Essays: O for a glimpse of my friends! |
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O for a glimpse of my friends!

ON TOUR of Britain with a rock ’n’ roll show for a month of one-night stands I saw no television whatsoever. It was like withdrawing from heroin while simultaneously dying of thirst.

A month without television might not sound like much. But try putting it in terms of actual deprivation. Thirty days without David Vine! In rat-pit motels on the ragged edges of unknown cities I heard the chimes at midnight, having returned too late from the gig to catch anything except a few milligrams of religious broadcasting or that shrill blank tone they transmit to remind you that if you don’t switch your set off it will dump hot glass on the carpet.

Like Frank Sinatra in ‘The Man With the Golden Arm,’ I rode out the shakes with my knees under my chin and a facial resemblance to a monkey in a centrifuge. And I did it alone. There was no Kim Novak to pin me to the floor. I was bouncing off the walls with cortical anguish as every brain-cell fought with its life to retain lingering sweet memories of Sue Lawley. I would have stolen, burned, killed for a single glimpse of Michael Barrett.

My visual nervous system rainwater-clean for the first time in a decade, I returned to civilian life last Monday night and instantly did what any grateful, self-respecting ex-addict is bound to do — i.e., get back on the stuff. But there isn’t much of it about. The four-week hiatus intensified what I already knew, but hadn’t fully faced: the heyday of television is over, never to return. Since the Energy Crisis, television has got used to repeating itself often and ending early.

It is hard to summon up any authentic pangs of despair about this. There was once more good television than any viewer could handle: the tube enslaved you. Nowadays it is easier to live with. Even the video-freak can take the occasional evening off.

Anyhow, to business. Superstars (BBC1) is what was once a good idea — to pit specialist sportsmen against each other as all-rounders — up-scaled to the dimensions of an international series, like ‘Its a Knock-Out.’ Some of the charm might well be lost, but since the real Superstars are David Vine and Ron Pickering, who now perforce are given even more latitude to display their command of language, the expansion of format looks like resulting in what Raymond Williams calls a Clear Gain.

David, in particular, is full of ‘this man Hemery,’ although Ron, too, has become fond of the same construction, as in ‘the concentration of these men.’ If Ron keeps trotting out sentences like ‘He’s experienced a strange experience,’ David will need to look to his laurels. Is it a power-grab? In Ron’s own words, there’s ‘a liddle bidder tension creeping in.’ Meanwhile, the sporting Superstars themselves are of high visual interest, especially the beautiful Ickx. It’s a bit much that a man should look like that and be able to do all those push-ups as well.

David Vine was back again for Miss World (BBC1) where he has taken over Michael Aspel’s spot as multilingual interlocutor. Mockery notwithstanding, I’ve got a great deal of time for David, who is in the enviable position of working at the tasks he was born to perform, and who thus should be content — certainly he has no reason to care what critics think. But it can’t be said that he made much of a fist as a polyglottal chatter-up. He was all right with the usual stuff about This Man Eric Morley, but his exchange with Miss Puerto Rico was a storm of bi-lingual static right out of ‘Fawlty Towers.’

‘Do you speak a liddle bidder English?’ ‘Leedle beeda English?’ ‘Yeah, liddle bidder English.’ ‘Leedle beeda English?’ ‘Are you having fun?’ ‘Mmm?’ ‘Are you having fun?’ ‘Mmm?’ ‘Como la gusta...’ ‘Mmm?’

David’s conversation with Miss Yugoslavia went marginally better linguistically, but yielded even less semantic content. ‘Hello David, I like you.’ ‘You study music, don’t you?’ ‘No.’ The girls had no end of trouble understanding David’s English, not having been here long enough to realise that his own countrymen are burdened with the same problem. Otherwise the show ran as normal, with Miss Venezuela and Miss Germany the obvious contenders for first place, so it was no surprise that Miss Puerto Rico won.

Angels (BBC1) has fulfilled my predictions and established itself as the only stayer among the BBC series launched in the autumn. Even at its weakest it is interesting about nursing, and at its best it is very interesting about character. This week’s story concentrated on the fascinating Shirley, as played with deep vulnerability by Clare Clifford. Lonely from being plain, and plainer still from being lonely, Shirley is just about the most gripping personality on the small screen at the moment. P. J. Hammond gave her a paragraph’s holiday from inarticulacy which made you half-wish he hadn’t, she was so frightening. ‘I can’t take death, I associate it with my own loneliness... I see a shape, someone beautiful or interesting, and I think: Don’t die.’ There is no reason why the show shouldn’t run for ever.

I liked Miriam Stoppard’s new hair-style, but apart from that The Right to Live, the Right to Die (Yorkshire), was a shemozzle, with bits of film and videotape rolling inexorably every few minutes to truncate studio discussions and interviews which were apparently coming to us live. An informative American doctor looked cheesed-off when he was asked a question and given no time to answer it. Another American doctor said that he could tell when the personality was dead but there was no time to ask him how. There was no time to do anything except state the problem, which was that medicine can prolong life, but finds death hard to define. The Franco effect.

The marvellous Twiggy (BBC2) can’t really sing, but the stuff she can’t really sing is all good, and sometimes the necessary simplicity of her attack picks out the structure of a song in a way that schooled technique tends not to — this week she sang ‘The Fool on the Hill,’ for instance, and if you never knew it was a masterpiece before, you must know it now. Riding piggy-back behind her show came Arena (BBC2), which was no more sure of itself than usual but had some nice photos of, guess who, Twiggy. T. G. Rosenthal’s obit for Michael Ayrton lent the programme a rare moment of distinction, but then Ayrton had distinction. If he had been less talented and versatile he would have been more widely regarded, but that’s Britain — and anyway, never mind the width of the regard, feel the quality.

The Observer, 23rd November 1975