Essays: Instant horror |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Instant horror

WITH all due respect for President Reagan’s courage, he was hit by a comparatively small bullet which left him enough energy to crack wise. The 9mm slugs that felled the Pope allow less latitude for cheerful histrionics.

The sheer shock of getting hit by a bullet that big is like being run over by a car. Stricken, the Pope was carried at full speed straight towards the television camera, thereby adding to one’s growing impression that history is simultaneously out of hand and within arm’s reach. Almost immediately the culprit’s face filled the screen, which was presumably what he wanted. The Italian television people were also careful to provide plenty of pictures of the weapon, so that the next candidate for the role of assassin will know which end the bullets go in and, more important, come out.

Another mind-stopping set of pictures came from Ireland, where a soldier took a direct hit from a petrol bomb and writhed on fire right in front of the camera, his flak jacket incandescently converted into a shirt of Nessus, Apart from leaving you paralysed with a cup of instant coffee in one hand and your slack jaw in the other, there is nothing such sensational footage can do except shed light, if that’s the phrase, on discussion programmes like part one of a two-part Platform One (BBC1) about Ulster. Supervised by Fred Emery of The Times, John Hume (Catholic SDLP) and Harold McCusker (Protestant Unionist) debated the eternal question. Both spoke well enough to make you fervently wish that they could find common ground before the acrid flames that lit their faces burned away all hope.

This year the Cup Final happened twice, both times at Wembley. Effectively this meant that it was on all week, which for those of us who are left indifferent by the round-ball version of football meant that an awful lot of air time was chewed up by run-ups to the Cup, not to mention the (comparatively small) amount of videospace devoted to the match itself, or in this case matches themselves. Anyway, on Saturday’s Jim’ll Fix It (BBC1) a small boy got the job of carrying the actual ball to Wembley, while another small boy was airborne in the Goodyear dirigible having a radio conversation with David Coleman. Inside the arena there were another hundred thousand small boys all yelling their heads off.

Out on to the ground, which apparently is called the pitch, came another 22 small boys, half of them belonging to Tottenham Hotspur and the other half to Manchester City. Spurs’ Garth Crooks stood around wolfing down the atmosphere, his keen black profile doing wonders for race relations. ‘What a lovely shot of Garth Crooks that was,’ said David Coleman, or it could have been John Motson. Or it could have been Jimmy Hill or Lawrie McMenemy. The captain of Manchester City was called Paul Power, which made him sound like a throwback to the days of Danny of the Dazzlers.

The two teams each tried for a long time to put the ball through each other’s goal. The pitch was no help here, since it seemed specifically designed to sap the players’ strength. A square mile of green sponge, it tires you out just looking at it. Running on it must be like being on the surface of Jupiter. Nevertheless Hutchison of City contrived to put the ball in Spurs’ net. ‘They called him a bargain buy at the time and my word! It has been!’ This was yelled by John Motson, who in addition to his commentating skills has an instant mental data-retrieval system by which he can tell you which player in what year scored against his own side.

In the second half the aforesaid bargain-buy Hutchison scored against his own side, thereby transferring himself from Parnassus to the doghouse in a split second. ‘That really was the sweet and sour for Tommy Hutchison!’ Look out for Hutchison’s autobiography, ‘The Sweet and the Sour.’ Back level, Spurs tried to clinch a win by replacing their putative star Villa, a South American import with a bad beard à la George Best or Nastase.

Extra time was played out while cramp-racked personnel cluttered the pitch like the departure lounge of Luton airport during a strike. Villa stood disconsolate, but was back in the team for Thursday night’s replay, which I am bound to admit flogged me to the verge of being almost interested. For one thing, or to put it another way two things, each side scored a goal in the first 10 minutes, thus raising the competitive temperature to screaming point. The Spurs goal was obtained by Villa, who thereby transferred himself from the doghouse to Parnassus.

Spurs began to dominate what I understand is called the midfield, but City went ahead on a penalty, which cheesed Spurs off no end. They registered their displeasure by behaving as badly as possible, but the referee, for whom £35 per match seemed scarcely adequate recompense, went on putting names into his book as if it were a parish register.

Calming down, Spurs reverted to the more fruitful course of passing the ball around to one another, the ball apparently being attached by elastic to the next recipient. Eventually Garth Crooks varied this procedure by sticking it in City’s goal, thereby doing further wonders for race relations: it was probably enough to make them rebuild Brixton. The match having achieved dream-like status, nothing remained except for Villa to score the winning goal after beating the mandatory half-dozen men. He did that and they all ran off to meet Princess Michael.

As a run-up to Antony and Cleopatra (BBC2) there was a charming programme called Jonathan Miller Directs (BBC2), in which it was made clear that no nicer or more intelligent director ever drew breath. He drew some of the breath through carefully dilated nostrils while pretending that the camera couldn’t see him, but we must all be forgiven for our ham instincts, since the cold truth is that nobody would go in front of camera more than once if not at least partly impelled by the urge to cut a dash.

Jonathan cuts a tremendous dash as a director. Unfortunately Shakespeare cuts an even more tremendous dash as a playwright, so there is not as much room as there might be for a director to express his individuality. Jonathan gave us another Phaidon production — the paintings this time hailing from Venice, with particular emphasis on Veronese and Tiepolo. You could marvel at the miracles of lighting while the actors got on with murdering the verse.

Age cannot wither her,’ somebody said, as if something else could. Only Octavia said the words as if their rhythm carried the meaning. Everybody else, no doubt encouraged by the tirelessly inquisitive Jonathan, delved for the deeper significance. But in Shakespeare there are no hidden secrets: the profundity is transparent all the way to the bottom. The rhythm of the verse tells you all there is to know, and it is much more than any director, actor or critic knows. Nor is it true that some of Shakespeare’s verse is so arhythmic that it tends towards prose. Shakespeare’s prose is even more rhythmic than his verse, and anyone who can’t speak his verse won’t be able to speak his prose either.

The Observer, 17th May 1981