Essays: Mary and the facts |
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Mary and the facts

Derek Hobson was the amiable host of Britain’s Strongest Man (ATV), billed as ‘a contest for the British Meat Trophy compèred by Derek Hobson.’ Men in leotards towed trucks, bent iron bars with their teeth, etc.

Promising, with explanatory gestures, ‘a very extraordinary hour of feats of strength,’ Derek showed off the British Meat Trophy, which he described as ‘a very lovely salver.’ Derek, you felt, was at home. So was Robin Day, once again chairing the consistently excellent Question Time (BBC1). It would be pointless for Derek to ape Robin’s manner, or Robin Derek’s. Robin would not be comfortable introducing Mary Kaldor in the terms she would surely inspire from Derek. ‘Mary’s the daughter of a famous economist. Nothing economical about her figure though, eh chaps?’

Of Robin’s four panellists in the latest edition of the programme, only Mary could be described as a treat for the eye, since the others were Denis Healey, Peter Thorneycroft and Conor Cruise O’Brien. Mary probably doesn’t enjoy being described in sexist terms, but I am trying to draw attention away from her slight case of the Higher Inarticulacy. She has a First in PPE from Oxford and a head full of facts, but for some reason her arguments did not flow easily.

One of Mary’s beliefs, as far as I could make out, is that British Leyland’s strategy is all wrong: it would be better to build small buses for a rational public transport system than to hope that production-line workers will co-operate in turning out a supposedly world-beating small car. There is something to this belief, and there was a production-line worker in the audience who was ready to back it up by pointing out the salient fact about working on a production line, which is that the work is so monotonous it can’t be compensated for by high earnings. Unfortunately what should have been a persuasive argument never got a hearing. Mary probably went away blaming television, but really the fault lay in her approach. She knew so much about it all that she could never say the simple thing first.

When Mary tried for a demotic utterance, she came out with such phrases as ‘a completely new ball game.’ This girl, you thought, has to be brighter than she sounds. Peter Thorneycroft had incomparably less of interest to say, but managed to get it said. Denis Healey knew exactly how to say what he meant, and to not say what he also meant but found it politically expedient to suppress. As for Connor Cruise O’Brien, if he were not my Editor in Chief I would be able to do a more elaborate job of praising his ability to talk naturally on television without falsifying the issues.

Mary was outnumbered three to one. It was almost enough to make you believe that television is a medium in which even the brightest woman is best advised to sit back and look as pretty as possible. Yet on Newsnight (BBC2) Elizabeth Drew of the Washington Post fed Charles Wheeler a brilliantly argued summary of American politics. I would have liked to hear more from her but ‘Newsnight’ knows what to switch to when an item gets too interesting — football.

Michael Foot’s new haircut proclaims him a serious candidate for the leadership of the Labour Party. The haircut made its first appearance on Weekend World (LWT). If Foot’s hair had always been short, there would be nothing to object to. Similarly if Foot’s hair were still long there would be nothing to object to either. But he can’t have it both lengths. Clearly his hair plays a symbolic role. When it was long it symbolised rebellion. Now that it’s short it symbolises responsibility. Should a great political party even consider being led by a man with a thespian thatch? I am often criticised for placing, in this column, too much emphasis on male hairstyles, but it has long been my belief that a man declares himself by the way he arranges his wisps.

‘Poor old World,’ said Billy in Dennis Potter’s Rain on the Roof (LWT). ‘It was a lovely garden once, you know.’ Escaped from the asylum, Billy (Ewan Stewart) had come to visit Janet and John, played respectively by Cheryl Campbell and Malcolm Stoddart. Billy was either mentally defective or holy. Perhaps he was both. Seduced by Janet under a quilt, he murdered John with a knife of glass. Yes, he had certainly transformed their middle-class lives. It is a cardinal principle with Dennis Potter that all middle-class people except certain playwrights need to have their lives shaken up. The Italian film-maker Pasolini used to have the same idea. In fact his film ‘Teorema’ was a bit of a forerunner to ‘Rain on the Roof.’ But what ‘Rain on the Roof’ was really like was Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘The Passing of the Third Floor Back,’ in which a houseful of people had their lives transformed by a holy stranger. It’s a perennial plot — a format, in fact.

Not the Nine O'Clock News (BBC2) once again repaid the watching. The only reason I have been grudging about Rowan Atkinson and his bunch is that the very idea of being obliged to make pointless jokes nowadays brings me out in a sweat. But if laughs for the sake of laughs are still worth generating, the Not team has the wherewithal. C2H5OH was a play about alcoholism by David Turner, avowedly an ex-boozer himself. Dinsdale Landen, his beard streaked with dribble, played the lead, ‘Blargh! Heegh!’ he explained. ‘Karf! Karf! Karf!’ Then he fell down. Alcoholism stood indicted as the cause of inadequacy. Not much was heard about inadequacy as the cause of alcoholism.

‘This evening,’ said Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night (BBC1), ‘I want to leave the solar system completely.’ In the Carter v. Reagan debate, transmitted in condensed form on Newsnight (BBC2), the President said, ‘I had a discussion with my daughter Amy.’ It turned out that Amy thought the control of nuclear weapons was the most important single issue. ‘On that day,’ said the late Lord Mountbatten in the first episode of Lord Mountbatten Remembers (BBC1), ‘I was still probably the most powerful man on earth.’

The first instalment of Oppenheimer (BBC2), dramatised by Peter Prince, promised a reasonably detailed exploration of the great man’s troubled psyche, plus all the thrills of watching a team of dedicated men on the trail of a discovery. That the discovery was the atomic bomb should make the effort no less gripping to hear about. Oppenheimer had no doubts about the necessity of getting the fission bomb before Hitler did and there is no reason why we should have any doubts either.

What troubled Oppy was the fusion bomb. His disinclination to work on it led to an investigation of his liberal past. The hearings that resulted disgraced America. I read the transcripts more than 20 years ago and can remember thinking what a drama it all was. Some of that drama has been captured here, although one already feels that the physics are not being gone into in enough detail. The mechanics of a fission bomb are not beyond a layman's grasp if the mathematics are taken for granted.

Britt Ekland showed up in Battlestar Galactica (Thames). The Cylons were all set to pulverise the Galactica with a giant boff-ray, but Britt foiled their plans, whereupon the head Cylon, whose name is something like Blague, did a cape-sweep towards camera and made with a line I haven't heard since the early episodes of ‘Captain Video.’ ‘I will yet have the last laugh. Mark my words.’

The Observer, 2nd November 1980
[ A truncated version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]