Essays: I'd just like to say... |
[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]

I’d just like to say...

ELECTION coverage crammed the videospace on my return — a grim welcome. Panorama (BBC1) on Monday night featured a triangular interchange between Michael Foot, Cyril Smith and Jim Prior. When somebody waved a finger at them for a one-minute wind-up, they combined into a soaring ensemble like the trio from the last act of ‘Rosenkavalier.’ ‘One of the factors ... I’d just like to say briefly ... I think Mr Foot ... I’d, I’d, I’d just ... what it means ... All I’m saying ... I’D JUST LIKE TO SAY BRIEFLY ... WHA-WHA-WHA ... ONE OF THE FACTORS ...’ The tone for the week was set.

ITV news staff pulled their plugs, perhaps to pre-empt the oncoming longueurs, but still there was little rest. Taking desultory notes (‘Cyril Smith fills the screen like Federico Fellini metamorphosing into a mountain: his shoulders start above his ears’) your reporter sweated out the hours until his beloved Softly, Softly (BBC1) was cranked up into its rightful, majestic slot in the middle of Wednesday night. Readers with long memories will remember how much I had been missing this seminal show in the dreary months before the hols, when the screen was crawling with American actors pretending to be cops and Evans, Snow, Watt and Harry the Hawk were nowhere to be seen. As some people need to wrap a pair of knickers around their heads, I need to see, every week, Snow stand to attention when Watt comes into a room, and Harry the Hawk opening and closing doors. I must have it.

The episode rolled and Harry opened a door in the very first shot. Evans gave a lift to a pair of teeny scrubbers on their way to a pop concert starring Smiling Slim Slavey and the Slavers. They used expressions like ‘the bread, daddy’ to emphasise Evans’s squareness, their hipness and the programme’s up-to-dateness. Cut to the village hall (marked VILLAGE HALL), where preparations for the concert are in progress. The programme’s budget dictates that there must be long expository conversations between Smiling Slim and his sweating roadie, explaining why there is only one roadie, and an eventual audience, by my quick reckoning, of 36 extras: ‘the boys need the airing, they’re still not pulling together sweet enough.’ Cut to PC Snow, telephoning. Still on the phone, he stands to attention when Watt comes into the room, informing him that ‘there’s what high believe is called a gig in Elverton ’All tonight.’

At the concert, where youthful abandon is represented by a lone scrubber clutching Slim’s knee, Slim sings a few numbers and is electrocuted. Evans and Harry the Hawk solve the crime. It was the old caretaker who did it. Unable to stand the noise, he pulled out one of Slim’s cables. Unfortunately it was the one that earthed the mike. Another contemporary problem had been tackled by Task Force. (Harry the Hawk can also currently be seen on ITV, rippling his jaw muscles in the Mac Market commercial.)

A deeply satisfying experience, that episode, even if it meant having to miss most of Worldwide: China Today (BBC2) on which Frank Gillard called Tibet ‘an autonomous part of China’ without mentioning, as far as I could tell, that China invaded it first. Another fierce clash was between Twiggs (BBC2) and Father Brown (ATV). I have always liked Twiggy and was sorry to miss her act. Next week I’ll be tuned in, since ‘Father Brown’ is nothing extraordinary. It will rate because of its puzzle plots, but judging from this one episode it will have little of the cranky period charm of ‘Lord Peter Wimsey.’ Instead, evenly lit sets and stock performances. Kenneth More, the only actor I have ever heard utter ‘Ha-hah!’ to indicate mirth, gets by with a few finger-wagging tricks. He didn’t say ‘Ha-hah!’ this time, but he did say ‘Hah!’ The crime — some buffer getting stabbed in the back — might have stumped Harry the Hawk, but Watt would have solved it in nothing flat. There was a pretty girl, her French fiancé who turned out to be a marquis, an obstreperous young American secretary, a wastrel brother, an unrequited suitor, a faithful dog and the corpse. The last two contended for the acting honours.

Porridge (BBC1) is closer to life, even though (probably because) comic. Reassuring a black Scots fellow inmate, Ronnie Barker lists all the famous people who were illegitimate: ‘William the Conqueror, Leonardo da Vinci, Lawrence of Arabia, Napper Wainwright...’ ‘Napper Wainwright?’ ‘He was a screw at Brixton. Mind you, he was a bastard.’ A rock solid script, by Clement and La Frenais. Good comic writing depends on a regular supply of real-life speech patterns — the main reason why success tends to interfere with talent, since it separates the writer from his sources.

For what writing sounds like when the separation is complete, lend a bruised ear to the politicos. Heath and Wilson, each with revamped ivories, are marginally less uptight than of yore — indeed if oblivion is where Heath is heading, he is going there with some dignity. But the much-trumpeted variations of ‘style’ merely confirm the personality in each case. Campaign Report on BBC1 showed Heath on his bus reporting that people were sick and tired of politicians slanging one another. Later in the week he was to be seen staging a relaxed drone-in with the grass-roots faithful, not up on a platform and unreachable as of old, but down there among them with his coat off. He took his coat off perfectly spontaneously.

In other words he did what some marketing spark advised, which is what he has always done. And Wilson would have probably gone along with the ‘Hello Harold’ song if his wife hadn’t put the mockers on it. ‘Wilson’s campaign,’ said Keith Graves without giggling, ‘has been likened to that of an American President on tour. The comparison came from a member of his staff...’ Successive editions of ‘Campaign Report’ and The Frost Interview (BBC2) showed each mighty man in action and at his ease, respectively. Lesser lights had to share the screen with rivals and/or deal with Robin Day. When Mrs Thatcher promised 9½ percent mortgages by Christmas, Robin asked ‘Why not 8½ per cent by Halloween?’ Robin is having a fun time in this election: on Thursday night he sported a stunning new asymmetrical hairstyle. Robert McKenzie is already dusting off his Amazing Machines and Louis Pasteur (Microbes and Men, BBC2) found a vaccine for anthrax against the opposition of the Academy, thereby proving all over again that science is the history of men with long beards defending their discoveries from men with even longer beards. Next week, the Election That May Decide Our Fate.

The Observer, 6th October 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]