Essays: A case of the jitters |
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A case of the jitters

Just in time to boost the Beeb’s morale, The Voyage of Charles Darwin (BBC2) looks certain, on the strength of its first episode, to be a raging success.

Reputedly a million pounds has been laid out, much of it on constructing a practical replica of the Beagle. For once the money looks well spent. One of the many symptoms of the severe case of the jitters which the BBC has been suffering in recent years is the way the Radio Times has tended to sprout articles in which it is explained that James Burke has been sent to 473 different countries in search of the connecting link between Tutankhamen’s jock-strap and the modern vacuum cleaner, or that Sue Lawley has been paid large amounts of money in order to stop reading things out in one studio and start reading things out in another. Such revelations sound like money thrown to the winds, and sort ill with further revelations that money is what the BBC is short of.

I suppose it is disproportionate to get hot and bothered when the BBC link-men go on and on proving that they don’t know a dangling participle from a hole in the ground. There is even something beguiling about hearing a grown man, presumably equipped with a degree, say: ‘Dramatised by Ken Taylor, we present “The Birds Fall Down,” by Rebecca West.’ But the controllers who lack the authority to keep such minor abuses in check are the same controllers who lack the authority to speak out roundly on such questions as the supposed connection between violence and television.

The BBC controllers, in particular — since they set the standards which the ITV planners are morally obliged to follow — need to relearn the art of arguing from ethical conviction instead of from necessity. If they think a violent programme is justified, they should screen it with explanations but with no apology. On the other hand they should make it clear to their subordinates, including those in charge of importing American series, that sensationalism is not to be tolerated. Unfortunately, as things now stand, the schedules are dictating to the controllers instead of the controllers to the schedules. Shortage of money corrodes choice and increases anxiety. Hence the search for block-buster solutions, which are really attention-getting shows of confidence as bankruptcy looms.

But ‘Charles Darwin’ is a blockbuster that looks like working. Here is an indication of what a BBC department can still do when it has the proper amount of money to spend. If all the other departments were in the same position, the BBC would be strong again within a matter of months. For one thing, competent personnel would stop gravitating towards ITV. All that is required is a decent-sized licence fee, preferably collectable at the TV set’s point of sale. At the moment, the Corporation is forced to demand its money with menaces. It is ludicrous that the broadcasting system which is still very properly the envy of all the world should be reduced to sending snooper vans in search of defaulting subscribers.

As to Darwin himself, he is played by Malcolm Stoddard, an engaging actor who is just right for the role, since he has brains as well as beauty, and has lately learned not to detract from the latter by baring his bottom teeth. Darwin comes equipped with a misunderstanding father who complains about his good-for-nothing son ‘cluttering the room with all manner of dead insects.’ Declining, after a glimpse of what passes for surgery at the time, to become a surgeon like his father, Charles goes up to Cambridge to do a bit more of being good for nothing. Cambridge, like all the other locations, is photographed with a faultless eye for period and atmosphere.

Finally it is time to join Fitzroy on the Beagle, but only after father has had a chance to say: ‘The whole wild scheme is out of the question.’ The lines might be clichés, but the passions underlying them are not. You can feel Darwin’s scientific curiosity growing hotter like the rising sun. A real ship on a real ocean, the Beagle puts to sea. For the next three years Fitzroy and Darwin will be sublimating themselves towards immortality. In a voice-over, Darwin calls the voyage in prospect ‘the very essence of excitement and adventure.’ He is perfectly right.

In World Gymnastics (BBC1), Ronda Schwandt of the US was on the beam when Alan Weeks had yet another of his Great Moments in the History of Commentating. ‘Whichever way you look at it,’ burbled Alan, ’the improvement by the Americans is really quite AAGH!’ While Alan had been talking, Ronda had mistimed a somersault and landed sensationally astraddle the beam, thereby sustaining a shattering impact to her defenceless bracket. Despite what must have been a barely tolerable amount of pain and shock, within the regulation 10 seconds Ronda was back in action. So, of course, was Alan.

The gymnastics championships were screened by both the BBC and ITV — a pointless duplication, except that it gave her fans twice as many chances to see just how beautiful Nadia Comaneci has become. The commentators encouraged us to look upon it as a tragedy that her new shapeliness has inhibited her old agility. But I, for one, can’t say that I mind. There is something dreadful about those undernourished and over-flexible little girls that the Russians and Romanians field a new batch of every year.

It is a matter of some satisfaction that Nadia can no longer do the sinister little stand-up curtsey with which the pre-pubescent girl gymnasts indicate that they are ready for their next death-defying routine. Saluting with upraised pelican wings, a curved spine and tiny buttocks thrust rearward, they erupt into a flurry of movements that you really don’t much want to see.

Some of this year’s tricks look outright dangerous. Filatova, doing a double flick-flack plus twisting somersault dismount from the beam, missed her footing on the second flick-flack and landed on her neck. An inch either way and she could have been dead. Of the Russian girls, only the sweetly fluent Mukhina harks back to the days when the Soviet Union produced gymnasts more like ballerinas than like bullets.

The Observer, 5th November 1978

[ An edited version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]