Essays: The prisoners on our conscience |
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The prisoners on our conscience

Illegible: Our source for this piece was a newspaper archive image, bad exposure causing the page to fade to white over the first three of the article’s six columns. The hard-to-read paragraphs comprised most of Clive's review of the BBC programme 'Orders from Above', concerning Britain's part in the enforced repatriation to Russia of Soviet PoWs and non-combatants after the Second World War. The article continues below, from the point where the text becomes readable.

Or, if you're curious, click SHOW to reveal my best attempt at reconstructing the illegible parts, and HIDE to revert.
Some creative guesswork was involved in what interpretation there is — there will be errors! — Archive Ed.

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It was the Left intelligentsia who did most to create the climate of opinion in which Stalin was either doted on as a saint or (among the more knowing) frankly worshipped for being callous. (This point was briefly and tellingly put by one Dr John Pinching, a British witness who is bitter now at how little he knew. In a longer programme the theme could have been expanded upon with profit.) And the most impressive voices in the show sounded like Eden’s, came from faces with the same well-bred look as Eden’s, and spoke minds which were probably not even as intelligent as Eden’s.

They were the voices of some of the British officers who carried out (and in one instance flatly refused to carry out) the orders from above. After 30 years they still sounded disgusted. These men were impressive testimony to the social structure which gave them their values. They would have been even more impressive if they had all resigned their commissions on the spot, but you can’t have miracles, least of all in retrospect.

It is a measure of Spike Milligan’s stature that in a world which leads ordinary people to cut their own throats he can restore insanity’s good name. His new series Q6 (BBC2) is his best ever — an outstanding comic achievement even in a year which has already produced the prodigious ‘Fawlty Towers.’ Somebody — either co-writer Neil Shand or ex-Python producer Ian McNaughton, or perhaps both — is holding Milligan’s proliferating imagination on line and providing the wherewithal to realise his fantasies. Usually television is too cumbersome a medium to catch what’s going on in Milligan’s skull.

In ‘Q6’ the shape of events is well-defined but precious room has been left for the unexpected — the right to go wrong, which over-rehearsal usually removes. So we get the double effect of inspiration and schooled compactness. The parodies, in particular, are beautifully put together, without the craft crippling the spontaneity. In the episode before last, a number called ‘The Tribal High’ wrapped up the David Attenborough ethnic documentary, not least because Milligan chose to impersonate the lamented Dr Bronowski, whose eloquent gestures were so marvellously unilluminating. The ‘lost white tribe on which no human eye has ever set foot’ not surprisingly turned out to be the British, but the details were the reverse of predictable. A gents’ loo (kept by Bert Terrible, the ‘Q6’ equivalent of Python’s Ken Clean-Air System) was ‘a temple no woman can enter.’ Lavatories figure largely in ‘Q6.’ There are flushing noises off and massive work-boots are visible under cubicle doors. Milligan by now has got beyond all vestiges of dignity, into a childish Empyrean where toilet-rolls exist to be unravelled.

This week’s episode started with Milligan delivering a sexual monologue from the reclining position, large boots being once again in evidence. It sounded like Leopold Bloom’s answer to the ‘Penelope’ episode in ‘Ulysses.’ ‘Use the appliance! Aargh! I love you.’ There was a preternaturally tasteless silent movie (a brilliant fake-up technically, with artifically scratched film processed to look like nitrate stock) about the first Irish rocket to the Moon, featuring drear locales entitled ‘Mission Control, Sligo.’ There was an athletics meeting with events like the 100 metres for the deaf (the gun goes off and nobody leaves the starting-blocks) and the 50-mile walk for athletes over 90 (won by somebody in the back of a hearse.) All these things would have been objectionable if one hadn’t been crying with laughter. The Pythons have always been eager to acknowledge that it was Milligan’s first ‘Q’ series which showed them how to break the inhibitions imposed by punch-Line formats. For a while it seemed that Python had brought television humour to an end — and so it had, for ordinary talent. But it’s genius that decides what is to be done next, and with ‘Q6’ genius is back on the case.

Are we all watching Anglia’s Space 1999? Martin Landau is less striking as a hero than he used to be as a round-shouldered Hollywood heavy, but the decor and Rudi Gernreich costumes are almost in the ‘2001’ class, making ‘Star Trek’ look like ‘Dr Who.’ This week’s episode guest-starred Peter Bowles as a nasty alien — a standard Star Trek plot, but transformed in the telling.

The Observer, 30th November 1975