Essays: The phantom Phantoms |
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The phantom Phantoms

WHAT with travel difficulties and the non-co-operation of the belligerents, it took our news teams a long time to get their cameras into the war.

Early in the week we were given mostly the local stringer phoning a voice-over to a caption of a tank or a dead body. Any footage coming out of the battle zones seemed mainly to have been secured by CBS. The next stage featured stand-up summaries against footage of either city sky-lines or else armoured traffic rolling up the road towards a front lying at an unspecified distance. By Thursday night the crews were high on the Golan Heights and deep into Sinai, where we found that even though the Germans developed it for combat photography in the first place, the shoulder-borne lightweight reflex camera still has the devil of a time picking up on a jet flying at low level. The noise is no guide and the thing flits out of frame faster than the cameraman can pan. There they were, though: real toys with men inside them. And one had the sinking feeling that there had been no reel need to hurry. On this occasion we might be in for a slugging match that will give our crews bags of time to dig in and practise their angles.

Meanwhile, back home in the studio, things were less entrancing — especially at the BBC whose analytical chats on the subject were marred by what was either bad liaison between presenter, researcher and producer, or else outright incompetence. In Tuesday’s Midweek (BBC1), during the section on the hardware currently in play, repeated captions of what was flagrantly a Skyhawk were accompanied by Tom Mangold’s confident pronouncement ‘The Israelis have the Phantom.’

On Thursday’s news, footage of a Phantom was just as gravely announced to be a Skyhawk. If there is no small boy available for consultation, the way to tell the difference between these two aircraft is to remember that the Skyhawk is the short pretty one and the Phantom is the long ugly one with the anhedrel on the tail. Ignorance of such elementary facts inspires no confidence in the proffered interpretations of the Big Picture.

For diversion from bitter reality there were nightly visits to The Horse of the Year Show (BBC1), which in its later stages regaled us with some heart-warming shots of sensibly rebellious gee-gees conducting their hooray riders straight through enormous fences instead of adopting the less advisable alternative of trying to jump over them. Introducing the show early in the week, David Vine was at his best. Recently Dave has been doing serious damage to his hard-won reputation for incoherence by fronting a repeat of his mini-series on fencing (Cut and Thrust, BBC1), with informative tact, but the prospect of a week’s horses brought him back to form. ‘Hello and welcome to this great week of show-jumping,’ he shouted through his grin, ‘and as I say, in this week of show-jumping we won’t just be seeing show-jumping, we’ll be seeing all the people who make show-jumping such a spectacle this week, this week of show-jumping in which, as I say, the 49 qualifiers for tonight’s event have been simpered down to those 21 people who’ll make this night of show-jumping not just part of this great week of show-jumping we’ve been looking forward to as I say, but the people who, the people who...’ I suppose writing it down instead of making it up would kill the spontaneity.

In a programme devoted to the British hero, Omnibus (BBC1) starred Christopher Cazenove as Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and other equally clean-living thicks who in the pages of popular fiction did or do the same kind of derring. Alan Coren had contributed a beaker of his hydrochloric wit to the script, but the production tiresomely neutralised it. The scenes were staged with not much brio and for some reason the narrative was delivered at the velocity of a demoralised glacier. For a touch of the hyperthyroid vigour and patrician confidence of the authentic British free-lance dick, you had to go the latest episode of The Dragon’s Opponent (BBC2), which I have followed from the beginning with growing admiration for Virginia McKenna’s performance as the Earl of Suffolk’s worried mum, and deepening sorrow that adherence to the factual evidence has limited the penetration of this brave peer’s maverick character. Ronald Pickup has reproduced the Earl’s frenetic eccentricity ably enough, but the writing doesn’t let us know enough about the amount of intelligence that led him to his career as a misfit. Stay tuned for when he meets the unexploded bomb containing the violent quietus for his troubles.

Henry Ford was the American hero, an altogether different customer. The Ballad of Henry Ford (BBC1) had an easy time researching his achievements, since nearly everything relevant — including the shops and small factories of his early days — was uprooted by the all-powerful old man and transplanted to the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn. There was some good footage of Ford’s First World War small tank, of Barney Oldfield driving the 999 (bad dubbing here — with cylinders that size it would have sounded like the crack of doom), of the assembly lines at Dearborn and River Rouge, of a Trimotor spinning in the sky, and of other equally resonant phenomena. But the full horror of the mad old mogul’s ratty character didn’t come across. The script was literal-minded, and the show lazily contented itself with the two locations — the museum, and a stretch of English road along which a Model T did its venerable routines. The point that Ford was a copyist rather than a creator was made with sufficient clarity, but the inhumanity of his production lines was never fully brought out. Most of the blame was laid on the brutal shoulders of his hit-man, Harry Bennett, who for good reason had machine-gun nests around his house. That was the way Ford intended it. Wearying to see that the foxy old slavedriver’s Machiavellian tricks are still effective.

Second House (BBC2) has got rid of its studio audience, substituted a recognised intellectual (Melvyn Bragg) for its erstwhile man of the people (Joe Melia) and now looks exactly like Aquarius (LWT). This week Burton had a scene from Athol Fugard. Bragg countered with a tendentiously clever film by Gerald Scarfe. It’s a promising contest.

The Observer, 14th October 1973