Essays: The railway trio |
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The railway trio

MERELY by his presence, Robert Kee confers distinction on Panorama (BBC1). But not even he could make sense of the resulting uproar when the three leading voices in the British Rail dispute all got together in the studio for their first meeting of any kind since the imbroglio began.

Kee was the baritone in the background. Weighell was the bass sitting impressively to one side. Sir Peter Parker and Ray Buckton were the two competing tenors, singing their hearts out into each other’s faces. ‘The ACAS understanding ... as indeed it should be dealt with,’ sang Ray, ‘productivity initiatives ... through the machinery.’ This was impressive but incomprehensible. One trusted Sir Peter not only to match Ray’s legato line, but to provide clarity of diction. ‘The terms of reference were from ACAS,’ Sir Peter sang when his turn came, ‘taken to ASLEF.’ ‘The terms of reference,’ bellowed Ray. ‘The terms of reference,’ shouted Sir Peter. ‘Gentlemen, if I may,’ came Robert’s voice from the background, followed by a low, sad phrase from Sidney: ‘Let me make this clear.’

There was a tangible pause, a dynamic silence, a kinetic hiatus like the one towards the end of the sextet from Lucia just before they all get going again. Then they all got going again. ‘The ACAS terms of reference.’ ‘Constitutional arrangements.’ ‘The established machinery.’ ‘Violated and abrogated.’ ‘The terms of reference.’ ‘The terms, the terms of reference.’ ‘Let me make this clear. Let me make this clear. Please let me make this clear.’

There was a tangible pause, a dynamic silence, a kinetic hiatus like the one towards the end of the sextet from ‘Lucia’ just before they all get going again. Then they all got going again.

‘The ACAS terms of reference.’ ‘Constitutional arrangements.’ ‘Violated and abrogated.’ ‘The terms of reference.’ ‘The terms, the terms of reference.’ ‘Let me make this clear. Let me make this clear. Please let me make this clear.’

But perhaps it was time to start yet another week of feeling bad about Britain. After all, the weekend had left us feeling rather good about Britain, and too much of that would be dangerously unrealistic. Chief cause of the euphoria was, or were, the British ice dancers Jane Torville and Chris Dean, who won the European ice-dancing championship against stiff opposition from the Russians. In fact the Russians were sensationally good. Ice-dancing is at a peak right now and will thus almost certainly soon decline steeply, because the abiding handicap with the art-sports is that when they run up against their technical upper limits, then the range of possible aesthetic effect is soon exhausted.

Pairs skating, for example, has never really advanced as an art since the Protopopovs: Rodnina and Zaitsev were merely more technically daring, although Gardner and Babilonia, if their career had not been hobbled by injury, would perhaps have achieved a new synthesis. Nobody has equalled Peggy Fleming’s accomplishments in women’s free skating and it is doubtful if anyone ever will, since there is nothing left to do except work variations on the technical vocabulary that is already established. Triple jumps are as far as you go: there will never be a quadruple jump, not even for the men.

Ice-dancing has the aesthetic advantage of severely restricting the possible athletic manoeuvres in the first place, so that the trainers are obliged to look for pleasing effects rather than encouraging their dancers to try triple toe-loop death-spirals upside down. But even then there is a limit to how many beautiful moves you can make, and Jane and Chris have probably already hit it. Watching them skate was a perfect pleasure, even if the gold outfits they chose for their final programme made them look like a cigarette advertisement.

Which brings us to Germaine Greer’s programme about television commercials, screened as a whole episode of The South Bank Show (LWT). Second to none in my esteem for Germaine’s imagination and energy, I still thought this show told you more about her than about commercials. I can remember when Germaine was a radical, shouting semi-intelligible phrases like ‘kick out the jams!’ and weeping with compassion in the streets of the Bowery. Now here she stood giving us a sparsely illustrated lecture about how the best television advertising is not just easier to put up with than average television advertising, but is an art form in itself, and that we should fight for the right to watch it.

Well, she believed all that stuff then and she believes all this stuff now. Imaginative people believe what they are saying at the time, which is why they, more than any other people, must be on guard against themselves. Germaine, a keen student of literary history, is at least as well aware of this fact as I am, but she is such a big star that her producers will accept anything from her rather than make her go back and do it again.

‘The South Bank Show’ producers, now that they have accumulated a hill of awards, should stop being overawed by themselves. When they found out that nobody would give them any hard-sell commercials for Germaine to take apart, they might have seized the opportunity to concoct a few of their own, written by her and with her playing all the parts. All that happened was that Germaine improvised, with uncharacteristic lack of invention, a few hard-sell lines of copy. Otherwise it was all a bit of a talk with slides. When she’s being witty, she’s being critical, but when she’s wittering she’s no more informative than anybody else. If somebody like Germaine just stands there burbling instead of making every word count, then a large chance has been muffed. Perhaps the chance was muffed on her behalf, but intellectuals should be slow to blame the medium for making them appear trivial. Even when a show goes dead all around you, the audience will still listen to what you say, perhaps more attentively than ever.

Not that I’m against improvising on television, but unless you’ve worked out a thought-line beforehand things can get very spongy. OTT (Central) continues to be miraculous for the way it maintains its shape even when melting. The same could be said for a brick of cheap ice-cream, but ‘OTT’ is much more nourishing — a real television breakthrough. Much of the breaking through is into areas where at least one viewer doesn’t particularly want to be dragged, such as nudity, which scarcely ever looks good even on the young, and at my age gets to be an offence.

Nevertheless the greatest performance from the ‘OTT’ dance group Greatest Show on Legs was one of the funniest routines I have ever seen on television. The premise was that a certain number of naked men had to cover up their vital areas with the same number of balloons, so that when the balloons started bursting there was a lot of sleight of hand, spinning around and defensive crouching.

Just in case some nervous executive gets the urge to kill ‘OTT’ off, it is perhaps worth mentioning that when the BBC pulled ‘Quiz of the Week’ off the air it effectively lobotomised itself as a purveyor of intelligent humour. ‘Quiz of the Week’ was a witches’ brew with Ned Sherrin doing most of the stirring. Chris Tarrant, an equally quick-witted performer and producer, is doing the same with ‘OTT’, where if the participants blow a link they have to busk until the tape rolls or else just sit there while the egg piles up on their faces.

The fully written script, however, will always be the basis of television humour. Les Dawson (BBC1) is such an engaging fellow that you might wish he could be more adventurous, but his audience probably likes him for sticking to what he knows, which is mainly a verbally evoked Orc-sized mother-in-law and a wife who has to be transported in a cage. The show starts each week with Les seated at a disaster-prone piano and never fails to get you in. But for what a written script can give rise to you have to watch Julie Walters doing her ‘Dotty’s Slot’ number in Wood and Walters (Granada). Oscar Wilde would have swooned with envy. Every line is an epigram that comes shining through Dotty’s cloud of talcum like a shaft of moonlight.

The Observer, 14th February 1982
[ A shorter, edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]