Essays: Plugging the new patronage |
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Plugging the new patronage

A LONGSTANDING previous commitment kept me from the set on the one night of the week when a horse got shot at the International Horse of the Year Show (BBC1). I’m told that the incident was handled very discreetly, every attempt being made to shield the viewers from undue suffering.

Apparently the responsible officials draped a screen around the stricken beast before they killed it, and the BBC commentators scarcely felt a thing. David Vine signed off at the end of the evening by briskly assuring the television audience that it had certainly had its money’s worth.

Such was also true, as usual, of this week-long fixture’s various sponsors, who in return for a substantial but hardly crippling outlay receive a torrent of plugs from the BBC, since just as surely as David Vine will always refer to Alwin Schockemöhle as either ‘Alwin Schockemohle, German ace’, or ‘that man Alwin Schockemohle from Germany,’ so Raymond Brooks-Ward and Dorian Williams can be relied upon invariably to give an event its full title, whether it be the Moss Bros Puissance, the Godfrey Davis Championship, the Everest Double Glazing Championship or the John Player Trophy for the Grand Prix of Great Britain.

This last appelation, John Player, is, of course, what David Vine would call the Big One. For the same kind of money as Brut 33 spends to get Henry Cooper to take a bath in its ITV commercial (‘After ya barf, ya pour out a great big ’andful and splash it on’), it is not uncommon for John Player to receive a round score of impeccably prestigious plugs scattered right through the week on the public service channel.

John Player’s name is all over British television the way that the Medici coat of arms was all over Renaissance Florence — it’s the New Patronage. John Player! I’ve already given him four mentions today myself, without even noticing anything amiss. John Player is more than a man — he’s a movement. Didn’t the event that took place a week ago yesterday under the title of the John Player Grand Prix (International Motor Racing, BBC1) used to be called — even so recently as last year — the British Grand Prix? Yet here was the regrettably irrepressible Barrie Gill referring to it, after it had been rained off short, as ‘the most exciting John Player Grand Prix of all time.’ Whether bellowed by David Vine or screamed by Barrie Gill, the name of the game is John Player. ‘Whatever way you slice it, it’s still been a superb John Player Grand Prix!’

I am heavily pro-Beeb and would like to see its licence fee doubled or even tripled. But this will never happen until the BBC policy-makers own up to the fact that the Corporation is by now very deeply in hock to the hucksters. The BBC must try, hard and soon, to regain a position in which it is able to tell John Player to go chase himself — at least to the point where it is no longer obligatory for the commentators to shout his name like a war-cry. Meanwhile, his programmes should carry a Government health warning.

Pre-sold as the macro-documentary of the week, Johnny Go Home (Yorkshire) was a lengthy treatment (it came in two parts, with ‘News at Ten’ serving as interval) of young drifters in London — a subject not entirely new to the screen, but here gone into with unusual determination, not to say overkill. The hero, young Tommy, was only one of the no-hopers wandering about in front of the cameras, and in fact he rather faded towards the end, his story pre-empted by the more lurid doings of one Roger Gleaves, who seems to have billed himself as a bishop, run a hostel and — it is alleged — buggered the boys.

One way or another, Gleaves was quite a case (he was an Empire Loyalist, a Fascist and a Keep Britain Whiteist before he went into youth work) and what he was doing allowing himself to be filmed is something of a mystery, unless he was trying to build up evidence of insanity. Not that he stood out all that far from most of the other people in the programme, who mainly bore out one’s suspicion that the only thing a vérité camera establishes the truth about is the histrionic ability of the person it is pointed at.

Apart from a junkie called Annie, who was so strung out she could do little but moan things like ‘I drop a few tabs of acid and go down to the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm and see what’s happening,’ the supposedly real-life characters were all role-playing like mad. Tommy’s parents, in a scene meant to represent the prodigal’s return, came on like Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine. In normal circumstances they probably would have belted the daylights out of him, but the fact that he was accompanied by a film crew inspired them to re-write their own dialogue, so that affectionate lines such as ‘I’d rather you stayed here and tried to get a job, son,’ fluttered around Tommy’s grinning head like clichés from ‘The Little House on the Prairie.’

Eleventh House* (BBC2) was this time written by Clive Eaton and Tom Stoppard, who turned in a play** which would have repaid proper rehearsal and comparatively leisurely production, instead of the live-transmission frenzy which is supposed to lend this drama series extra edge. The play’s devices mostly seemed to reflect Stoppard’s well-known obsessions: the don with the flighty wife (‘Jumpers’), the bizarre stage-picture which the action clarifies (‘After Magritte’), the body on the floor (‘The Real Inspector Hound’). Stoppard never minds using an idea a second time so long as the plot redefines it.

And once again the plot was a honey, with the whole chain of events remaining unintelligible until a few minutes before the end, when a cricket ball flying through the window shook everything into shape. The lexical bravura ranged from par-for-the-course Mrs Malaprop (‘Enough of this virago’) to vaulting inspiration (‘Macaroni’ was a small American actor). There would have been plenty to enjoy, but live television means wincing at fluffs and waiting for the floor manager to appear in shot — which he duly did — instead of concentrating.

[ * Eleventh Hour ; ** ‘The Boundary’ ]

The Observer, 27th July 1975