Essays: Marginally better |
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Marginally better

THIS column has no pretensions towards exercising power, since that would entail responsibility, and therefore sleepless nights. Nevertheless, it is surely a legitimate cause for pride when one’s words have an effect. Last week they had a colossal effect.

Murray Walker calmed down. Two years of abusing him for the way he screams instead of talks have borne sudden fruit. Presenting the latest edition of Grand Prix (BBC2) from Montreal, Murray employed, for the first time in living memory, a normal voice. Suddenly you could hear the cars. With the excitement being supplied by two dozen howling engines instead of a single shrieking throat, the whole affair became immeasurably more gripping.

Anything can improve, even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (BBC2), of which the latest episode was a good deal less wearisome than the previous three. If the first three episodes had been compressed into one the series might have been the right size. People have written in to ask whether I am pursuing a personal vendetta against John le Carré. An anonymous lady who has apparently spent her entire working life inside a highly secret filing cabinet tells me that le Carré uncannily evokes the atmosphere inside a highly secret filing cabinet.

Le Carré’s early books were excellent genre fiction — a far better thing for a book to be than third-rate literature. The kind of book-reviewers who are daunted by real literature, and are always on the lookout for a more easily readable substitute that they can call literature instead, called them literature. In the resulting climate of worship le Carré’s sense of proportion, it seems to me, became somewhat scrambled. The books became bigger and bigger with less and less in them. It is a familiar enough progression, made more vexing in this case by the fact that le Carré really has got something unique to offer — a romantic dowdiness which nobody else can quite match.

Anyway, in this series the adapter Arthur Hopcraft has mainly further puffed up what needed drastic paring down. The chief virtue of the latest episode was that some of the dialogue was genuinely elliptica1 instead of repetitively cryptic. Only Pinter can write Pinterese, and even he, in the best of his bread-and-butter screenplays — ‘The Quiller Memorandum’ — was careful to economise. With the help of some monumentally stiff directing, ‘TTSS’ has spent too much of its time generating an air of mystery, instead of being as clear as possible about a steadily developing mental battle.

Alec Guinness has done a lot with a character who is really only ever two things: clever and jealous; Ian Richardson is coming along nicely as Bill Haydon. I shall watch to the end, but I fear that what should have been a thriller is turning out to be only marginally better than plain dull.

Angels (BBC1) continues on its praiseworthy way, critically unregarded but widely admired, I imagine, among the viewing public, who know a meaty story when they see one. Meaty, bloody, scruffy, flakey, sweaty and smelly. In ‘Angels’ nothing is shirked. It is ‘Mash’ minus the wise-cracks and plus despair. But each of the nurses is treated as a separate character with her own problems. Most of the problems are ordinary enough but no less interesting for that, since the fascinating thing about nurses is the way a quite ordinary event — a bad night out or a fight with a friend — has to be lived with in the context of a day spent toting bed pans and mopping up pus.

Several new series have now started up, including an epoch-making bummer called Roadshow Disco (BBC1), fronted by Linda Lewis and John Eden. The idea is that the Roadshow Disco tours the country in search of towns which are normally deprived of this sort of thing, and inflicts it on them. The first venue was Nottingham. Linda scores zero as an interviewer of the local populace, but at least she can sing a bit. John’s task is to talk a strenuously classless language from which all consonants have been removed. ‘Arnweawe?’ he asks, meaning ‘Aren’t we all?’

Meanwhile the local talent leaps and writhes self-consciously to the thin thump of the trite music. ‘It’s funtustic,’ says one grateful participant, ‘I’d like to be on television.’ Asked what he would like to do with his life, another young resident says: ‘Being on television, you know?’

The floor clears for a production number performed by Grant Santino and a supporting dance group. Apparently portraying, through the media of mime, some kind of unknown political prisoner, Grant spends much of the time prone or supine, or a mixture of both, while struggling against a set of iron bars worn symbolically around his neck. Everybody strives to pretend this is the biggest thing that has happened to Nottingham since Robin Hood rode into town, but nothing can dispel the pall of embarrassment.

Another dance group, called something like Damp Tush, wagged its collective bottom at intervals during the first instalment of Friday Night ... Saturday Morning (BBC2). There were also some fairly standard interviews. But the core of the show was strong enough, since it was none other than the old ‘Quiz of the Week’ format, here compèred by the man who originated it, Ned Sherrin.

‘Quiz of the Week’ once appeared briefly on BBC television only to be axed by chicken-livered executives. Sherrin later revived the format on WNET in New York, where the Americans tended to spoil the fun by playing for keeps. Now, at last, it might be free to flourish.

Unfortunately, by the time you read this, Sherrin will have completed his stint as the programme’s presenter. He will be replaced by Sir Harold Wilson. Shirley Williams also has her own show. The Labour Party is nowadays the quickest route into show business, probably because of the excellent training provided by the Labour Party Conference, where a sense of theatre is indispensable to success. If Benn snatches Callaghan’s chair, it will be because he is an even bigger ham. But as David Holmes said on the News, Benn is not yet leader. ‘Not yet is he that. Perhaps never will he be.’ Something there you’ve got, David. Up it keep.

The grinding respectability of Soho After Dark (BBC1) left you sympathising with the jaded stripper who, after several decades of flashing her fanny at an audience of increasingly gullible punters, is thinking of taking up another line of work. I understand there are some attractive openings in computer programming.

Mastermind (BBC1), on the other hand, plumbed new depths of depravity. A man specialising in the history and geography of Dartmoor was asked: ‘What was a blowing house?’ He didn’t know. It was, of course, a massage parlour for escaped convicts.

International Show Jumping (BBC1) has featured a large number of crapping horses. The more camera-conscious the horse, the more likely it is to dump its load in close-up just before attempting the first fence, which it usually destroys. Some riders have failed to realise the importance of letting the horse finish, as it were, before starting. Nevertheless, Robert Smith won the Basildon Bond championship on a horse which airily voided its bowels through half a perfect round. Horses are like people: a thoroughbred can get away with anything.

The Observer, 7th October 1979