Essays: Frank & David & Alan & Ron |
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Frank & David & Alan & Ron

‘THE March of the Temple Virgins!’ announced David Coleman at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games (BBC1), as a cluster of diaphanously attired Canadian maidens joined hands and stood on tippy toe, thereby helping to convey, in David’s opinion, what the atmosphere of the Games must have been like ‘1,000 years before the burst of Christ.’

Stuck with the pictures the Canadians choose to transmit and with little money left over to buy satellite time, the BBC has perforce restricted most of its creative effort to supplying us with the disembodied voices of the commentators. The only man consistently in vision is Frank Bough, anchoring the show back here in London, just as he did four years ago when his troops were in Munich instead of Montreal. And by and large they are the same troops now as then, so there is a haunting familiarity about the noises coming out of the set. Four years have gone by and Alan Weeks is still firmly in place at the swimming pool. Especially when unaccompanied by a picture of his merry features, his voice sounds as if it is coming not only from very far away, but, from very long ago.

For this reviewer it has been like travelling back into time. The Munich Olympics was almost the first television event I covered when I joined this paper. The Beeb’s commentating was flagrantly uninformative and it was easy to raise a laugh by pointing the fact out. Now, with so little changed, much of the joy has gone out of sending the poor oafs up. There is even something noble about their unwavering patriotism. As the Games escalate in cost while deteriorating still further into a struggle for power, the Beeb goes on believing in what David calls ‘the success of the Olympic idea.’ You have to give them credit for that.

One small but welcome change there has been. There is now a serious attempt to purvey solid technical information. Thus Ron Pickering, for example, acknowledges the presence at his elbow of a British gymnastics coach ‘providing valuable technical detail.’ Much of this is incomprehensible, but at least it offers some relief to Ron’s eternally reiterated theory that Nadia Comaneci has been ‘trained to smile.’ Comaneci, otherwise known as ‘This the wonder-child,’ caught Ron’s imagination — perhaps her greatest feat of agility in the Games, since there is not a lot of it to catch. ‘There’s the smile!’ cried Ron many times, opining that Nadia was ‘learning the personality bit.’

Ron did his best not to despair when the Canadian action replay disc failed to come up with the thing he wanted to refer to. There was so much going on in the gymnastics hall that the direction and editing was bound to be a dog’s breakfast. Nevertheless the gymnastics provided most of the musts in the first week. If even a hard case like Comaneci can be persuaded of the necessity to make with the teeth, it’s evident that the gymnastics are becoming more show-biz by the hour. For socko eye-appeal, the Russians are ahead of everybody — true heirs of the Hollywood spirit.

Olga Korbut, their prototype Disney character, has now been joined by a tiny marsupial called Filatova, who can skip along on one foot while holding the other in both hands above her head. Compared with her, Olga looks jaded — it is not surprising that she keeps mucking up her routines. Compared with them both, Tourischeva now looks like Hattie Jacques. Obviously the women have had their day: from now on these terrible children will be in control. They simply seem to have more of what Ron calls ‘spatial awareness.’ (When a gymnast fell on his behind, Ron said that ‘his spatial awareness let him down.’)

Alan Weeks had a companion of his own — a British swimming coach who did not content himself with whispering valuable technical detail in Alan’s ear, but spent a lot of time shouting it directly to us. Referring to Kornelia Ender as ‘The outstanding female swimming Olympian of this modern era’ and ‘That is the woman,’ he had the effect of making Alan sound restrained. Out at the equestrian events, Dorian Williams was quietly elegaic about Princess Anne’s ‘lovely, fine, strong trot’ and hazarded a guess that Goodwill’s concentration might have been upset by the audience’s ‘spontaneous applause at that marvellous extended trot.’ So there was lovely, fine, strong, marvellous and extended commentating from all quarters.

But finally if was Frank Bough on whom everything depended. Once again he did not flinch.. When a swimming event failed to come up on schedule, he unblushingly switched us to a boxing match, almost as if a boxing match were something we might conceivably want to see. When the match was over and the swimming event had still not come up, he said: ‘We’re in a slight waiting position.’ He interviewed a spokesman for the British hockey team that almost went to Montreal — the non-story of the Games. ‘Robin, you’re the man who’s been waiting for that phone call for 24 hours. Tell us the sequence of events.’

Frank has a way of saying ‘The British girls ... didn’t quite qualify’ which is full of bugles calling for them from sad shires. He is a patriot, wishing ‘David Wilkie, all those miles away, the very best of luck.’ He is a comedian, pointing out that a seven-foot Russian woman basketballer is ‘not much of a mover.’ He is a gallant, letting us know that Comaneci is his ‘favourite.’ Frank Bough is the man who brings us the full meaning of the Olympic Games, helping to ensure that they will be forgotten even faster than they happen.

As alternative viewing to the Games, Rich Man, Poor Man (ITV) is almost as pointless but can’t help being more coherent. The characters can be depended on to leave no depth of bathos unplumbed. Mama Jordache got straight on the phone to Rudy after her preposterous husband bumped himself off. ‘Rudy, it’s your father! What are the customers gonna say? Who’s gonna bake the bread?’ In dazzling contrast, the new mini-series on Orde Wingate (BBC2) is highly articulate and technically adventurous: I hope to say more about it after the Olympics have gone away.

Large, of Little and Large, was extremely funny in Seaside Special (BBC1). 2nd House (BBC2) was on about writers in the Spanish Civil War, but did not get far. Claud Cockburn told his usual story. I. F. Stone was not used to much effect. There were some tangentially relevant dramatisations from Hemingway. A documentary drama on the same subject, The Madness (BBC2), was even less compulsive viewing. The best thing about Spain all week was a World About Us (BBC2) dealing with that country’s animals, who do not care.

The Observer, 25th July 1976