling results. Russian tank commanders might not be able to tell one country from another, but American tank commanders, we can now be certain, don’t realise, when asked, that a blinding white flash in the sky signifies the detonation of a nuclear weapon.

We saw a referee in a war game asking an American tank commander what a blinding white flash in the sky signified. He looked puzzled. The referee helpfully rephrased the question, asking what a nuclear weapon would look like if it went off — wouldn’t there be a sort of blinding white flash? The tank commander still wasn’t sure, so the referee declared him dead. The tank commander retaliated by ordering the CBS television cameraman to get off his tank. The whole scene could have been out of a movie by George P. Cosmatos. It had everything except Sophia Loren.

Anyway, the Labour Party Conference (BBC2) reached its climax last Sunday evening, with Tony Benn and Denis Healey fighting it out on the roof of a plague-stricken train as it hurtled all unheeding towards the Cassandra Crossing. David Dimbleby was in charge of the communications room, with Robin Day as chief interrogator. To carry out this role, Robin had been equipped with a chair higher than anybody else’s, so that the person he was talking to showed above the table only from the chest up, whereas you could practically see Robin’s flies.

Thus enabled to look down on Neil Kinnock, Robin tried to get him to say whether he would abstain or not, but Kinnock stalled. A Bennite was asked why, if the TGW membership vote had gone to Healey, the TGW delegation’s vote would go to Benn.

The Bennite answer was that the TGW vote hadn’t really gone to Healey, although it might have seemed to do so if you lacked the sophisticated measuring techniques available to the Bennites.

Roy Hattersley asked Michael Meacher to be specific about what sounded like a campaign to intimidate MPs. Neil Kinnock said: ‘This isn’t doing the Labour Party any good at all.’ Robin asked: ‘What, this discussion or this election?’ The plague victims were attacking their guards. There was some hope that the oxygen-enriched atmosphere inside the sealed train would cure the plague all by itself, but would it happen before they all arrived at the Cassandra Crossing? Cut to the roof of the train, where Healey finally managed to flatten Benn, but probably not for long.

Next night on Panorama (BBC1) the warring forces within the Labour Party were to be seen at their least ambiguous. It was Scargill versus Kinnock and Hattersley, with David Dimbleby as referee. All present were smart enough to know that a blinding white flash in the sky signifies the detonation of a nuclear weapon. It wasn’t really two against one because Kinnock is meant to be on Scargill’s side. But Kinnock had abstained in the vote. ‘The abstention tactic’, said Scargill from under his increasingly diaphanous baldy hairstyle, ‘was a dishonest tactic.’

Kinnock told Scargill off, informing him that he, Kinnock, had held Left positions for a lot longer than Benn, and had been in the Labour Party a lot longer than Scargill. Hatters, who made out that he had been in the Labour Party pretty well from its inception, asked Scargill what he, Hatters, having been in the Labour Party for several hundred years, should do now. Leave?

This should have been a decisive blow, but Scargill knew how to retaliate. Yes, he said, if you don’t believe in Clause 4 you should leave. Hatters was slow to parry, mainly because he doesn’t believe in Clause 4. Nor, probably, does Kinnock — not as an article of dogma, anyway.

In The Bob Hope Golf Classic (LWT) the participation of President Gerald Ford was more than enough to remind you that the nuclear button was at one stage at the disposal of a man who might have either pressed it by mistake or else pressed it deliberately in order to obtain room service. There was many a shout of ‘Fore!’ or perhaps ‘Ford!’, as the President’s tee-shots bounced off trees or bombed into the crowd. A droll commentator remarked that the President had turned golf into a ‘combat sport’ and that the security men were coming in handy to keep track of the ball.

But if ever we needed reminding that even though the world is an epic movie by George P. Cosmatos the people cast as expendable extras really die, a ‘Panorama’ (BBC1) report on Vietnam was there to remind us. Fronted by the excellent Willy Shawcross, it was a short version of his thoughtful report for the New York Review of Books, but where words had been taken out pictures had been put in, and some of them were sad beyond expression. ‘She has lost both eyes through vitamin deficiency,’ said a doctor holding a child, ‘and she has tuberculosis.’ Maybe what we are doing is God’s will. Who knows?

The Observer, 4th October 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]