Essays: Mankind's perfect pet |
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Mankind’s perfect pet

WHALES were all over the screen this week, but nowhere more impressively than in a majestic show called The Passing of Leviathan (Anglia), narrated by Orson Welles.

Orson Welles and the awesome whales — there was a homophonic justice to the relationship, and if Welles had actually appeared on screen there would have been a visual resemblance also, but he was manifest only vocally, his physical bulk doubtless being occupied elsewhere, making sherry advertisements. The human beings to be seen in the programme were the whale-expert Dr Roger Payne and his family, who spend a good part of each year in Patagonia watching Right whales — 60 feet long, 15 feet across the back, 20 feet across the flukes — disporting themselves close inshore at an enchanted spot called Valdes.

Apart from the Paynes, nobody else was in sight except the whales, for whom Valdes appears to function as a holiday camp. They shunt back and forth only a few yards from shore, jumping, lobtailing, standing on their heads and merrily screwing — which last activity they go in for on the grand scale, and good luck to them. There was incredible footage of the rear fuselage of a female sticking straight up out of the water. We were told that the lady maintained this position with her pectoral fins, in order to make herself unattainable to the randy males circling endlessly around in urgent need of genital contact. Dr Payne’s four children were obviously having a terrific time. Although everyone pretended to be worried about how much school they were missing, it was plain that Valdes is a nursery for the intellect. They raced mice, tamed gulls, and paddled around in kayaks among the whales. At one with nature, they formed a nice counterpoint to the script’s constant and justified complaint about the whale still being a victim of human greed.

There is nothing a dead whale offers that can’t be obtained from other sources more abundantly. On the other hand, there is plenty a live whale offers which we would do well to cherish. Despite the elaborately interwoven texture of their song — which provided the show with a wealth of soothing background music — the whales don’t seem to me to be our intellectual equals. Since they are by no means as keen to get in touch with us as we are to get in touch with them, they can hardly be said to possess scientific curiosity. Nor do they watch television, or read. It will be a long time before the whales produce their own Henry Kissinger. Perhaps their true destiny is to function as mankind’s perfect pet. In point of manners and entertainment value, whales are in every respect superior to, say, dogs. For example, whales do not foul the footpath.

The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau (BBC1) was also full of whales, but they were comparative tiddlers — Grey whales only about 30 ft long and thin with it. Cousteau’s ship, the ubiquitous Calypso, trailed a school of these slim-line behemoths 5,000 miles from the Arctic to the desert lagoons of California, where we were assured they would promptly set about the ever-popular activity of breeding. Perhaps they did, but the camera found it hard to get a look-in through the roiling murk of furiously agitated plankton. What was going on in there? Come to think of it, Welles’s whales had likewise slipped out of focus at the crucial moment. Is there a conspiracy among programme-makers to stop us finding out exactly how whales get their nookie?

Cousteau’s programme degenerated as usual into a trumped-up drama in which Time was Running Out. On this occasion, Time was Running Out for a stranded baby whale which the Calypso’s party of divers and scientists discovered on the point of suffocation. In less time than it takes for half a dozen men to have a silly idea in French, agreement had been reached: they would try to heal the creature and return is to its natural habitat. While Time Ran Out, they rigged a sling for the poor mite, hauled it to the ship, strapped it alongside, winched it aboard, put ointment on it, lowered it beck into the water, fed it with this and that, sat up with it for two nights, and nodded sagely when it finally cashed in its chips.

With Yesterday’s Witness (BBC2) we were back with the human beings. Last week’s episode — the first in a new series — was called ‘Coming Out in ’39’ and consisted of dewy-eyed reminiscences from several of the debutantes of that era, who nowadays look back fondly from what seems a pretty comfortable existence, although only one of the eerily well-preserved charmers betrayed anything extravagant in the way of upper-class mannerisms — an accent you could use as a cake-knife.

She told it like it was. It seemed the debs only went to donces put on by people their mothahs knew. The most common kind of donce was the supper-donce. But with war looming, it wasn’t all beer and skittles. One spent a certain amount of the day attending Red Crors closses. We were told how sex was kept well in the background — a secret subject, like whales mating in clouds of plankton. For how but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born? All gone now, like bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Arthur Hopcraft’s play The Nearly Man (Granada) was repeated. How did I miss something so good the first time round? Must have been away. Tony Britton, putting the double scotches down like bombs, was the best incarnation I have yet seen of the Labour MP whose tastes outstrip his beliefs. His wife’s disillusion was conveyed by Anne Firbank’s face and picked up by John Irvin’s cameras in a series of reaction shots that showed how subtle television drama can be.

With Hopcraft’s play on view, any others tended to look crass. Feeling His Way (Thames), an alleged ‘Comedy About Marriage’ written by Donald Churchill, failed to survive the comparison: the script needed a lift but the casting was only half right. Pabst’s Fall-of-the-Third-Reich movie The Last Act was on BBC1: some patches of untreated propaganda don’t stop it being a masterly job. For contrast, there was Busby Berkeley’s dubious extravaganza Dames (BBC2). A treat for the Philip Jenkinson people, it featured Dick Powell’s face, lyrics like ‘Your knees in action/That’s the attraction,’ and the usual fascist-rally choreography.

Pilots at Sea (BBC1) was an altogether transfixing documentary for those interested in aircraft. Ben Hall (BBC1) looks a promising series. The dialogue is none too inspired (‘Odd chap, Ben Hall.’ ‘Still waters run deep, Sergeant.’), but the Australian locations are sympathetically caught both on the emulsion and on the sound-track — instead of the whale’s trill, the blowfly’s hum.

The Observer, 13th July 1975