Essays: Klonged on the head |
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Klonged on the head

THE latest instalment of Discovery (Yorkshire) was about a new branch of surgery which makes it possible, if you lose your thumb in an accident, to have it replaced with your big toe. A man was interviewed who was grateful for having had this done. He lifted his hand and waggled his toe at the screen.

Staggering, but at least not boring. Staggering and boring was The House on the Klong (BBC2), a ‘World About Us’ episode which left you klinging desperately to your sanity. Set in beautiful Bangkok, it was a documentary about the disappearance of Jim Thompson, the Silk King. An American expatriate, Thompson was the centre of Thai social life. Why did he vanish? The programme had no answer, which left bags of time in which to go beating around the jungle interviewing Thompson’s quondam friends — a jet-set consisting mainly of anglos pretty pleased with one another. In the opinion of one well-groomed lady, they ‘all had something on the ball.’

To join the in-crowd in South East Asia. you had to know Thompson: if you didn’t, you were out. No wonder that they all looked lost without him. Every theory was advanced except the possibility that he did a fade in order to get away from his friends. To trivialise the subject even further, an actor holding a cigarette spoke a sub-Chandler commentary so verbose that he never got the chance to take a drag. ‘Perhaps the answer lies with the House on the Klong,’ he speculated. The camera looked at the house. The house said nothing. The mysterious East.

William Trevor’s play The Nicest Man in the World (Anglia) was a bleak study of old age and wrecked illusions. It was possible to extract some spiritual uplift from contemplating the perfection of Celia Johnson’s central performance, but otherwise it was all rather crushing. Bereaved after a long and ideally happy marriage, a lady is visited by female ghosts. Tracking them down in her photo album, she eventually realises that they must be her husband’s mistresses. She visits a housemaid they once fired and hears the truth: the housemaid was herself one of an endless line of playthings. Ravaged by disappointment, the lady is propelled towards death, but sees another vision: her husband, who apparently tells her (we see and hear only her reactions) that there is nothing in it — he was always faithful, and the ghosts are only indulging their fancies. The lady dies content.

The moment when Miss Johnson pretended to see the husband I found literally hair-raising. Most of the questions were left in the air but perhaps there is no other place for them. Was the wife’s happiness invalidated through being based on a fantasy? Would he have been the man she loved, had he been any different? If she was the only one who didn’t know, did that make her put upon, or privileged? What is marriage? Perhaps the answer lies with the house on the Klong.

Whicker Down Under (Yorkshire) is a mini-series of programmes about you know where, starring you know who. At this rate I had better soon produce my own loudly-announced articles on the subject, before Pilger, Whicker and the like have vacuumed it free of all interest. But Whicker goes for macro-facts. The micro-feelings pass him by, so that his programmes, though long on impact, are short on flavour. You might be anywhere sensational.

The first of his series about Australia was all about international master-criminals hiding there. Whicker promoted the assumption that Australians tolerate, and even admire, criminals. I honestly can’t remember them doing much of that, apart from paying lip service to Ned Kelly and professing a certain reverence for an escapee called Darcy Dugan, who kept on getting out of any gaol he was put into. But Whicker was able to use his big idea as a handy intro to an interesting interview with Charmian Biggs, wife of the train-robber.

The best documentary of the week was the second episode of Spirit of ’76 (BBC1), Julian Pettifer’s trio of programmes about America. Concerned with marriage and divorce, this show. was less probing than the first, which had been about race — a less amorphous topic. Defeated in advance by the amount of solemn rhetoric the Americans attach to love, Pettifer unwisely sought assistance by filming a lengthy interview with one Dr Urie Bronfenbrenner, a super-bore billed as ‘America’s leading authority on the family.’

Dr Bronfenbrenner had a way of stating the obvious that glazed your eyeballs like crockery. Assembling tautologies at the rate of a small child getting dressed for school, he raised a wise finger to ram home phrases like ‘ethic of confrontation.’ His opening remarks were overwhelming evidence in support of the theory that the chief problem Americans face concerning sex lies in the language they use to talk about it.

A marriage-guidance radio programme hosted by Bill Balance and resident sexologist Dr Laura Schlesinger at least had some speed. But as a rule glacial ponderosity prevailed. We saw a disintegrating couple in the hands of a counsellor. ‘He looks at everything I do as naïve and stupid,’ complained the wife, condemning herself out of her own mouth. ‘I’ve changed my personality for you!’ she moaned, piling Pelion on Ossa. Almost too bored to speak, the husband summoned the energy to observe: ‘I might think you’re dumber than I am in certain ways, but it’s got nothing to do with how old you are.’ At this point the counsellor intervened, speaking very clearly, so that both parties would be able to understand her. ‘It seems clear to me,’ she enunciated, ‘that the two of you aren’t going to agree on this issue.’

This was where Pettifer should have thrust his head into shot and asked whether the concept of a private life can be said to exist at all, once married couples start inviting TV crews to a discussion of their personal griefs. But there was no time for contemplation: there was too much material. Onward to a group grope organised by Single Scene, a nationwide organisation for the lonely. People were shown feeling one another up. This was called a ‘caring-type massage.’ The various kinds of shack-up were grouped together under the heading of LTA’s — ‘living-together arrangements’

In this miasma of sociological waffle Pettifer had real trouble finding anyone intelligent enough to talk to: they were lobotomising themselves as fast as they spoke. A mother who had left her child at home so that she could come to a meeting about how to be a better mother worriedly announced that her child hadn’t wanted her to come to the meeting. The constant assumption was that boredom and lack of love would turn into their opposites if you could find the right words.

The Observer, 23rd May 1976

[ An excerpt from this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]