Essays: Home fires dampener |
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Home fires dampener

BOGART talked immortally about the black bird (The Maltese Falcon, BBC-1), Eddie Charlton got a break of 110 on Pot Black (BBC-2), and in an episode of The World About Us (BBC-2) called ‘Into the Headless Valley’ a bloke called Captain Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes went 400 miles along a river to find out if anybody was going to pull his head off.

In their obituary for Lauritz Melchior — probably the greatest heroic tenor the world will ever know, and the creator, in the Bruno Walter recording of Act I of ‘Die Walküre,’ of the definitive Wagnerian lyric purr — the BBC gave us, as the only example of his art, a platter of him fruitily rendering ‘Please Don’t Say No, Say Maybe.’ It was nut week on all channels: it did everything but rain frogs.

A precious example of sanity was provided by Julian Pettifer, the more especially since he was surrounded — in When Johnny Comes Marching Home on BBC-1 — with the material of cosmic lunacy. It rapidly became clear that Johnny was marching home from Vietnam to no kind of welcome at all. An immaculate young Wasp called Jerome Hanson had served in a drug clinic tending heroin addicts. Most of the hospital personnel, be said, were hooked on smack themselves. Hanson’s bitter eloquence was mesmerising. ‘We accomplished nothing. Nothing. What a waste. What a farce. Fiasco.’

Among the disbelievers, Pettifer found at least one substantial believer. A man who had had his legs blown off said he’d go back and get them blown off again if he was asked, since if the Communists couldn’t be stopped in Vietnam then they could never be stopped in New Jersey. If you believe, as I do, that American foreign policy has for a long time been Communism’s unique guarantee of expansion, then you had no choice but to look on this maimed man as a dolt. But he was a human enough dolt, and no monster: certainly he was not all that much (although he was, I think, that crucial bit) less intelligent than most of the anti-war veterans here on show.

Of the men, only Hanson spoke well, and not even he struck deep. The clean outline of considered opinion came from a woman — the wife of an airman who had been a prisoner for about five years. Before he went missing she had never thought about anything in her life. Now she was thinking about everything. You could practically hear Pettifer wishing her luck.

Having got himself convinced that the restoration of the death penalty is a pressing topic for studio argument, Frost (LWT) filled his studio with a group of people who liked the idea, another group who didn’t like it, and a further group who didn’t know whether they liked it or not. The bell rang, the gate went down, the balloon went up, and all ennui broke loose. Centre-forward for the hangers was the president of the Monday Club, one Guinness, who set out to prove that abolition causes violence. Having proved it many times before, he proceeded to prove all over again that he has no idea of the meaning of the word ‘proof.’ The non-hangers had a Professor of Sociology up their sleeves: he did know the meaning of the word and did his best to get it across, but to small avail.

The unspoken assumption behind Frost’s programme and all programmes like it is that you get some idea of the living spectrum of opinion when you confront a man who knows what he’s talking about with a man who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Pleased with this conclusion, I quit the living-room and started raiding the refrigerator, only to hear Frost announce, ‘In the front row here we have Doc Reid, who has experienced the death penalty at first hand.’ With a sinus full of yoghourt I sprinted back to my seat, in the full expectation of clapping eyes on the first fully documented revenant for 19 centuries — but alas, he was palpably one of us.

At some point in the programme the poor sister of the recently slain milkman got hysterical and was helped away. A caption was superimposed to tell us who she was. Frostie no doubt thought that this coup was super television. Programmes like his are by now, thank heaven, far gone in their death throes. The Sunday Debate (BBC-1) and its kin have rendered them obsolete.

Not a good week for drama. Achilles Heel (LWT) was by Brian Clark. but was the merest journey-work compared with his recent ‘Operation Magic Carpet’ for Granada. The eponymous heel belonged to a footballer called Dave Irwin, who — we were nudgingly made aware of in advance — might legitimately be spoken of in the same breath with George Best. Pigs might fly. The wretched Irwin’s fate, which depended on his foot, was in no way parallel to Best’s, which depended on being an unstable artist running naked in a businessman’s game. Irwin’s piggery towards his public was carefully shown to depend on the public’s presumptuous ignorance about the real conditions of a footballer’s life. None of the people who asked for Irwin’s autograph had ever realised, for example, that he spent a good deal of his time training. Perhaps they had been away somewhere, where the Press and the telly couldn’t reach them. Jupiter? Saturn? A shallow play.

A few inches deeper was David Hare’s Man Above Men, the Play for Today on BBC-1. Hare, author of ‘Slag,’ is plainly destined to be a front-runner. Having said that, I’m bound to say that I found this piece glibber than a barker’s spiel. A two-part contention between an ailing judge and his questioning daughter, it took place in a loopy ambience that rang bells all over the memory-circuit: the author, I think, has been boning up on his forties Broadway. The play was slickly built, but the characters kept sliding out of character, and most of the real guts were provided by Gwen Watford’s mere presence.

Still, the smell of talent was bracing in the air. It was utterly absent from Judas Goat (BBC-1), first in a new series of ‘Menace,’ which I hereby disrecommend heartily. There was an hilarious piece in Radio Times showing what a rough, mountain-climbing bunch actors really are. In this effort they were seen pretending to be executives being put through a tough, mountain-climbing selection programme. Half the budget must have been blown on the location scene featuring the tough mountain-climbing. The mountain was about the size of a molehill, and the spectacle of the actors acting their way up it was one of the week’s unbeatable soporifics.

The occult continued to flourish, particularly on the BBC which, when the moon is in the right quarter, reveals itself to have the brains of Aleister Crowley. Man Alive (BBC-1) did a thing called ‘Possessed,’ in which various divines debated the problem of satanism (‘The Bishop of Exeter’s sermons on exorcism are almost COMPLETE NONSENSE. They just DON’T WORK’) and naked men with dangling dinguses polka’d around in a circle for the delectation of hovering shades.

Even Ironside (BBC-1) was embroiled in the spirit world: he put the triple whammy on a witch, played by Barbara Rush. His chances would have been slimmer against Linda Blandford (Leap In the Dark, BBC-2), who for seven episodes has been looking like Abra Cadabra, Queen of the Coven. The lady is as slinky as all get out, but her theory is washed up. For weeks I’ve been trying to get in touch with her mentally, and haven’t been able to raise anybody except Milton Shulman. Milt, it appears, is in contact with a spiritual realm in which it is possible to prove that television causes violence merely by asserting it. When I think of all the years I’ve wasted with stuff like reason and logic! Where do I join? What do I wear? Oh.

The Observer, 25th March 1973