Essays: Pumping out pulp |
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Pumping out pulp

YOU can tell the years are catching up with you when you start getting jet-lag while still on the aircraft. At Singapore I was woken up by a man wearing a conical hat and carrying a vacuum cleaner. At 39,000 feet over Abu Dhabi I looked down through black night at the burning oil rigs and thought I was in Hell.

But I was not in Hell. Hell is in Australia, and is otherwise known as Australian television. Fate has decreed that my homeland, while being so blessed in all other respects that it differs from Paradise only in accepting American Express credit cards, should suffer from an advanced case of media blight.

The same barons who control the newspapers also control the television channels. The newspapers are pillows of grey pulp on which you may rest your head if forced to sleep on the pavement, but from which you would have small hope of gaining enlightenment. The television programmes are like the newspapers plus colour. Helping to perpetuate this iniquitous system is the fact that nobody in the newspapers can say anything consistently critical about the television programmes without finding himself switched, sooner rather than later, to some less taxing branch of reportage.

Admittedly I was there during a bad month for television. In December most of the leading talk-shows are off the air so that their presenters can count their money, which is delivered to their front doors by road train and has to he aired regularly lest it rot. This meant that I had almost nothing to look at except commercials. But the commercials tell you most of what you need to know. As on American television, but without the same subtlety, they arrive in batches every few seconds. ‘Unless you buy wunna my used cars this Christmas,’ says a man with a face like a chucker-out, ‘it’s gunna be too bad for both of us.’ Ten minutes later he is back to say the same thing again, and so on for about three weeks. Nor will buying one of his used cars stop him saying it.

There are, however, compensations. A television system so determined to exclude all glimmerings of intelligence at least ensures that the intelligence will crop up somewhere else — in this case the Australian film industry, which is thus made strong for the same reason that the British film industry is made weak. An additional benefit is that the few good things on Australian television will be widely watched even if they are a bit difficult.

Channel ‘0’ is a new and already highly successful experiment in which Australia’s many ethnic minorities are catered to by being regaled with programmes bought in from their countries of origin. Subtitles are added so that English speakers can keep up. The result is that a significantly large proportion of the total Australian viewing audience is now plugged in regularly to what can only be described as a cultural feast. In one week I saw two episodes from an excellent Italian dramatisation of Pirandello’s early novel ‘L’esclusa,’ as well as an outstanding German production of Schiller’s ‘Fiesko,’ which I had had no idea was such an interesting play.

Jeremy Isaacs, a welcome appointee as head of our fourth channel, might care to take a look at Australia’s Channel ‘0’ before he finalises his plans. The Channel ‘0’ link material couldn’t be more awkward, but the programmes themselves have so much substance it doesn’t matter. A good foreign programme positively gains from subtitling, which makes the viewer feel rather daringly cosmopolitan. On the other hand it positively loses from dubbing — a practice which BBC2 continues to engage in, and which its controller can doubtless back up with viewing figures, but which leaves the fourth channel a splendid opportunity to take the high ground.

Emerging from bed on New Year’s Eve, I could tell I was in England because there was a repeat of In This Your Honour (BBC2), starring the Queen Mother. It was very nice to see her again, but it was hard to dispel the impression that British television was hailing the New Year with a pretty muted fanfare. The Kenny Everett New Year’s Daze Show (Thames) was just about the biggest event available. Everett conducted the proceedings on the frequently reiterated assumption that nobody was watching.

After midnight he had to share the available audience with The Old Grey Whistle Test (BBC2), in which the excellent Anne Nightingale — almost the only female talking head on television who manages to sound like a human being — reviewed some of the top rock acts of the year, such as they were. For the mad, there was also A Happy New Year (BBC1), beamed down from north of the border in yet another successful attempt to prove that Scotland is a place to avoid during the festive season. There were pipers, reels and all the usual gaelic tedium.

As if to augur that 1981 was going to he a lot like 1980, New Year’s Day was a lot like New Year’s Eve. The big movie on BBC1 was Papillon, in which Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen grew old before your eyes as they attempted at great length to escape from a French penal colony. Hoffman acquired myopia and a limp. McQueen countered with a set of rotten false teeth. It is always fun when a dud script leaves you nothing to watch except the acting, but in this case the hilarity was blunted by the nagging memory of McQueen’s premature death.

I miss him already. He was a man of genuine interests who should never have let himself be cowed into doubting the worth of his action pictures. There are any number of intellectuals, but not many screen stars with the wherewithal to convey, behind and beyond the written lines, a sense of life. It was not encouraging that such a vital man should be taken by cancer, but at least it was natural. John Lennon’s death wasn’t even that.

The big New Year’s Day film on ITV was Doctor Zhivago, which was as thrilling as ever, or perhaps even less. Omar Sharif, the nemesis from the oasis, looked about as Russian as Colonel Ghadafi would have looked in the same role. Julie Christie did a read-through. The inanimate objects, on the other hand, all acted to perfection. Snow flakes, fallen leaves and broken blossoms successively vied for the Academy Award. Propelled by wind machines parked just off camera, they fell, blew about or wanly fluttered as the script demanded.

Parkinson (BBC1) saw the new year in by interviewing James Cagney. No longer in the first flush of youth, Cagney is not exactly a cinch to interview, so we were granted a chance to watch Parky earn his money. He did a good job of making tough sledding look dignified, if not enjoyable. A clip from ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ showed Cagney in full flight as one of Hollywood’s best ever dancers. The studio audience applauded loudly. ‘Why did you give it up?’ asked Parky. ‘No reason,’ said Cagney eventually. After pausing for a further quarter of an hour, he tentatively added: ‘Wanted to do something else.’

If you have never known fear, try interviewing someone as unresponsive as that. When Cagney forgot one of his own poems, Parky’s famous folder of research suddenly came in very handy. Parky has signed a contract worth millions to do his show in Australia, but it should be remembered that a lot of the people he will have to interview will make Cagney sound like Oscar Wilde. My own price for that kind of work is a trillion pounds an hour.

The Observer, 4th January 1981