Essays: The mind-grind |
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The mind-grind

BY way of an answer to the Beeb’s ‘Mastermind,’ ITV has come up with a weirdo new series called The Krypton Factor (Granada), in which people with IQs of 160 plus are put through a range of tests to determine their ... well, their Krypton Factor.

The show is a sort of multi-lane brain-strain, or combined mind-grind. ‘It’s not just brilliance in one area we’re looking for,’ the anonymous-looking front-man elucidates, ‘it’s all-round outstanding ability.’ In the opening programme’s first test, the four contestants had to punch numbers into a machine when the number they heard matched the number they saw. ‘We want you to feed these numbers into your consoles in sequence ... headphones ... face your monitor.’ It all happened as fast as light. Able to do none of it, I reconciled myself to a Krypton Factor of zero. Winner with 10 points was Fr Brian Jones, a priest complete with collar. Was that the Krypton Factor — divine assistance?

If it was, it deserted him on the next test, which was an army assault course. Falling over hurdles and getting stuck in barrels, suddenly the Kryptonites looked human. They looked more human still on the test after that. ‘With your help, we’re going to judge them for their wit and personality.’ Each contestant did a humorous monologue. The Cringe Factor was dominant here. Fr Brian Jones turned out to have no personality at all.

Onwards to the final test, which was General Knowledge. Philip Hardingham, the most proletarian-seeming contestant, he of the stringy hair and Cuban heels, knew everything, instantly. I must say it was a stunning performance. With its inbuilt element of surprise, the show is more like ‘Superstars’ than ‘Mastermind’ Anyone can win. It all comes down to the Krypton Factor. I suspect that the Ga-ga Factor is important too. Would anybody normal risk his ego in such a fashion? But perhaps this is sour grapes. I was already acting snooty about the show before it even came on, after discovering that the only question I could answer in the TV Times’ Krypton Rating chart was the one about whether or not I was overweight.

In the first of a new series of Whicker’s World (Yorkshire), the alliterative adventurer was at large in Alaska. Either I need a holiday or Whicker is becoming more attractive. Capably produced and directed, the show did a good job of examining the issues raised by Alaska’s sudden influx of oily wealth. As pissed eskimos rolled in the gutters of Anchorage, welders carried home £20,000 after nine weeks’ work on the pipeline. The Teamsters union runs the State. Even the police are in the Teamsters.

Whicker talked to the men in power and to the men who oppose them. He got about. Confessing himself awed, he landed in a small plane on glaciers so cold that meat trapped in them is still edible after 15,000 years. He sank his teeth into a hunk of whale blubber. He railed against dotty hunters. ‘The gleaming pipeline invites attention from armed idiots.’ He sank in snowdrifts. He balanced on ice-floes. He gave Alaska a kind of unity. He gives the planet a kind of unity. It’s a Whicker’s World.

Meanwhile Robert Robinson had started his American tour from the other end. Robinson’s Travels (BBC1) followed the trail of the Mormons on their journey to the Promised Land, alias Salt Lake City. Poised beneath a 10-gallon hat, Robinson demonstrated that he knows how to sit on a horse. As we were already aware, he also knows how to write a thoughtful script. ‘Drowned in rhetoric, the flavour dies,’ he announced after sampling an over-billed hamburger. ‘The national dish of America is menus.’

Robinson’s scenery was as beautiful, in its own way, as Whicker’s. To ride beside the Sweetwater River in Wyoming seemed a fair reward for fronting all those panel games. But finally Robinson is too much of a writer, and not enough of a journalist, to get the same vivid results as Whicker. Whicker’s personality, for all its unmistakable tang, is the last ingredient to go into the mixture. Robinson’s is the first. Like most writers. Robinson wants to explain himself. Whicker doesn’t need to impress us, since he has already sufficiently impressed the only man who really counts — Whicker.

In Other Voices (BBC2) the Other Voice was the New Statesman. As a semi-regular contributor I paid fascinated heed while the staff appeared before the camera either singly or in groups and told a story of sinking circulation and failing will. Why they should he so defensive was a mystery. Quite apart from the brilliance of its semi-regular contributors, the paper is always interesting and should get its circulation back quickly enough when the Tories come to power.

That, in fact, was how Anthony Howard defined his editorial problem: the Labour Party’s dream having come to pass, the New Statesman is stuck with the unexciting task of preaching to the converted. He might have added that many of the socialist thinkers who ought to be defending the Welfare State are ceasing to believe in socialism. Symptomatically, Paul Johnson’s ruddy features were well to the fore. As light relief, Lord Longford managed to thrust his head into the act. For a sporting touch, Martin Amis was to be seen hitting boundaries at the annual cricket match between the ‘Staggers’ and Tribune. The camera just happened to be there. Mark Boxer just happened to walk past the camera. The net effect was of a small world.

John Pilger’s Personal Report (ATV) brought out the nastiness of the Czech regime all over again. It can’t be brought out often enough. The first of three programmes on Race (BBC1) had some thought-provoking vox pops. An ITV link-man referred to a programme that would ‘put the fear of God up you.’ Van der Valk (Thames) was back with a car chase: what a thrill. In Portrait (BBC2), sculptress Lorne McKean captured Lord Lichfield’s trend-setting head in eternal bronze. ‘And then I’m suddenly ... immortalised’ he said, half laughing. And she half laughed too. Because they both believed it. My new-found affection for Whicker has shaken me up. I am going on holiday.

The Observer, 11th September 1977