Essays: Nucular Gold |
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Nucular Gold

ON BBC News, Kenneth Kendall’s tooth kept dropping out, closely echoing Angela Rippon’s famous lost ear-ring. If they had been working together as a team, Kenneth could have popped Angie’s bauble in his mouth and Angie could have hung Kenneth’s mandible on her ear.

One tends to watch the news instead of listening to it. Going one better, one tends to listen but not hear. On News at Ten (ITN) whatever Sue Lloyd-Roberts had to say about the nuclear industry was obscured by her habit of pronouncing the word ‘nuclear’ as ‘nucular.’ In quick succession she spoke of ‘nucular waste,’ ‘nucular installations,’ ‘nucular observers’ and ‘nucular energy.’ At one point she mentioned all these nucular things in one nucular sentence. She uttered the word ‘nucular’ at least 20 times.

Do these small matters matter? They matter. There is comparatively little a news programme can do to influence nuclear policy for the better. On the other hand there is a great deal it can do to damage the English language. If Sue Lloyd-Roberts doesn’t know how to pronounce things, she must be taught how.

Nobody minds much when a sports commentator keeps mispronouncing words. When Shane Gould was winning every swimming race she entered, it relieved the monotony to hear David Vine calling her Shane Gold. You could tie David in a chair and leave him there all night with a tape-recorder saying ‘Shane Gould, Shane Gould’ over and over, and when you untied him in the morning he would still be calling her Shane Gold.

David is built that way. But a news programme should be, among other things, a guide to the people on the efficient exercise of their most precious democratic right — the language. It is not a matter of accent. A news-reader can talk in a thick regional accent and still use the language properly. On the other hand he, or she, can talk like a toff and still abuse it.

Raymond Baxter should know better than to employ a word like ‘ongoing,’ but when commentating on The Royal Tournament (BBC1) he found it too useful to leave out. Talking about ongoing rivalries and ongoing competitions, he revealed himself to be bang up to date — a dubious virtue in one whose chief attraction has always been the startling extent to which he remains old hat. But Baxter still deployed enough of his wizard-prang patter to remind you of the halcyon heyday when he and Biggles ruled the sky. ‘And they certainly don’t hang about, these lads,’ he exulted, as Royal Marine commandos kicked each other in the groin. ‘A useful bunch, this, to take to a football match.’

Baxter was particularly impressed by the field-gunners. So had Ian Wooldridge been, in an episode of his series The Wooldridge View (BBC2) devoted exclusively to their activities. Wooldridge possesses that rarest and most mysterious of all literary gifts, a way of putting things. But he also has a Hemingway complex. Not a big one. Just an eensy-weensy one. But it nags. He admires manly men who test their physical courage. He suspects that the rest of us don’t test our courage enough. We ought to be like naval field-gunners, flinging half-ton gun-barrels over walls, laughing casually while our fingers are being sewn back on, and above all caring desperately about who wins the field-gun race at the aforementioned Royal Tournament.

Before Wooldridge snorts into his beer I had better tell him that I once led a display drill team myself. True, we were slinging about nothing heavier than .303 rifles. The number of fingers I lost could be counted on the fi... was very few. But I learned something about the satisfaction to be gained from being a member of a crack squad. Wooldridge was right to be excited by the spectacle of men moving as one man, etc. Where he went wrong was to go all misty-eyed and start talking about ‘a test of character.’ There is nothing character-testing about men moving as one man. On the contrary, it is a place to hide.

Nevertheless the field-gunners are a stirring sight as they come tossing, hurling and chucking down the arena. Certainly the Russians will think twice before they try attacking us with field-guns. Nor is any potential foe advised to take us on at ceremonial colour-trooping, the subject of the next programme in the same series. Wooldridge’s View on colour-trooping was pretty much the same as his View on field-gunning. He admired the manly dedication to unwavering standards of accuracy. In 165 yards of marching there are 193 paces and that’s that. Anyone who disagrees is out of line.

What made the programme about the colour-troopers better than the programme about the field-gunners was an opening sequence which reminded us that for most of the year the Guards regiments who troop the colour are busy risking their lives. The suggestion that there were other virtues beyond colour-trooping made the virtues attributed to colour-trooping easier to countenance.

It was also pleasant to see the officers working as hard as the men. In field-gunning the officers spend a lot of time watching the ratings knocking themselves out. In colour-trooping the officers at least have swords to carry. This did something, although not much, to make the officers and the men look like members of the same species. Is there any other country in the world where the classes look so different? The question is rhetorical. Anyway, Wooldridge did not seem too hopelessly sentimental when he tentatively suggested that the binding element might be adoration of the Sovereign. I’m bound to say that I adore her myself, and not entirely because her presence on the throne relieves me of the obligation to adore Mrs Thatcher.

Murder at the Wedding (Harlech) is a Bouquet of Flat Tyre number in which ladies of the middle class are to be seen removing their upper garments, preparatory to being violated and/or murdered by each other’s husbands and/or lovers. It would be unwatchable if Liza Goddard were not in it. So far she is the only young female in the cast not to have bared her bosom. She also generates the most allure. Mary Whitehouse would no doubt suggest that there is a connection between these two facts, but a lot depends on whose bosom is, or is not, being bared.

In Der Rosenkavalier (BBC2), as performed by the Bavarian State Opera, Brigitte Fassbaender was the best Octavian I ever hope to see. Occasionally she reminded you of Horst Buchholz in ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ but otherwise she was ideal.

Don’t miss Brian Gibson’s Gossip from the Forest on ITV next Sunday. I don’t usually go to previews, but Gibson’s programmes are too important to miss, and I was determined to see this one even if I couldn’t review it. Which I can’t, because I am going on holiday. I have cleverly chosen the Basque country, on the principle that the local terrorists won’t be shooting up their own beaches. If this idea proves to be mistaken, it was nice knowing you.

The Observer, 22nd July 1979