Essays: They're Going MAD! |
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They’re Going MAD!

‘SO TOMORROW is the longest day,’ murmured Alastair Burnet at the end of Tuesday night’s News at Ten (ITN), ‘which means that the nights will soon be drawing in.’ Reginald Bosanquet gazed at him in wonder.

The urge of telly regulars to give us something of themselves is understandable. The longer the time they have to spend waiting around, and the less opportunity they have to say anything significant once they get on, the keener they are to assert their personalities. The most desperate cases are the regional link-men, who spend all day in the studio for a total air-time of less than a minute. Hence their horrible jauntiness. ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I...’ ‘And I know I’m not the only one who can’t get enough of those floppy, furry...’ ‘That’s all from me.’

What is it about Dickie Davies (World of Sport, LWT) that makes you feel less wretched about Frank Bough (Grandstand, BBC1)? By any rational standards, Frank ought to be definitively awful: the whole time that his stupefying ebullience is sending you to sleep, his RANDOM use of emphasis is JERKing you awake. Dickie doesn’t do any of that. On the contrary, he speaks with exactly the same degree of measured excitement about every sporting event that turns up on a Saturday afternoon anywhere in the world. Perhaps that’s the trouble.

Understandably keen about the World Cup, Dickie Davies folds his hands, leans forward and smiles at you from under his moustache. Equally keen about the World Target Clown Diving Championships, he folds his hands, leans forward, and smiles at you from under his moustache. Transmitted from Florida, the World Target Clown Diving Championship features half a dozen local stunt-men in fancy dress somersaulting two hundred feet into a wet handkerchief.

Any mad American pseudo-sport is grist to ‘World of Sport’s’s mill. Souped-up tractors have tugs-of-war against hang-gliders. In the World Bus Jumping Classic — brought to you direct from Tampax, Arizona — a man tries to jump a bus over a hundred motorcycles. The attempt is unsuccessful. Flames leap up from the shattered bus. Men in asbestos suits rush forward, their poised nozzles disgorging foam. Back to Dickie, who folds his hands, leans forward, and smiles at you from under his moustache.

It was instructive to compare the levels of hysteria when the BBC and ITV were both supplying live coverage of the same World Cup match. The BBC had the decibels and ITV had the information. In fact ITV, despite frequent appearances by Brian Clough, outperformed the BBC in every department throughout the World Cup. None of this stopped me watching the Beeb, however. It isn’t just that there are no commercials and no Dickie. It’s something deeper, something occult, something to do with the personality of David Coleman. Just by being so madly keen, he helps you get things in proportion. Anything that matters so much to David Coleman, you realise, doesn’t really matter much at all.

The two great mysteries of the World Cup were the gloves worn by Sepp Maier, West Germany’s goalkeeper. They were enormous. He didn’t have to crouch very far before the tips of his gloves brushed the ground. When he held them up, they filled the goal. Are the hands inside them the same size? Alas, West Germany was eliminated before this question could be resolved. The Argentina v. Peru match was marvellous. To prove this, David Coleman described the transports, variously expressed according to national temperament, of his fellow craftsmen in the commentary box. ‘The commentators going mad!’ Suddenly you had a dazzling vision of all the world’s David Colemans going mad in their different ways: shouting, gesticulating, dumping ashes on their heads, disembowelling themselves, etc. Köhlmann, Ko-Lu-Man, Caldamano, Kulamundis...

At half-time, with Argentina two up, Frank Bough invited us to share the excitement ‘as the World Cup reaches an absolute PINnacle.’ Then it was back to the stadium to watch the footballers provide suitable illustrations for David’s commentary. This wasn’t always easy, but they usually managed it. ‘The story gets better and better!’ screamed David, and it actually did. After Argentina got the fourth goal, David yelled: ‘Argentina will meet Holland in the final!’ Then it must have occurred to him that Argentina’s four-goal lead, the necessary margin if they were to qualify, would be lessened if Peru managed to snatch a goal back. ‘It can’t be forgotten that Argentina can’t afford to concede goals!’ He was the only man in the world who had forgotten it, but no matter.

And so the home team swept on to victory. Already General Videla was looking like the Father of His Country. If Argentina wins this afternoon, he will be a world statesman. Let’s hope that the benefits of the host nation’s dizzy success will spread all the way to the jails. Perhaps some of the innocent people locked up in them will be tortured a bit more gently from now on. Meanwhile it is hard not to be reminded of German sporting performances before World War II, when the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union racing cars persuaded the world that Hitler couldn’t be all bad. Oh yes he could.

On the South Bank Show (LWT), Melvyn Bragg introduced a long and excellent programme about Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet ‘Mayerling’, fulsomely illustrated with excerpts from the work itself. It has been argued that we should have been given the whole ballet, but if that had happened there would have been no time to watch Lynn Seymour and David Wall rehearsing. Try as I might, I can’t be Dickie Davies about Lynn Seymour. I am Frank Bough about her. Sometimes I go completely David Coleman just looking at her. Just standing there, she is not particularly shapely or even pretty, but when she moves she somehow becomes simultaneously ethereal and sexy, like a Platonic concept in Janet Reger underwear.

Newsday (BBC2) has been consistently good, so it is not surprising that it is about to be axed. They did a good report from Japan, fronted by Bob Friend. The same way that the Japanese scare us, the South-Koreans scare the Japanese. The Nuts and Bolts of the Economy (Granada), with Mike Scott capably to the fore, went to South Korea. The productivity of the workers was well brought out. So was the social cost. Some girls who tried to protest against inhuman conditions had buckets of shit dumped on them by Government agents.

Scott marshalled the facts and left the conclusions to the viewer. The first conclusion this viewer reached was that if more executive producers followed Scott’s example and stayed involved with making programmes, there would be fewer executive producers roaming around the corridors making useless decisions such as axing ‘Newsday.’

The Observer, 25th June 1978

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