Essays: Night of the blues |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Night of the blues

As was revealed on Newsnight (BBC2), Madame Tussaud’s must have been all set for a Reagan victory. Within minutes of the announcement an effigy that looked nothing like him was being lifted into position, while the effigy that had looked nothing like Carter was taken away to be given a new haircut and labelled as someone else — Gary Cooper, perhaps.

Indefatigable as ever on your behalf, I wangled an invitation to the American Embassy on the big night. The embassy was receiving satellite transmissions from the American networks. As things turned out I might as well have stayed at home, because the promised all-night nailbiter had fizzled out by the time our own ITN coverage went off the air at three in the morning. ‘The map is turning blue for Reagan’ was the cry of the television pitchpersons on both sides of the Atlantic. NBC’s John Chancellor is an authoritative broadcaster, but he is no more riveting than any of our own people when all he has to announce is ‘a very substantial victory.’

David Dimbleby was in charge at the BBC and had his usual tussle with the technology. Linked up by satellite with a commentator in the US, David suddenly announced: ‘We appear to be talking on radio instead of television, so we’ll get back to you.’ The commentator, who had been in vision all the time, looked understandably nonplussed. Meanwhile Anna Ford was ruling the roost at ITN. Among those roosting were Edward Heath, Roy Hattersley, Jo Grimond and the knowledgeable American Lloyd Cutler. All concerned seemed ready to agree that Reagan would not blow up the world immediately. ‘It’s an awesome task, isn’t it?’ mused Heath. Anna, who had done a lot of interrupting, handed back to Alastair Burnet. ‘There you are, Alastair, people coming round to President Reagan already.’

Anna had made her presence felt. She is not just a pretty face. Barbara Walters, who is not just one of those either, takes home a million dollars-a-year salary and has a hair-stylist in attendance 24 hours a day, paid for by the network. The size of her pay-slip confers prestige. The prestige confers clout. The clout confers courage. She asked Kissinger how close he was to Reagan. ‘I know many members of his endourage ...’ Kissinger wouldn’t say what he had discussed with Reagan. ‘I’d love to know,’ piped Barbara, ‘what you did discuss.’ ‘I jusd wished him good lug.’

Next day Reagan dominated all channels in his new role as President-elect of the United States. Of the many factors which had contributed to his landing the part, not the least, surely, had been his mastery of television — an accomplishment springing directly from the decades he had spent delivering bad dialogue in the movies. ‘Some of you stay here and guard the girl. The rest of you come with me. We’ll head ’em off at the pass.’ Obliged to utter miles of stuff like that, Reagan cultivated an inner stillness. That’s the reason why he looks so natural on television now. He isn’t acting.

Carter was an amateur and therefore fell prey to the delusion that on television it is necessary to ham it up. That reference to his daughter Amy probably lost him the debate, and losing the debate probably lost him the Presidency. One or more of Carter’s advisers must have thought it a good idea for the President to mention that his daughter Amy was concerned about nuclear arms control. If Reagan had been given a similar line he would have crossed it out, not because it was untrue, but because it was corny. Reagan knows all there is to know about lousy dialogue. One of the reasons he has come so far is to get away from it.

Reagan is unlikely to burn a world in which he has just become the single most influential man. What we can look forward to is not universal destruction, but the agony of little nations. The phrase is Churchill’s and should be resurrected. Under Carter the US largely gave up the practice of helping right-wing regimes to make war on their own liberals. Under Reagan, especially if Kissinger makes a comeback, that sordid branch of Realpolitik might well be resumed.

Fronting In Evidence — The Bomb (Yorkshire) Jonathan Dimbleby overwhelmingly proved that nuclear weapons were a bad thing. Anybody still harbouring the belief that they were a species of Christmas decoration would have found the programme a rude shock. The point that MAD — mutual assured destruction — was the only possible result of a nuclear war was convincingly brought out by a series of experts. To show how convinced he himself personally was, Jonathan included a lot of reaction shots in which he could be seen nodding, holding his chin thoughtfully, etc. As one who admires Jonathan’s investigative tenacity I feel justified in suggesting to him that the might care to underpin his conclusions with a bit more evidence that he has thought the subject through. Just how good, for example, is E. P. Thompson’s argument in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament?

Oppenheimer (BBC2) continues, with the dreaded General Groves emerging as a highly engaging heavy. A super-patriot straight out of the worst nightmares of Jonathan Dimbleby and E. P. Thompson, Groves would have been easy to caricature, but the part is reasonably well written and, by Manning Redwood, brilliantly well acted. Unfortunately what I predicted last week has come to pass: the physics have been left out. This leaves more room for the politics, which will doubtless be a revelation to those younger viewers who have no idea just how silly the American witch-hunt was, but the physics could have been made fascinating to everybody if described in the right words. ‘Do you think you could explain it to me?’ Groves pleaded. ‘Sure,’ said Oppenheimer, ‘what would you like to know?’ And then they still didn’t show you.

Gavin Millar made an impressive directorial debut with Cream in my Coffee (LWT), a play by Dennis Potter which reputedly spent a large amount of the company’s money. Lionel Jeffries and Dame Peggy Ashcroft lavished their combined talents on the task of making Potter’s dialogue sound probable. Back they went to the seaside hotel in which they had long ago spent their prenuptial honeymoon. He was now a senile bully, she a wincing target for his invective. Erstwhiles it had all been different. He conked out on the very dance-floor where the spotlight had once caught them kissing. Thus the circle of time was closed. What you missed was any sense that the two of them had been in any way involved during the intervening period.

Great Railway Journeys of the World (BBC2) is coming along nicely. In the first programme, Ludovic Kennedy crossed America by Amtrak. I have done the same journey myself and can vouch for the squeaks and rattles. Running from west to east, my train was a day late at Chicago. Running from east to west, Ludo kept better time. In the second instalment, Michael Frayn crossed Australia on the Indian-Pacific. Being Australian, I never thought of doing such a thing. He made me wish I had. The show was full of fax’n’info, including the datum that Australia exports thoroughbred racing camels to the Arabs. Did you know that?

The Observer, 9th November 1980
[ An incomplete version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]