Essays: Digesting Japan |
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Digesting Japan

FRONTING a World in Action (Granada) report on the Japanese economy, Mike Scott showed us a Japanese television commercial for one of our most successful exports, McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits, which the Japanese apparently devour in large quantities. Tweedy English actors with hampers and shooting sticks disembarked from a Rolls and set about taking tea alfresco. Tweedy English music occupied the soundtrack, until it was interrupted by an oriental voice deeply whispering the name of the product. ‘Macahaviahties Dyahagahestivah Bahiscuhihetah.’

There was some encouragement to be derived from the fact that the Japanese can still occasionally sound awkward trying to be like us. But mostly, as Scott’s film reverberantly demonstrated, it’s nowadays a case of us sounding awkward trying to be like them. The Japanese economy has us beaten all ends up. Scott stood in front of the Datsun production line, which according to British myth should have been swarming with tiny, snaggle-toothed Japanese workers all sharing the one spanner and toiling 16 hours a day for a bowl of rice. The daunting reality featured a robot welder going about its computerised business while a lone supervisor the size of Rock Hudson looked masterfully on.

Did that mean that the workers replaced by the machine were on the dole? Not at all. The work force is never cut back because the output always goes up. The output will obviously continue to go up as long as other countries do not raise their tariff barriers. Scott neglected to say what would happen if they did, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the same production line turning out other things — tanks, for example. It was all very uncomfortable viewing, apart from the solace to be drawn from how funny they sound saying ‘McVitie’s Digestive Biscuits’.

In Owner Occupied (Thames), apparently the pilot show for a new sit-com, Robert Hardy was given another chance to employ the Cherman accent he brought to such perfection when playing Prince Albert in ‘Edward VII.’ This time he was a Cherman officer occupying one of the Channel Islands (I think it must have been Chersey) during World War II. Hannah Gordon was the cuddlesome local beauty who despised everything he stood for. But Hardy was such a luffable Cherman officer that she plainly found it difficult to resist his charm. That must have been how he got his Iron Cross and wound stripe — charming the Poles to death.

Hannah’s father ran the hotel which the Cherman officer had requisitioned as his headquarters. The format was a kind of ‘Hotel Sahara’ with less sand and more ... well, crap, actually. There was a good deal of unchentlemanly behaviour from some of the locals during the Cherman occupation of the Channel Islands. If we see some of that, the series might chust work. Otherwise it will be a load of chunk.

In my district last weekend the funniest thing on television was an American movie clumsily entitled The Girl Most Likely To... and starring the marvellous Stockard Channing as a plain girl who goes on the vengeance trail after being transformed into a beauty by plastic surgery. The truly witty script cast a long shadow, in which a show like Marti (ATV) froze. With a larky face and a terrific bod, Marti Caine is highly watchable, but her material, composed mainly of one-liners not even Max Bygraves would touch, is the last gasp.

Ned Sherrin’s Rather Reassuring Programme (ATV) was likewise cast into the shade by the Channing movie, but not to the extent of catching its death. The memory of the dreaded ‘Terra Firma’ lingers on, but ought not to: Sherrin could easily have transformed that turkey into a swan if he had fronted it on his tod.

As was proved by the memorable ‘Quiz of the Week’ (my all-time favourite panel game, pulled off the air because the controllers could not control it), Sherrin is lightning as a performer. This new programme springs to life whenever he chats to camera. But as always seems to happen in satire shows, there is a nervous reliance on sketches, as if we would get tired of too much exposure to a talking head. When the talking head is Sherrin, I get tired of the sketches. I want to hear more of him and see less of them.

The most solid documentary of the week was White Rhodesia (BBC1), presented by Hugh Burnett. He was on screen only two or three times and even when he was there you would have sworn he wasn’t. But the people he talked to found themselves spilling all kinds of beans. Gun-toting white ladies might easily have been exploited for satirical mileage. ‘I think they’ll be frightened to come here. They’re awful cowards, those fellows.’ Wishful thinking, of course. But it soon became clear that these were brave and even noble people, however misguided. This wasn’t satire: it was tragedy.

The best of the whites knew that the blacks who had been loyal to them were in for it. Gently prodded by Burnett, some of them even admitted that if there had been justice in the past, there would be no terror now. One or two were even ready to say that the jig was up. White wisdom had come late, but you could hardly laugh. Their sons are dying one by one and they haven’t really got anywhere to go. Imaginative in the scope of its sympathies, this was an outstanding programme.

René Cutforth’s trip down memory drain culminated in The Forties Revisited (BBC2). Cutforth is that rare thing, a front-man with background. You only have to clock that bashed face to know that here is a man who has lived. His jacket is worn to a frazzle from decades of rubbing shoulders in pubs with the London literary-journalistic-broadcasting intelligentsia. Fitzrovia and Soho weigh heavily on his eyelids. His voice sounds like tea-chests full of books being shifted about.

Cutforth accompanied his wealth of film clips with some general comments which had substance even when they were sweeping. He took the Picture Post view that the nation found itself during the war. Even if you think that it has lost itself once again since, this is still probably the most accurate, as well as the most optimistic, interpretation of what happened to Britain in the forties. It was a people’s war and Cutforth was properly sceptical about the competence and vision with which our rulers fought it. If I can risk a cultural comment of my own, I would like to suggest that here lay the true significance of Vera Lynn. Hers was the first singing voice that gave no clue to the social class of its owner. It was, and still is, the sound of democracy.

Philpott (BBC2) ended his series on drinking with a tough look at alcoholism. It could have been a lot tougher. A Chink in the Wall (Yorkshire) was a play starring Barbara Kellerman as a destructive sex-pot. It reminded me of ‘Lilith,’ Pasolini’s ‘Teorema,’ and the lateness of the hour. The Dennis Potter repeats were of interest, especially Double Dare (BBC2), in which Kika Markham was excellent and Alan Dobie strove manfully with the inevitable Potter role of tortured playwright: there was a lot of Structure, but some good writing found its way through it.

In Ghosts (Yorkshire) Richard Pasco was an ideal Pastor Manders. ‘Thank God that I possessed the necessary firmness,’ he announced, warding off temptation. The Frank Pakenham of the North. Lord Löngfjord.

The Observer, 31st July 1977

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]