Essays: David and the machines |
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David and the machines

IT was cool-blowing time for David Dimbleby on Panorama (BBC1). Drained of strength by a succession of all-night election specials, David was in no condition to make a smooth job of covering technical cock-ups.

Obeying Finagle’s First Law of Engineering (which states that if anything can go wrong, it will) the cock-ups promptly occurred. David did a brief linking spiel into a film on Rhodesia. The film on Rhodesia rolled without sound. He tried again. This time the film on Rhodesia failed to roll at all. Temporarily abandoning the film on Rhodesia, David did a brief linking spiel into the other billed item, a film on the IMF. The film on the IMF failed to roll. The screen was occupied with nothing but David.

Here was his opportunity to tell us the story of his life. Here, at any rate, was his chance to do better than Sheridan Morley did when the same thing happened to him. (Sherry addressed the camera for 10 solid minutes, saying nothing except ‘The film ... has ... broken down. We ... are waiting.’) David’s phone rang. It said something to him that he didn’t want to hear. ‘Does that mean,’ he asked incredulously, ‘that you don’t have film of either the IMF or Rhodesia?’ He put the phone down and turned to the lens. The ‘Panorama’ audience was at the other end of it, begging for a sign.

What could he say? Punch-drunk from days and nights of pretending to be interested in Miss Lillian and Walsall North, he was bereft of inspiration. His heart ached, and a drowsy numbness pained his sense. Eventually he began to speak, his sentences cast in some spacious epic measure, with heavy sighs marking the caesuras. ‘We sit in silence. Hmm. Hope you stick with BBC1. Aangh. While we sort this out.’ As if the sirens were singing in his ear-piece, his tongue grew thick and ceased to move. Telephone. ‘Hello? OK.’

David wheeled back to camera and said ‘I’m sorry,’ but already his voice and image were fading. It was the Rhodesia film, returning as capriciously as it had departed. It was a good film, too, reminding us with some force that the white Rhodesians consider they have more than just material reasons for protecting their way of life.

But despite the Rhodesia film’s sinister message, the thing that stayed in the mind was the spectacle of little David and his struggle against the machines. Usually it is only when they go wrong that machines remind you how powerful they are, how much they can do. One of the reasons people want to spend their lives in television is the beauty of the technology, the thrill of walking into the production gallery and seeing all the heaped jewellery of big and little lights, with the sound and vision engineers sitting in a row like the crew of an airliner a mile long.

Just the colours are enchanting: there is one kind of wave-form display, expressing the picture information as a curve of light, which is the delicious green of emerald juice. The whole deal is a treat for the eyes: Science Fiction City! And before long you are armed with all kinds of jargon (‘Give me a buzz when you’re up to speed’) and have persuaded yourself that you know what’s going on. But you don’t know what’s going on. Only about two people in the entire building can really understand how the toys are put together. And the subject of Brian Gibson’s marvellous ‘Horizon’ programme Billion Dollar Bubble (BBC2) was what happens when those two people turn crooked.

Their field of operations, of course, was not television but computers. The story really happened, in America: a giant insurance company manufactured thousands of phoney policies in its computer and raised money on them — tangible assets whose tangibility was an illusion. The fraud was possible at all only through the compliance of a couple of young experts who knew how the policies could be made to hide inside the computer’s memory so that the auditors wouldn’t notice.

Gibson and his writer, Tom Clarke, did wonders in getting the actors to speak and act authentic Watergate. Senior executives talked of the company’s need to ‘generate some cash’ in order to get over a ‘temporary difficulty.’ Nobody ever mentioned theft. In fact the mogul at the top of the heap echoed Nixon in being apparently unable to realise that anything wrong was going on at all. Meanwhile Art, the up-tight young computer whizz, had allowed his loyalty to the company to overwhelm his regard for the law of the land. You couldn’t help being reminded of the young lawyers who thought Nixon outranked the Constitution.

The deal came unstuck for two reasons. The first was Art’s pal Al, the hang-loose young computer whizz. Unlike the responsibly irresponsible Art, Al, zonked on the dreaded weed, was irresponsibly irresponsible. Goofing off and fouling up, he blew security. But the second reason was built in: the fraud had to keep growing in order to stay intact, until finally the number of phoney people in the computer would have to outnumber the entire population of the United States. ‘The bigger it gets the bigger it has to get to keep paying for itself each year.’ It was wildly funny, intensely gripping viewing to watch the bubble swell. When it burst, all you could see were sad faces covered with soapy spray. The geniuses had assumed that since the people inside the computer didn’t exist, nobody could get hurt. They had assumed wrong. They got hurt. Just because the caper was hygienic didn’t make it clean.

Here corruption had been made funny without being trivialised. Probably it is only in free countries, however, that a humorous regard for corruption is possible. In the totalitarian countries, corrupt from top to bottom, nobody is laughing because nothing is laughable. There is no difference between what things are and what things ought to be, since what things ought to be no longer exists even as a standard. Hence the dreadful gloom attendant on The Memory of Justice (BBC2), a Marcel Ophüls blockbuster dedicated to preserving the memory of the Third Reich in all its moral significance. Ophüls’s passion is admirable but his chances of success are small: it is all too hideous to be imagined by succeeding generations and one doubts that the capacity to imagine it would be much of a safeguard against its repetition.

Mad old Nazis were to be heard deploring modern decadence. ‘The difference is, we weren’t obsessed with smut,’ said one comfortable retired SS man, all unaware of being up to his neck in blood and pus. Speer was once again in evidence, by now word-perfect in his role as the puzzled artist.

In I, Claudius (BBC2) Caligula ate Drusilla’s baby. For those with stronger stomachs, however, Noele Gordon was on Stars on Sunday (Yorkshire), persuading us, in a heart-wrenching tremolo, of the necessity to keep striving, ‘whatever differences there might be between the various races in this weld.’ But another religious programme showed that the holy spirit retains at least a flicker of life: the Anno Domini report on Paraguay (BBC1) was eloquent about the horrors going on there and the bravery of those who resist.

The Observer, 14th November 1976

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]