Essays: Our bionic hero |
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Our bionic hero

IT took two complete episodes of Six Million Dollar Man (Thames) before Six finally managed to save Civilisation from the Death Probe.

The Death Probe — which Six and his associates simply called Death Probe, as if it were a pop group — was a machine that could slice and blast its way through anything. Under the control of a forn power, it went ‘oomWAH oomWAH oomWAH’ as it trundled inexorably along. To the unprejudiced eye it looked like a large milk-churn with a few tiny lasers stuck on it, but in the reaction shots Six looked very worried.

Six made frequent reference to the ‘special alloy’ of which Death Probe was composed. The fact that this alloy bore a strong visual resemblance to cardboard did not, of course, preclude the possibility that its strength would overtax the resources even of our bionic hero. Certainly the forn agents were confident of victory. ‘Probe’s working perfectly. If anything gets in its way ... too bad.’

Fizzing and wheezing across that familiar square mile of Californian scrubland which has seen so many threats to Civilisation posed and averted, Death Probe headed towards the nearest centre of population. Six cleverly dug a hole. Death Probe fell into it, saying ‘oomWAH oomWAH oomWAH.’ Six and his boss looked relieved, but not for long. ‘Steve! It’s ... tunnelling!’

There was only one thing to do: fool Death Probe’s computer by changing the Earth’s Magnetic Force. ‘If we change the Earth’s Magnetic Force,’ gritted Six, ‘we ought to be able to change Death Probe’s direction.’ ‘But Steve, how are we gonna change the Earth’s Magnetic Force?’ The same question was on my lips too, but all doubts were dispelled by the rousing sight of Six going into action. Running in slow motion, he altered the Earth’s Magnetic Force, tangled Death Probe in a net, hauled it aloft by helicopter and dumped it in a vat of boiling solvent. The stricken machine said ‘oomWAH’ in an increasingly muted fashion and finally fell silent.

Nobody should ever run away with the idea that shows like ‘Six Million Dollar Man,’ ‘Bionic Woman’ and ‘The Incredible Hulk’ are the worst series American television has to offer. There are yet deeper strata of sludge which our importers have mercifully not yet tapped. Occasionally we are given a hint. Fantasy Island (Thames) is a case in point. All about a magic island where people come to have their wishes fulfilled, it stars Ricardo Montalban.

Ricardo Montalban used to rival Fernando Lamas for the title of top straight-teeth Mexican. There were two kinds of Mexican, bad-teeth and straight-teeth. The bad-teeth Mexican, who usually had a name like Gonzalez Gonzalez Gonzalez, said: ‘Hey gringo, you throw down the gon and we no hort you.’ The straight-teeth Mexican wore tailored suits and said: ‘Senorita, since you have come to our hacienda I feel lightness in my heart for the first time since my sister was trampled by her horse.’ Lamas had more teeth, but Montalban was classier.

It is good to see Ricardo back on top. Unfortunately what he is back on top of is a heap of guano. ‘Fantasy Island’ is really just ‘Love Boat’ at anchor. People arrive with their problems and leave without them. Roarke, played by Ricardo, gives the raped girl back her self-respect, reconciles the warring couple, restores the grief-stricken mother to sanity and cures the jet pilot of bed-wetting. Most of this he accomplishes by smiling understandingly in the reaction shots. In trickier moments he can rely on the assistance of a terrible dwarf, who follows him around saying: ‘Wart you warn me to do now, borse?’

The biggest question in the Land of the Media last week was whether Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night (LWT) would make good the declared intention of stealing Saturday night back from the BBC. Saturday night has traditionally been scooped by the Beeb because of ‘The Generation Game,’ starring Bruce Forsyth. But now ‘The Generation Game’ is being fronted by Larry Grayson and Brucie has gone to the commercial channel. I present all this by way of background to what those in the business plainly regard as the biggest personal confrontation since Sohrab and Rustum.

Brucie could hardly lose. For one thing, he was appearing in a new format, so if anything went wrong be could always blame the format. Meanwhile, over on BBC1, Grayson goes on having to cope with the unpalatable fact that the audience knows exactly what to compare him with — Brucie. Every time Grayson understandably fails to convey any real interest in the dreary lives of the contestants, the audience remembers how frantically interested Bruce used to seem when he read on his little card that the man standing before him was a T-joint bung-flange welder.

‘Remember we’re on ITV,’ sang Bruce, as if we could ever forget, ‘the channel that you get for free.’ That having been got out of the road, it was time to meet Anthea. ‘Let’s meet ... Anthea.’ Anthea was excited. ‘I’m excited.’ She was clad in a fetching bare-midriff number made of antique lace. ‘Should I do a twirl?’ Bruce and Anthea both share the delusion that the world is waiting with bated breath for Anthea to do a twirl.

The joke-telling competition worked well enough. The first joke-telling contestant was called Andrew Philpott. ‘This is Andrew Philpott,’ read Anthea, with the expression of Heisenberg on the point of arriving at the Uncertainty Principle. Anthea’s role is to be the eternal amateur. Indeed it was quickly revealed that the format depends for its success on Brucie being the only professional. The more at sea everyone else is, the more credit he gets for being in command.

The participation of Bette Midler was therefore as much of a minus as a plus. She was so terrific she blew Brucie away. From the first bars of ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ she suddenly made all the production numbers that had preceded her seem emptily contrived. Compared with the speed and vitality of her New York street talk, everything anybody else said sounded tired.

World About Us (BBC2) has done some good things lately, but ‘Independence for Papua’ was outstanding. Prince Charles, dressed in white ducks and looking more than ever like a nourishing glass of milk, was on hand to bless the proceedings. The locals, who are multi-coloured to start with and apt to improve matters with paint, ate sandwiches through holes in their masks while they waited for the flags to be swapped. Visitors arriving by air wore palm-leaf skirts and carried pigskin suitcases. It was all shot and cut with a quick eye, and conveyed genuine, unmistakable gaiety.

The Observer, 15th October 1978