Essays: Hailsham's royal hoorays |
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Hailsham’s royal hoorays

THE QUEEN, God bless her. Panorama (BBC1) got in with the first of the Jubilee specials. The emphasis was on a job of work well done.

Julian Pettifer, jaw staunchly thrusting, bore the main brunt of the interviews. Sir Alec Douglas-Home told him that the Queen was a good thing. Pettifer looked very tired in the cutaways, as if listening to a small, dull child reading aloud from Dr Seuss. Sir Harold Wilson was more exciting on the subject. ‘She wants to know it all,’ he exulted, his tiny eyes deliquescent with adoration. John Grigg, alias Lord Altrincham, pointed out that a lot of mutual admiration goes on between Buck House and No. 10. The Prime Minister of the day is always to be heard applauding the Queen’s wisdom, but her role in his life is actually more therapeutic than advisory.

Back to Sir Harold, still working on the eternal problem of how to hold his unlit pipe. Up here? Down there? As always, it looked like a cheap prop whatever he did with it. Meanwhile, he was proclaiming himself sorry for Presidents. The Head of State should not also be Head of Government. This was a strong constitutional point. It was, after all, the existence of the monarchy which enabled Sir Harold to contemplate stepping down from the leadership. Otherwise he would have been compelled to go on looking after us for ever.

Lord Gardiner, avowedly no passionate devotee of the Throne, nevertheless argued persuasively for the Monarch’s role in denying power to the ambitious. Here was the voice of sanity. Here, on the other hand, was Lord Hailsham, being fervent about the sort of thing you would get if the Monarchy were to be abolished. He conjured up ‘the unknown, elastic-sided-booted members of the Third Republic’. He stuck his finger in his ear. There being no other depths left to plumb, the programme came to an end, with the credits rolling over the image of Lord Hailsham shouting, ‘Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!’

Only a day later, The Year She Came In (Yorkshire) concerned itself with evoking the spirit of 1952. It was all too obvious that in the year the Queen succeeded the country was already failing. There was much talk of a new Elizabethan Age, but to hindsight, or hindhearing, it all blends in with the general hubbub of self-deception. The newsreel commentaries were especially revelatory. Conjuring vast fantasies of power and influence, the commentators probably did more than anything else to convince the outposts of Empire that the homeland was on its way down the drain.

Capably linking the film-clips, Robert Kee wondered about what possible ‘stature’ Britain might usefully now seek. There are no easy answers, but surely it is permissible to suggest that the country is in far better psychological shape than it used to be. At least everyone knows the chips are down. The stuff Britain exports now, people actually want. In 1952 they took it because there was nothing else. The newsreel footage of the Standard Vanguard production line was particularly touching in this context. Out in Australia it was always a toss-up whether the Vanguard’s chromium trim would rust through before the exhaust pipe fell on the road. The first Volkswagens were greeted like liberators.

Television, though. That’s something else. Britain does well there. Look at the BBC. And indeed the Beeb is a great institution, always to be defended against its enemies, which include itself. There are many things Auntie does well, but the blockbuster science programme is not one of them. Often written by Nigel Calder, it tends to be elephantine in scope and redolent of the specious clarity which leaves you knowing less. The Key to the Universe (BBC2) was a good, or bad, example of the genre. The voice-overs were done by Eric Porter, as usual over-enunciating like Julie Andrews, but the man in vision was Nigel Calder himself, awkwardly poised on a studio-spanning suspension bridge, the stars his background. Several heavyweight scientists were interviewed. Natural talking heads, they were fascinating to hear, especially the Americans. Professor Murray Gell-Mann could get a job fronting ‘Tonight’ any time, but unfortunately he prefers to fritter away his talent chasing quarks.

Explaining their theories with lucidity and charm, the scientists might have gone a long way towards helping you understand what a quark is, if Calder had not been there to help them. He had an uncanny knack of finding the example that compels your inattention. Illustrating how our mastery of radio waves has come on, he said: ‘Now they carry my picture to your television set.’ It would be churlish to condemn them on that account, but you couldn’t help wishing that he would leave himself out of it.

Anti-matter was defined in terms of the possible results if it were brought into contact with Nigel Calder. ‘If I shook hands with my anti-self down there,’ he announced, gazing down at his mirror image, ‘the explosion would be worse than an H-bomb.’ Natural forces were anthropomorphised, as if he were talking to children. ‘Old Man Gravity, the builder of stars and planets. We’ve been neglecting him.’

But not even Old Man Embarrassment could quite destroy one’s enjoyment of the programme. The scientists were too interesting. Calder is probably right in contending that theirs are the kind of achievements ‘our generation will be remembered for’. It’s only the way he says it that makes it sound philistine. The scientists themselves usually sound cultivated and humane.

At first glance, Fathers and Families (BBC1), a six-play series written by John Hopkins, looks like the Beeb’s own ‘Bouquet.’ But Hopkins’s undoubted seriousness, which one has had good cause to dread in the past, is at least a guarantee of high intentions. In the first play, ‘Nothing to Lose,’ Hopkins’s wonted tinkering with complicated time-schemes was mercifully not in evidence. The script was solid naturalistic stuff about a solicitor with a cold marriage and a much-loved daughter, who in turn falls for a man old enough to be her father. Dinsdale Landen played the lead. In himself a guarantee of watchability, he will be in the other five plays as well. Hopkins is to be welcomed back from the void of stylistic pretension. Closer to earth, his bleak glance, humourless though it is, uncovers much of interest.

In the Moscow State Circus (BBC2), a man walked up a 45-degree high wire with a girl standing on his teeth. This ought to have been thrilling but wasn’t. The Russians have put their circuses under permanent roofs, got rid of all the canvas and sweet-wrappers, hosed the animals clean as a whistle, attached wires to the performers so they can’t get hurt and raised them all to the status of Artist. For an impoverished Britain, here was an example of what power and efficiency can do — squeeze a dream dry.

Floyd, the hip musician, is my favourite Muppet. ‘If I didn't know I was a genius, I wouldn’t listen to the trash I write.’

The Observer, 6th February 1977

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