Essays: That little bit extra |
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That little bit extra

THE second week of Wimbledon (BBC1 and 2) was largely occupied with yet more rain. Between downpours Borg dealt rapidly with Glickstein. ‘The reason Borg is the champion that he is,’ explained Mark Cox, ‘is that he has that little bit extra to pull out, and he certainly has pulled it out in these last four games.’

Thus Borg progressed majestically into the closing rounds, continually pulling out that little bit extra. When McEnroe pulled out his little bit extra, you rather wished that he would tuck it back in. For a long time he did his best to contain his awful personality, tying his shoelaces between games instead of during and merely scowling at the linesmen instead of swearing. When sulking he kicked the ground but raised no divots, nor did his service take more than a quarter of an hour each time. You have to realise that McEnroe is serving around the corner of an imaginary building and that his wind-up must perforce be extra careful. He has a sniper’s caution.

Finally the rain got to him. By Thursday he was behaving as badly as ever, thereby confirming the rule that Wimbledon, like alcohol, brings out the essential character. Virginia Wade tried losing to Betsy Nagelsen but couldn’t make it, even when she resumed her old habit of throwing the ball out of reach when attempting to serve. ‘I must say, Ann,’ said Peter West, ‘that Virginia’s living dangerously.’ ‘That’s self-evident, Peter,’ said Ann Jones. In the last set Virginia managed to convert her 5–1 lead into a 5–3 lead by making even more unforced errors than her opponent, but it was too late: defeat had eluded her.

What she needed was an opponent even younger and more inexperienced than Nagelsen. Andrea Jaeger was the ideal candidate. With a smile that looked like a car-crash, Jaeger practically had to be wheeled on in a pram. Her range of gesture was no more prepossessing than McEnroe’s, plus the additional feature that she expressed annoyance by driving the edge of her racket into the court, the next best thing to attacking the turf with a mattock. This was just the kind of opposition that Virginia knew how to lose to. Having duly sacrificed herself, our girl was last seen talking to David Vine.

The rain went on. Eventually it got to Harry Carpenter himself. Harry’s Rain Commentary continued triumphantly into the second week, but the mark of a true champion is not to be made nervous by success. Like Borg or Nicklaus in their separate fields, a great rain commentator must be single-minded. Above all he must not be rattled by criticism.

As the cameras once again surveyed the system of lakes forming on the court covers, Harry showed signs of cracking. ‘These shots will please one or two of our critics in the national press,’ he gritted. ‘Seem to prefer the rain shots to the tennis, some of them. It’s not raining. It’s drizzling. The forecast earlier wasn’t too optimistic ... it gave the impression that once the rain started it might hang around for some time ... ’ He still had style, but his confidence was gone.

Dan Maskell, on the other hand, never falters. He might say break point when he means set point, or either when he means match point, but his authority only increases with the years, or yers. ‘Ooh I say! That’s as brave a coup as I’ve seen on the Centre Court in yers.’ It takes more than a flood to stop Dan, who would wear Scuba gear if he had to, and often sounds as if he is wearing it already. Self-control is everything, as Martina Navratilova proved by losing to Chris Lloyd. Navvy has the talent, but Lloyd has the temperament. A bad call lost Navvy the second set, but the way she brooded on it lost her the match as well. Dan convicted her of a ‘somewhat wayward temperament’.

Navvy was lucky to last that long. Only failing energy stopped Billie-Jean King from putting her out a round earlier. ‘Well, this is an up and downer, Ann, isn’t it?’ ‘You can say that again, Dan.’ For a moment I thought Dan might, but he decided not to. It was a thrilling match, but still had nothing on the Olympian struggle between Connors and Tanner, during which the ball was only occasionally visible.

Tanner won the first set in a few minutes. Connors would have done better to take a seat in the stands. Right up until the sixth game in the fifth set they sounded like frantic woodchoppers in a frozen forest. Then Tanner slowed down and Connors broke through. Jimbo is not a particularly attractive personality — although compared with McEnroe he has the charm of Arthur Rubinstein — but we should enjoy him while we can.

Those of us who remember ‘The Brothers’, the BBC’s all-time most absorbing sudser, will accept no substitutes. Nevertheless Buccaneer (BBC1) could well do at a pinch. ‘The Brothers,’ you will remember, were in road transport and thus spent most of their time trucking around. The Buccaneers are in air transport. They run an air freight service called Red Air, represented by a single Britannia which spends most of its time grounded at foreign airports, stranded by sabotage. Meanwhile the company directors of Red Air devote themselves to intrigue, much of it is sexually motivated.

This is a clear case of top-heaviness at boardroom level, since considering the airline’s carrying capacity there should be only one part-time executive and no directors at all. But the ladies involved, who include Shirley Anne Field, are fetching enough to prove that somebody at the BBC has at last grasped the principle by which any given episode of a modern soap opera must feature at least three delectable females, one of whom shall not be fully clad. Put a stetson on all that and you’ve got ‘Dallas.’ Put wings on it and you’ve got ‘Buccaneer’. You still haven’t got ‘The Brothers’, but perhaps that era is never coming back. It was all so very British, and all so long ago.

A new documentary series called Only in America (Thames) started with a programme about detectives in the south Bronx, where a murder happens every few minutes. Understandably the detectives are pressed for time and tend to trample on the evidence. You could understand their impulse not to hang about in any sense of the phrase. One’s general conclusion was that the whole thing looked hopeless, but it was New York’s problem and not ours.

Thames Report (Thames) featured a police problem that was ours and not New York’s. The subject was Operation Countryman, the Metropolitan Police force’s investigation of itself. It rapidly became clear that some greedy men are still drawing salaries, quite apart from the extra income they accumulate from other sources. Martin Short investigates less portentously than Jonathan Dimbleby and with more penetration, but he should not bob up and down so.

In The Big Time (BBC1) an unknown girl called Sheena Easton was given her chance to become a pop star. Since she was pretty and could sing rather well it was no surprise that her dream started to come true, although first she had to endure a lecture from Dorothy Squires. ‘I had tomatoes thrown at me, apples thrown at me ... that’s what made me a performer,’ gushed Dorothy. ‘If you can hold an audience in the palm of your hand, sometimes make them laugh, sometimes make them cry ...’ Sheena sat silent through all this, no doubt resolving to go and do otherwise. She had the temperament to go with the talent and just might make it.

The Observer, 6th July 1980
[ A shorter version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]