Essays: Pins and needles |
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Pins and needles

ON BBC-1 The Question of Ulster loomed so large that it practically filled the week, leaving little room for fresh pay-dirt. Repeats abounded. The odd original thing did, however, loom through. Horizon (BBC-2) dealt with acupuncture, and the programme, which I finally caught up with last weekend, established its intelligence immediately by calling itself ‘Acupuncture’ instead of, say, ‘You’ll need a needle through your foot to fix that dripping sinus, cully.’ Long titles — a guarantee of facetious work — have lately crept back to prominence, and need to be re-repressed.

There is not much to say about ‘Acupuncture’ except that the people on screen were plainly reaping genuine benefits. It’s hard to argue with a man whose devastating migraines began to ease off from the first moment of getting stuck. But then, many a psychosomatic malaise has been miracle-cured in the past. Even more impressive were the dental patients having their molars rebuilt with no more anaesthetic than a few electrified pins inserted here and there in the nether regions.

We were told, though, that the sensation of pain is the only one the pins take away. All the other sensations they leave intact. And really, one doesn’t want to know what’s going on — the whole idea of sitting still for half an hour’s worth of injections is to reduce awareness of the oral area to a series of far-away clunks and booms. Anyway, an informative show.

So, alas, was a World in Action (Granada) on torture in Turkey. This grim programme was moved 90 minutes down the night so as to make sure the kids were in bed. One of these days they’ll have to know. In the early days of ‘Up Sunday’ your reporter delivered a piece-to-camera which touched fleetingly on torture in Brazil. The Brazilian Embassy was on the blower post haste, wanting to know what evidence I had for such an assertion. Well, only the stories of hundreds of people, many of them in ruins. Only the evidence of agonies recounted over and over in the same tone and with the identical specificity of detail, those brutally recurring themes.

The news coming out of Turkey sounds just as bad and just as real. What political conditions have to obtain before you start hearing about ladies being raped with electrified truncheons? The answer is that it can happen anywhere, about two weeks after the suspension of habeas corpus. Apart from what was revolting about this programme’s content, one thing was disturbing about its technique: when a participant asks for her face to be blacked out, it ought to be blacked out properly. I’d know that girl again anywhere, and so, for heaven’s sake, would the fully paid-up sadists who spent weeks working her over.

After only two episodes of the scheduled four, it is necessary to hail Hugh Whitemore’s The Pearcross Girls (BBC-2) as must viewing. Playing all the sisters, Penelope Wilton was this time pretending to be ‘Large Lottie,’ pregnant with her first child. Without mawkishness, the dialectic of cradle and grave was stylishly spelled out. It’s always good to see a mini-series turning out to be better than its preliminary scheme. Penelope Wilton is one of those fine, larky, brainy young actresses who seem to proliferate in her generations, but even with a taient like hers on tap it is not really a bright idea to cast one person in multiple roles: besides giving Equity the creeps, it smacks tiresomely of bright-ideadom, which is ever the enemy of your true art.

There was no such duplication in the capper to the second series of Country Matters (Granada), an H. E. Bates story about ‘Four Beauties.’ They were, too: a trio of sisters and their gorgeous mum, Zena Walker. Michael Kitchen fell for all of them in turn. As always with this elegant series, I had trouble reading minds — people’s interiors seem to go missing when the action is transferred from page to screen. But the girls, the girls! Realising the danger of turning this column into a thinly disguised love-letter, I refrain here from a full celebration of the female acting talent currently cropping up all over the screen. What is going to happen to all that art and eagerness?

They might well end up Enclosed (ATV), meaning locked away in a nunnery. Both the rigour (up at midnight to pray for the locals) and the unworldliness (embroidery hoops looked to be the biggest blast available) made their usual appeal. As a plain-clothes monk I approve of monasticism and like the idea of people not built for the hustle having an easy out — like it a bit better, perhaps, than producer Brigid Seagrave, who seemed keen, during prayers for the poor, to fasten a lens on nuns’ frail fingers greedily mopping soup. Come on, it was only a bit of bread.

The Play for Today was called Hard Labour and had Tony Garnett’s name on it, but this time that august label was hanging from a frail package. ‘If you’re not deeply shocked by this film,’ Garnett told us in Radio Times, ‘then you’ve been brainwashed.’ Do me a favour, love, and let me do my own reacting. I was deeply bored by this film, which seemed to me to prove nothing except the eternal truth that the British working class will freeze up solid when a team of cocky middle-class scolds moves in to capture the flavour of the daily grind.

With Gary Glitter among the judges and the name Tesco prominent on the marquee, the beauty season got under way again on BBC-1, Terry Wogan and David Vine supervised the hunt for Miss England, Miss Scotland and Miss Wales. ‘And this of course,’ moaned Terry, is the lovely smile of Zoe Spink.’ I am dying, Egypt, dying. ‘Fiona Thompson,’ raved Dave, countering: ‘and the crew of HMS Courageous will remember her.’

Lurching through invisible drifts of deep snow came the girls who wanted to meet Rock Hudson. Instead, they met David Vine. ‘Doanask meda make the decision,’ he bellowed, bereft of his discriminatory powers by the maelstrom of pulchritude. My money was on Susan Simcock from Mumbles, but she lucked out. Those are the breaks. I love beauty contests, and hate big, stinkeroo American telly specials like the abominable The Special London Bridge Special (BBC-1). This overlapped with The Kinks in Concert (BBC-2), in which the excellent Ray Davies showed the difference between craft and schlock.

The Observer, 18th March 1973