Essays: Lethal frivolities |
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Lethal frivolities

IN THE latest episode of Lou Grant (Thames), Lou was tired.

We were meant to assume that he had grown weary from the accumulated pressures of being City Editor of the Los Angeles Times**, but it was equally permissible to assume that he was all worn out from carrying Emmies. In Washington on Sunday night I tuned in and saw Lou’s programme pick up so many of these awards that there were scarcely any left over.

I was in America as part of a concerted attempt on THE OBSERVER’S part to anatomise the entire country for your instruction. As you might have gathered from our billboard advertising, we were all disguised as various sections of Mount Rushmore in order to blend into the scenery.

My own share of the results will be communicated to you in due course. For now, let it suffice to say that American television was once again an education. One needs constant reminding that shows like ‘Lou Grant’ are the exception.

Back in London, it was a relief to switch on something with a bit of depth to it, even if the depth contained the murky shapes of German terrorists. Part Two of The Miracle Workers (BBC1) set out to demonstrate that Germany’s Economic Miracle had a sinister underside. As proof, a highly articulate ex-terrorist was encouraged to explain his conduct.

He had a sinister underside and a sinister overside to go with it. Not that there was anything scruffy about him. On the contrary, he looked like a bureaucrat. ‘I guess I am a good German,’ he mused, ’because I always try to live in coincidence with my Ideas.’ The Ideas revealed themselves to be the standard kit of speciously logical abstractions.

‘It’s hard to see,’ probed the interviewer, ‘why political murder was necessary.’ The ex-terrorist, who no longer goes in for that sort of thing but still thinks it was reasonable at the time, had his answer ready. ‘We were convinced that our welfare state was only possible by exploitation of the Third World ... we must disturb this false peace in our country.’

He appeared humble and probably thought himself to be so, but in fact it takes infinite arrogance to assume that you know your own motives for committing murder. How can you be sure that you are not just a murderer? On the subject of Hanns Martin Schleyer’s death, however, our friend remained confident. ‘What we did to him was part of what we are trying to change.’ Which practically made it Schleyer’s fault, if you thought the thing through: Schleyer hadn’t done much about fixing things in the Third World, so he was asking for it.

The ex-terrorist signed off with an eminently quotable version of an Idea basic to the playtime Left. ‘We did what we thought was right and found out it was wrong. So we are richer than before.’

In the latest instalment of Invitation to the Dance (BBC1), once again hosted by Rudolf Nureyev, we were treated to Béjart’s version of ‘The Firebird.’ The dancers were dressed in blue cotton outfits which were presumably meant to evoke the proletarian overalls worn by Chinese ballet companies during the long period when Mao’s cultural Ideas were being carried into action.

What made this particular notion not just frivolous, but lethally frivolous, was the fact that during all that time when the Chinese ballet companies were performing such masterpieces as ‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy,’ real creativity was being brutally suppressed. The Gang of Four, who sent the best dancers out into the fields to have their muscles ruined, were merely taking this Idea to its logical conclusion.

It was hard to quell a mental image of what Béjart would look like slaving in a rice paddy, but there was always Rudy’s mode of dress to distract you. This time he was wearing a patchwork-quilted bedspread for a horse. The previous week it had been a sweater open right across the shoulders, the better to reveal his superbly articulated bone structure.

In Cambodia: Year One (ATV) John Pilger did a follow-up to his famous programme ‘Cambodia: Year Zero.’ There were horrible flashbacks to the first programme in order to remind us of what Pol Pot’s regime had been like. ‘Meanwhile, in the West,’ Pilger complained, ‘memories are fading.’ If they are, it isn’t Pilger’s fault, but really I doubt if anybody capable of appreciating the issue has forgotten a thing. If Pol Pot has any historical function at all, it is to show us what happens when an Idea is fully realised. Everyone got the point, and anyone who tries to forget it can only be acting from cynical motives. According to Pilger, the United States is now doing exactly that. The Americans, he says, want Pol Pot back in power — a disgusting prospect. To back up his thesis he showed convincing evidence of how the remnants of the Khmer Rouge are being well looked after. Less convincing were his assurances about the North Vietnamese.

In ‘Cambodia: Year Zero’ Pilger claimed that the North Vietnamese wanted to help the Cambodians but that aid from Western relief agencies was tardy. In my review of the programme I said that there seemed to be a lot of independent evidence to suggest that the Western relief agencies were being denied access to Cambodia by the North Vietnamese. Pilger wrote a letter to THE OBSERVER calling me a McCarthyite for saying this, but in fact subsequent evidence proved that he had indeed been wrong on this very point.

However well the North Vietnamese are behaving now — and apparently they are behaving so well that Pilger deems it tactless to mention the Boat People — there can no longer be much doubt that they were obstructive then. Yet for some reason Pilger can’t bring himself to modify his account of the past. Does this obstinacy spring from pride at being the man on the spot, or is he afraid that a full picture of reality will be too complicated for us to grasp?

Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (Yorkshire) was a shoddy number for so distinguished a man to be mixed up in. Spread over two weeks, it speculated vaguely about strange phenomena. Paucity of evidence left plenty of room for conjecture.

‘What was the sea monster that attacked and mauled this warship?’ It turned out that the sea monster was probably a giant squid. No example of a full-sized giant squid had made itself available, but there was a small giant squid to show what a large giant squid must be like — i.e., a lot larger than a small one.

Having missed the first episode of Mackenzie (BBC1), I was faced at the start of Part Two with an unidentified couple fooling around in the flea-bag. Since the author of the serial was Andrea Newman I naturally assumed that they were father and daughter, but when the female came up for air her first words more or less ruled that out. ‘You’re a happily married man and I’m your bit on the side.’

Mackenzie is a builder of some kind with a skin the colour of boiled spuds, but he has acquired himself a classy mistress, who is stuck on her father, who ... Yes, it’s Bouquet of Barbed Haggis.

The Observer, 14th September 1980
[ ** Los Angeles Tribune. A shortened version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]