Essays: God help Europe |
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God help Europe

‘GOOD EVENING!’ cried James Burke, fronting a trailer for his daft new sci-bull series The Real Thing (BBC1). ‘Your brain has already made up its mind about which way up I am. And because it doesn’t possess the information I have, it’s got it wrong.’

What James Burke can’t seem to grasp is that I don’t care about not possessing the information he has. It is a matter of total indifference whether he is the way he looks — i.e., the right way up and practically exploding with pedagogic fervour — or whether he is upside down, plugged into an electric socket, and all set to eat a live chicken. But there is no way of telling him this, because instead of being an actual presence you can reach out towards and beat repeatedly around the head with a rolled-up newspaper until you get his attention, he is an image on your television screen that goes on and on supplying you with information you don’t have. Merely turning the programme off is no good, since the after-image lingers on. You have to kick the set in even to slow him down.

But at least James Burke is doing what suits him. Terry Wogan, on the other hand, had to stand in front of an endless mess called A Song For Europe (BBC1). There was a time when this would have suited him down to the ground, but lately he has been cultivating, not entirely without success, a new reputation for spontaneous intelligence. To sustain this new image in the context of the programme under discussion, he would have had, after each number, either to fall to the floor racked with spasms of mocking laughter or else to shoot the perpetrator mercifully through the head.

God help Europe. ‘This tarm we’re on our way’ was the theme of every lyric, coupled with assurances that Love still rules. A nondescript group in sagging pink space suits sang ‘Love is alive! And it’s starting to grow! All over the world! Tell everybody! Have you hurled?’ After a few seconds’ thought the listener might have reached the conclusion that the last word must have been ‘heard’ rather than ‘hurled,’ but a few seconds’ thought was precisely what was difficult to achieve, owing to severe contractions in the lower bowel.

By sharp contrast, The Kenny Everett Video Show (Thames) knows exactly what it is up to image-wise. Tightly controlled by a producer who must have the patience and reflexes to pick up spilled mercury with his bare hands, Kenny has been giving the land of the media one lesson after another in how to keep link-material short, sour and funny. Meanwhile the musical numbers going on up front continue to be the most interesting on television. Unfortunately he has finally allowed his dance group, Hot Gossip, to blot his copybook — not with their alleged eroticism, which is in fact no more attractive than an enema, but with their dim-witted desire to hop about in Nazi uniforms.

In the latest episode the desire was made real. Up until now they have stylised their yearning for the glamour of the Third Reich, but this time they let it all hang down. The black male dancers in the group made a sudden, supposedly dramatic appearance dressed as SS officers. The girls in the group reacted with suitable writhings of submissive lust. I hope it doesn’t sound like racism when I say that the black male dancers in Hot Gossip have always been a dead bore, mainly because of their humourless frowns of concentration while making movements with their hips which suggest a doomed, no-hands attempt to scratch their groins against an invisible tree. But boredom is one thing and blasphemy is another.

Hot Gossip are probably hard to talk to either collectively or individually, but Kenny Everett is a bright character, so here goes. The Nazis are a joke all right, but they are not yet a joke to make lightly. They are history’s joke on the human race, and will remain so until the last of their victims has gone beyond the reach of being hurt further by a casual insult. It insults not just millions of dead, but a lot of people still living, to employ these images of horror without caring what they really mean. It was perfectly obvious that the Hot Gossip dancers had dressed themselves up as Nazis without having any real idea of the suffering the Nazis caused and the scale on which they caused it. But that’s what blasphemy is — to cheapen the central experience of other people’s lives.

As for the much-touted question about whether the dance groups are going over the top, it is rapidly answering itself. When the ladies have removed all their clothes there is nothing left to do except start putting them on again. They will put them on even faster once it becomes apparent that the eroticism which the choreographers have been so single-mindedly aiming at has been disappearing along with the cloth. There was never a sexier television dance group than Pan’s People at the height of their fame, and that was because they gave you what is known among traditional jazz-men as a flash. You can’t have a flash without a skirt.

Back to the Nazis with World in Action (Granada). As distinct from the Hot Gossip variety, these were the real thing: white, camera-shy and very, very horrible. Showing admirable tenacity, WIA sent camera-crews after high-ranking mass murderers who are alive and well and living, not in South America, but in the United States. Most of them have done deeds so evil that the mind jibs at the telling. Men who have slain children by the thousand and ripped foetuses out of the bellies of tortured mothers are now shamelessly living out their lives as church dignitaries. Nixon, with typical grace, invited one of these to bless the opening of the Senate.

The FBI goes on being reluctant to turf these people out, mainly because of deals done long ago. They were given sanctuary because they were anti-Communist. Until the advent of President Carter, who has his drawbacks but can tell an ethic from his elbow, every post-war American Administration took it for granted that any enemy of Communism must be a friend of democracy. There is nowadays some hope that the miscarriages of justice brought about by that assumption might be redressed, if independent reporters like the WIA team keep up the pressure.

A play by Stephen Poliakoff, Bloody Kids (Thames), was directed by Stephen Frears with his customary nose for the phosphorescent glamour of urban blight. Youths with boiled-potato faces looked even worse for having their features bleached out by lights aimed from the floor. ‘I jest remembered sunning,’ they mumbled, stabbing each other. A nice boy was tempted into trouble by a nasty boy. Large themes might or might not have been touched upon — it was too dark to tell.

The lights were turned up a bit at the end of Thérèse Raquin (BBC1), just in time for the lovers to commit mutual suicide. One quick swig of poison each and they were away from it all. They would never have to look at that décor again.

The Observer, 30th March 1980
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]