Essays: Flash to Dr Who |
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Flash to Dr Who

‘WELCOME, mighty potentate,’ said Vultan of Sky City to his Imperial Majesty Ming the Merciless of Mongo, Emperor of the Universe, ‘If we had been informed of your coming, a banquet would have been served!’

The high point of the Bicentennial celebrations on television, last weekend’s compilation of all the episodes from the 40-year-old Flash Gordon serial (BBC1), was full of such classic lines. ‘Mutiny in the Furnace Room!’ cried one of Vultan’s winged lieutenants as Flash, played with incomparable awkwardness by Buster Crabbe, battled his way out of durance vile, only to be recaptured and forced to combat the unspeakable Mighty Beast of Mongo for the chill hand of Dale Arden, while oddly continuing to reject the blandishments of Ming’s hot daughter, Princess Aura. Ming in his turn was keen on Dale. Sweating it out under the mangy fur, the actor inside the Mighty Beast costume, as Philip Jenkinson will undoubtedly tell you if I don’t first, was the legendary Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan. Flash, Crash, Mango, Ming. It worries me that I possess this information.

But nothing defines an historical period like its vision of the future, and ‘Flash Gordon,’ with its thick hero, mad villains, cheap props and clumsy innocence, remains a useful pointer to how simple the world must have seemed in 1936. Switch on Dr Who (BBC1) and you can’t tell the heroes from the heavies, it’s all so sophisticated. ‘You’ve reached the point where your tissues are so massively hybridised that the next metabolic change could be the final one,’ Dr Who tells his friend. Imagine getting Buster Crabbe to deliver a line like that. It would have taken a week.

Similarly the technology has made giant strides towards authenticity. When Flash’s pal Dr Zarkov talked nonsense, it sounded like nonsense. When Dr Who talks nonsense, it sounds like Science. ‘He’s been infected with anti-matter. His brain cells have been destroyed. He’ll descend to the level of a brute!’ Dr Zarkov wouldn’t have known anti-matter from his elbow: he just concentrated on running up a ‘new ray’ out of old torch batteries so that Flash could blast the Lion Men’s Gyro-ship out of the sky and rescue Dale.

Forty years on, unchanging values turn into cartoons. Or that, at any rate, was the conclusion one was all set to draw from The Great American Picture Star (BBC1), yet another documentary about John Wayne. But Wayne came out of the programme rather better than you might have expected. His views haven’t altered very much since he made ‘Stagecoach,’ but he is obviously a kind man who tests himself by high standards. Students questioning him at Harvard found that he could express his unreconstructed opinions with some wit. Working on the set of his latest picture, he was manifestly still on top of the job.

The whole show went like a Howard Hawks movie, with Duke effortlessly establishing his authority. He would have had a more difficult time looking good if the script had dug a bit deeper. To show Wayne whooping it up with Mayor Daley is food for thought, but it would have been more instructive to ask a few questions about his admiration for Nixon.

There is no doubt that Wayne sincerely believes in, and to a considerable extent represents, the spirit that built America. But what did Nixon ever have to do with the spirit that built America? And it could have been pointed out, but wasn’t, that ‘The Green Berets’ was merely the transference from the Wild West to the Wild East of a standard Wayne theme. The John Wayne character has always been the paternalistic leader. His films have always been more about feudalism than about democracy. Failing to touch on any of this, the programme still managed to come up with some interesting stuff on the gossip level. After three wives, Wayne has seven children ranging in age from 40 to 10. Polyphiloprogenitive.

Bill Brand (Thames) would undoubtedly disapprove of John Wayne. Finding it less easy than most of my colleagues to disapprove of Bill Brand, I continue to watch the series with undiminished loyalty, tempered by impatience.

In the latest episode there was plenty to be impatient about. Visiting his estranged wife, Bill informed her that she had become ‘a little bag of pus. There’s no joy left in you. No warmth, no generosity.’ This went down a good deal better with her than it would have with any woman of my acquaintance. By now I fear we must assume that a certain lack of humour is a key factor in Bill’s extraordinary ability to Keep Left. Lecturing at a summer school, Bill made a bad joke which the author, Trevor Griffiths, apparently thought was a good one. Talking about the forthcoming visit of a social-democrat Labour MP who also happened to be a Fellow of All Souls, Bill made some pun about ‘liquorice All Souls.’

The women listening to him found this very funny. Since all women find Bill attractive, perhaps they were just being sycophantic. Anyway, what mattered was Griffiths’s decision to portray the Fellow of All Souls as a vapid smoothie. He could have been a lot more impressive than that and still been complacent enough to be a Fellow of All Souls. Similarly Bill’s quotations from Anthony Crosland’s ‘The Future of Socialism’ were taken to be self-evidently damning betrayals, instead of the expression, however limp, of a standpoint to which most people who vote Labour will go on adhering unless the Left does a better job of finding reasons why they shouldn’t.

Philpott (BBC2) has been delving in South Africa, which is now lurching into the television age. Up until now, the country has been a hungry consumer of films, which the white middle-class hire and show at home on their own projectors, or else make an occasion of going out to see: evening dress was de rigueur at the premiere of ‘Jaws.’ Confining himself in this episode to penetrating white society, Philpott brought back a thought-provoking picture of its cohesion and strength. With cinema-going, apartheid plainly worked a treat. Television ought to be less easy to keep out of the wrong eyes.

Eleanor and Franklin (ITV) was a worthy American attempt to deal with the lives of two great people. It suffered from a cloddish script. As the young Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Alexander was rather more attractive to look at, and rather less interesting to hear, than the historical facts suggest might be appropriate. In A Royal Pursuit (BBC1) Mark Phillips talked about the magic moment when ‘your every thought is reflected in the horse,’ thus prompting sardonic musings about the horse’s every thought being reflected in him.

The Observer, 11th July 1976

[ An excerpt from this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]