Essays: Heaven help we |
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Heaven help we

A GUEST of Parkinson (BBC1), Cliff Richard sang a song of his own composition. ‘There’s nothing left between we two,’ he warbled thinly. Us were in luck.

Writing, Cliff told his host, was important to him. ‘Why hasn’t that special woman entered your life?’ asked the puzzled Parky. Cliff said, as he has been saying for the past 12 years, that there was no point in getting married just for the sake of it. His argument gained force from the consideration that a decade or so of celibacy can do wonders for the creative powers. Vital, ageless, and now an important writer, Cliff is a shining example to all of we.

World About Us (BBC2) did a tropical jungle number. Emphasis was on the delicately worked-out logic underlying the lush biosystem. Nevertheless the script had to admit that the untrained eye might find some of the life-forms hard to take. ‘There are horrors here,’ the voice-over admitted grudgingly. In triumphant proof, a spider the size and shape of a roller-skate in a mink coat came charging at the camera. A battalion of army ants discovered a beetle in their path. They converged on it. Instead of a beetle, there was a beetle-shaped pile of army ants.

The scrum broke up and the ants moved on, several of them carrying recognisable beetle-components. Otherwise there was nothing to mark the spot of the beetle’s lonely death. Are its wife and children still keeping a vigil at the door of the dung-hill? And what degree of moral temptation are the programme makers faced with? Do they set up their cameras and wait patiently until the army ants happen to encounter a beetle, or do they just sort of nudge — well, not even nudge, really: more like, you know, help — a beetle into the right spot? All of these are among the eternal mysteries.

But if Nature is strange, God, its creator, is even stranger. In The Long Search (BBC2) Ronald Eyre is engaged in a big-budget quest for the ultimate secrets of religious belief. In the annals of the channels there has never been a tougher battle than the one between this series and Bamber Gascoigne’s ‘The Christians,’ still running on ITV. Bamber has the advantage of focus — he deals with one faith. Ronald, dealing in all faiths, has the advantage of range. The first episode went to India: Ganges, garbage, stuff like that. ‘I was starting to pick up clues.’ The second went to Indianapolis, where there are 1,100 Protestant churches. The third episode ... but there is no point in trying to prove to you that I have been keeping up. Immunised from birth against religion of any kind, your critic can only look on longingly. The photography is very nice.

Faith breeds courage, however. In a characteristically adventurous Everyman (BBC 1), Soviet persecution of religion was laid bare. It needed laying bare, because for some reason there are a lot of people — not just Communists — who are intent on covering it up. What? Persecution in Russia nowadays? And they smile at you tolerantly. Yet the facts say that it still goes on, making new martyrs every year.

At least there are no longer any tolerant smiles when you suggest that the South African Government is defeating its own ends. Even an idiot can see that all you accomplish by killing a man like Steve Biko is to ensure that insurrection, when it comes, will be led by fanatics instead of moderates. World in Action (Granada) went in and dug: a good, brave job.

Biko’s friends spoke with great dignity. His wife would have been less heart-breaking if she had not maintained her composure so well: you tremble for what must surely happen to anyone so noble, when nobility is the very thing the desperate oppressor is determined to expunge. Biko wanted a multi-racial society. His successors are unlikely to be so tolerant. The police who killed him might as well have strangled their own children with their bare hands.

Back in the world of comedy, the Labour Party Conference (BBC2 and ITV) was rich fare for anyone with an afternoon to kill. Barely articulate delegates demanded that educational admissions criteria should be relaxed for disadvantaged groups. Scorn was allayed somewhat by the fact that the same sort of people, some of them even less articulate, argued for a course of action that really would help — i.e., more nursery schools.

It was sad, though, to see that in Britain it should still be necessary for people to go on asking for so indispensable a thing. But any inclinations to gloom were instantly dispelled when the director cut to shots of Callaghan and/or Foot miming concern and/or keenness in the background. Joan Lestor was a splendid chairperson. When a speaker’s time was up, she slung him off the platform. ‘Thanks, comrade. Lovely speech, Don’t spoil it.’ And back the poor sod went for another year of anonymous toil.

Intentional comedy was equally well served in the past week. The Upchat Line (LWT), starring John Alderton, is bound to be a successful series. Alderton is a sharp character who makes himself unpopular with showbiz journalists by neglecting to be humble. Not only is he choosy about his career, he sins through saying so. Some of this cockiness turns up in every character he plays. His new persona, Steve Upchat, is a non-writing writer of lowly origins, facile with the mouth. A lurk-man in a leather jacket and a terrible tie with clouds, be yet pulls even the higher grades of totty.

In the latest episode, upper crust crumpet was represented by the wonderful Liza Goddard. The best Hooray Henrietta in the business, an enthralling combination of pampered looks and hockey-sticks deportment, Miss Goddard is the snow-capped heights that every smart yob would like to scale. ‘My name’s Fiona, by the way’ she hooted. ‘Yes, I rather thought it might be.’ Steve is a wish-fulfilment, but the wish being fulfilled is a more complicated one than just a yearning to win hearts. The idea is that an inventive lip can be a passport across social borders.

The Observer, 9th October 1977

[ A shorter version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]