Essays: Hill Street Joys |
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Hill Street Joys

A fantasy sprayed with dirt from an aerosol can, Hill Street Blues (Thames) allows you to travel in a bubble of wish-fulfilment through the grim reality of New York crime.

Teenage gangs maraud, torture and kill. Heroin addicts fall face down in the street. Hispanic families, their numbers thinned only by attacks from giant cockroaches, pullulate in crumbling tenements. In the middle of this nightmare is a precinct station full of more wisdom than Periclean Athens ever knew, more kindness than ever obtained in the ambience of Francis of Assisi or Vincent de Paul. All the policemen are philosophers. All the policewomen are female philosophers. The female attorney who invigilates the premises in order to ensure that the Bill of Rights is fully upheld looks like a fashion model.

Captain Furillo is the man in charge. Not only is he a philosopher, he is a sad philosopher, a Schopenhauer who has seen too much of war and has just finished writing ‘A Farewell to Arms’. Not only is he Ernest Hemingway Schopenhauer, he is extremely good-looking in a sensitive way. He is Robert De Niro Ernest Hemingway Schopenhauer. But if he were twice as good-looking as he is already, he could not begin to be as beautiful as his mistress, the vigilant attorney Joyce Davenport. She has Clarence Darrow’s sense of justice, the figure of Cyd Charisse and the face of an angel. Furillo’s wife has conveniently taken herself off, leaving Furillo and the knockout legal eagle to agonise about whether they should cement their relationship further, or merely go on lying around without any clothes on while the city burns down outside their window.

Are these two entitled to go on indulging themselves in love without responsibility? Why yes: because their responsibilities are so great. At any time Furillo could be summoned from his fleeting ecstasy in the percale sheets and transported by a howling car with a flashing light into the middle of a pitched battle between extras of various colours. Essentially he is alone, separated by the glass partition of his office even from the other cops whom he must send into battle, like Gregory Peck in ‘Twelve O’Clock High’. And what a swell bunch of guys they are, a team of wild young talents watched over and guided by Sgt. Esterhaus, the most extraordinary philosopher of the lot!

Sgt. Esterhaus is tall, rugged, witty and profound. He can ask the Socratic question and lay down the Aristotelian precept. He speaks of the precinct station as “a tenuously balanced social microcosm”. Thus Lucretius spoke of the Universe. In addition to his mental powers he is sensationally attractive to women. When the pearls drop from his lips, all these love-hungry broads are on their knees lapping them up. But his heart, however reluctantly given, belongs to a luscious, self-proclaimed nymphomaniac who waylays him regularly behind the filing cabinets in order to slake the insatiable need aroused by his image burning in her mind.

Not an American series but a British series about Americans in Britain, We’ll Meet Again (LWT) is about another swell bunch of guys who have come here during World War II in order to bomb Germany to its knees. By my count they are attempting to accomplish this with only two aircraft. But the two aircraft are B-17s in spanking condition. You see one of them taking off towards you while the other one taxis to the end of the runway. Then you switch to stock footage of a formation of the Eighth Air Force streaming its condensation trails on the long, hard road to Schweinfurt. More stock footage shows an FW 190 making a flank attack from three o’clock up. Stock footage of a B-17’s .50 calibre waist guns takes on the stock footage of the FW. Flamer! Great shooting, Buzz. Take us home, skipper.

Back on the ground things are, well, earth-bound. Susannah York is the lady of the manor. The squire is away somewhere pointing his stiff upper lip at the Germans. If he never comes back, Susannah might marry the wonderful young American major, who is made doubly wonderful by being almost the only real American on the base. All of the other Americans are in fact British actors with variously inadequate American accents.

The best thing about ‘We’ll Meet Again’ is a terribly strict and foolish father who hates Americans. His daughter is the first girl in the district to get pregnant. A philosophical pub owner helps guard her from her father’s wrath. There is a lot of talk about the material wealth of the Americans in comparison to the war-weary and flat broke Brits, but not much of this discrepancy is actually shown. In reality it was a burning issue. The American enlisted men were better dressed than the British officers. It was two different worlds colliding. But to bring out the full poignancy of the collision would take much more penetrating writing than anything on offer here. ‘We’ll Meet Again’ is a cliché with four engines. A sucker for machines, I usually watch, but am not improved, only diverted.

The latest Andrea Newman bouquet of barbed whatsit, Alexa (BBC1), had a surprisingly deep first episode in which a free-lance journalist, played by Isla Blair, moved in to help her distraught friend, who had given up her career in favour of having babies. The friend’s frustration and her husband’s deadly wetness were thoroughly evoked. Unfortunately in the second episode Isla, who if she were an American actress would be a prime candidate to play a wildly beautiful attorney haunting a precinct station full of peripatetic philosophers, showed signs of falling for the deliquescent husband of her friend. Understandable on the level of human fidelity and betrayal, this seemed physically unlikely. But Andrea Newman is coming on, and at this rate we will have to look elsewhere for overwrought sludge.

In A Week With Svetlana (BBC2) Malcolm Muggeridge played host to Stalin’s daughter, but surprisingly little got said. ‘It’s terribly hard to understand his character,’ Muggeridge said of Stalin. This was an odd thing to tell Svetlana, who understands her father’s character very well. But if there was not much talking there was a lot of walking, along those muddy paths in which ruts have been worn by the editor of Private Eye and others among Muggeridge’s attendant galaxy of deep thinkers.

In World About Us (BBC2) Julian Cooper dealt with Futebol Brasil. In Brazilian futebol there are apparently only two clubs that count, and one of them is called Atletico. A supporter or this club is thus known as an Atletico supporter. Cooper’s main challenge was to find a non-attention-getting way of saying this. ‘There is a tropical exuberance about these Atletico supporters.’ The programme suffered inevitably from a depressing monotony of theme, since there is only one fact about Brazilian futebol that matters — the country is so grindingly poor that futebol is the sole escape from reality.

While still in South America, I should mention The Flight of the Condor (BBC2), a series now concluded. The condor itself emerged as a gutless snob who hangs around gracefully waiting for something to die, but it and all the other creatures were photographed in a way little short of miraculous, and the sequence of a bat catching a frog at dead of night was miraculous.

The Observer, 14th March 1982
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]