Essays: Freezing situation |
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Freezing situation

IT DOESN’T matter when the Beeb’s weatherman, Mr Fish, wears a jacket that strobes like a painting by Bridget Riley. But it does matter when he warns us about something called a ‘freezing fog situation.’

There is no such thing as a freezing fog situation. What Mr Fish means is a freezing fog. In the panic of the moment, when on television, I myself have employed the word ‘situation’ when it was not strictly necessary. Even now I find myself thinking of Mr Fish as Mr Fish situation. But Mr Fish situation has all day to rehearse his little bit of dialogue situation. There is no excuse for his situation getting into a saying ‘situation’ situation.

If the BBC, once the guardian of the English language, has now become its most implacable enemy, let us at least be grateful when the massacre is carried out with style. Ski Sunday (BBC2) was once again hosted by David Vine. The event was the downhill at Crans-Montana. In their new, filmy ski-suits, the contestants looked like Martian archaeologists who had arrived on earth, discovered a packet of condoms, and had tried them on over their entire body. Müller looked like beating Podborsky’s time. Understandably excited, David once again chose words to convey something other than what he meant. ‘And Müller is inside!’ he bellowed. ‘He is inside Podborsky by a long way!’

There was more of the same on Superstars (BBC1). This is the programme in which David Vine has Ron Pickering to assist him in the task of verbal evocation as sportsmen who are well known for being good at one thing strive to be a bit better than mediocre at other things.

The first show of the new series featured ‘some of the most famous names and faces in twenty-five years of British sport.’ Collectively, these were otherwise referred to as ‘the great heroes of sporting legend of all time.’ Respectively, they were called things like ‘the Gentle Giant’ and ‘the Blond Bomber.’

Among the few great heroes of sporting legend of all time that I could actually recognise was Bobby Charlton, whose baldy hairstyle is hard to miss. For years now, as one chrome-dome to another, I have been trying to reach Bobby through this column in order to tell him that his cover-up can only work in conditions of complete immobility. If he took up Zen finger-wrestling there might be some chance of retaining his carefully deployed strands in place. But in a 100-yard dash against the Gentle Giant and the Blond Bomber the whole elaborate tonsorial concoction was simply bound to fall apart.

Bobby won the race, arriving at the finishing line with his hairstyle streaming behind his skull like the tail of an undernourished comet. Seemingly without pausing for breath, Bobby went straight into the mandatory victor’s interview with David Vine. It was notable, however, that his coiffure had magically been restored to position — i.e., it was back on top of his head.

Fatuous chat matters less when the sport is worth watching. On Grandstand (BBC1) there were amazing scenes from Brighton, where China’s number two table-tennis player, Kuo-Yao Hua, narrowly defeated China’s number four, Liang Ke-Liang. Mercifully the commentators refrained from calling either of these men the Bandy-legged Barbarian or the Moon-faced Marauder. ‘Ooh my goodness me, you really do run out of things to say!’ yelled the stunned voice-over, running out of things to say.

For Kuo and Liang, the table merely marked the centre of the battlefield. They spent most of their time in the audience, returning each other’s smashes. ‘Ooh my goodness me, this chap could almost compete in hurdles as well as table-tennis!’ screamed the voice-over brilliantly. This Chap was either Kuo or Liang: when they’re so far away it’s hard to tell them apart.

In fact the camera gave up the attempt to keep them both in shot. You saw This Chap in the distance returning a smash with a huge lob that disappeared out of the top of the frame. There would then be a long pause, finally interrupted by the sound of another smash and the reappearance of the ball in low trajectory on its way back to This Chap. ‘Who could argue that this is not first-class entertainment?’ Nobody, so for God’s sake shut up.

Grandstand also featured the Rose Bowl: University of Southern California v. Michigan. It becomes clearer all the time that American football leaves our kind looking tired. A voice-over at our end warned that we might find it ‘a bit of a mystery to unfathom what’s going on.’ But really it was not all that hard to unfathom. Even when you couldn’t follow the American commentators you could tell they were talking sense. The tactics and strategy were engrossing even when you only half-understood them. The spectacle, helped out by action replays of every incident from four different angles, was unbeatable.

Among the many startling aspects of the Rose Bowl was the fact that violence was confined to the field of play. Nor did any of the commentators find it necessary to remark that some of the players were white and others black — perhaps because the same applied to the commentators. This was a nice contrast with Match of the Day (BBC1), where an hysterical voice-over was to be heard commending ‘the two coloured players’ for ‘combining beautifully.’ The difference between commentating and Colemantating is that a commentator says things you would like to remember and a Colemantator says things you would like to forget.

David Jones has done much to make Play of the Month (BBC1) live up to his own high expectations of what television drama can achieve. The latest production was ‘Marya,’ a piece by Isaac Babel. The director was Jack Gold, still brushing snow from his shoulders after his triumph with ‘Thank You, Comrade.’ By now he must be seeing the Revolution in his sleep.

The translation, by Christopher Hampton. veered towards the tactless. Such a locution as ‘on cocaine,’ for example, is too recent as English to be credible as circa-1920 Russian. But leaving the question of tone aside, the action was authentic enough. Here was what the wrecked Russian social order must have been like. This was Chekhov after the disaster. Of three gently born sisters — Marya, Ludmilla and Katya — Marya was somewhere with the Red Army at the front and fated never to show up at all; Ludmilla had turned whore and was headed for extinction; and Katya was left sitting cynically in the ruins.

The play ends with the implication that the future belongs to Marya, but it is a tentative conclusion at best. Babel wrote the play in 1935, when the Maryas were already earmarked for slaughter. So was Babel himself. He was arrested in 1938 and died, probably in 1941, somewhere in Siberia. The play has never been produced in the Soviet Union. In the early stories that made him famous, Babel rather relished chaos. By the time he wrote ‘Marya’ he seems to have been having second thoughts.

The Observer, 21st January 1979

[ A shorter version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]