Essays: Rampant Dallasitis |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Rampant Dallasitis

A MEDICAL reader writes to say that the BBC’s preoccupation with Dallas (BBC2 recurring) should not be called Dallasitis. Apparently the correct term is Dallasosis, meaning a condition brought about by excess Dallas. Dallasitis merely means that one’s Dallas has become inflamed.

But one’s Dallas has become inflamed. Also it is producing offshoots. One of these is called Knot’s Landing (BBC1), a series likewise dedicated to recounting the doings of the Ewings, except that these Ewings are the ones who couldn’t make it back in the Big D, where the clouds sail through buildings made of mirrors. Now they are somewhere in the dreary north, at Losers’ Landing. In the latest episode Gary finally confessed to being an alcoholic — the sum total of his achievements to date. You will remember that in the early episodes of ‘Dallas’ Gary had a drinkin’ prarlm.

Either Nationwide (BBC1) or some remarkably similar programme — in conformity with a recent bout of absent-mindedness, I have lost my notes on the subject — sent a camera crew to record what happened when two British ladies went to, guess where, Dallas. Apparently the ladies had won this trip as first prize in a contest. Second prize was probably a tour of Cricklewood. But the ladies were delighted to be in Texas and that was enough for ‘Nationwide’ or some remarkably similar programme. The highlight of their visit was a meeting with JR. They couldn't believe it was happening. Larry Hagman, who plays JR, looked as if he could believe it. He was very gracious, but there was no mistaking the fact that he was on automatic pilot.

While ‘Nationwide’ or some remarkably similar programme was concerning itself with ‘Dallas,’ The Big Time (BBC1) was concerning itself with ‘Nationwide.’ The idea of ‘The Big Time’ is that ordinary people get a chance to fulfil their dreams of becoming pop stars, free-fall parachutists, brain surgeons, etc. But since the programme would be a no-no if the people chosen were complete duds, the pressure is on to find someone with a reasonable chance of making it.

The latest episode featured Sue Peacock, a housewife who wanted to be a ‘Nationwide’ presenter. She was trained up to have a shot at being a ‘Nationwide’ presenter for a day. To everybody’s astonishment, except the viewers’, she did quite well, rendering the ‘Nationwide’ regulars awe-stricken at how quickly she had mastered the fundamentals of their supposedly arcane craft.

But it was obvious from the start that Sue simply had what it took, whatever that is. Most people very correctly find that being on television is a madly artificial experience. A few people find it as natural as breathing. Whatever airs these few might tend to give themselves, the fact remains that they have merely been blessed with a knack that ought to be common, but for some reason is quite rare. The best television presenters are those who regard their own ability to keep their heads while talking to camera as rather less than a sufficient qualification for immortality.

Of the people Sue was given the opportunity to meet, Robin Day and Sir Ian Trethowan were the most substantial, principally because they are both something rather more than just talking heads. As a natural corollary, they are also both devoid of an artificial manner. But everyone else, from the narrator on downwards, was all charged up with cheap drama. ‘One of the hottest seats on television ... hard, demanding, ruthless ... come and meet Frank Bough.’

Catching the mood, Sue kept saying ‘I just don’t know whether I’ll be able to do it.’ This was exactly what the professionals wanted to hear her say. The more she went on about her nerves, the more they could indulge themselves in a lot of calmly purposeful moving about.

Finally it was the big night and Sue, having complained dutifully about her nerves right up to the last minute, ripped through her part of the show without a fluff. All concerned showered her with praise, but only Bob Wellings had the nerve to say that she was frighteningly good — i.e., that the job isn’t really all that hard. Or to put it another way, being a personality isn’t a job. Staying calm, reading out the words and asking the elementary questions is merely where you start from.

The substantial television personality has much more than skill. Indeed David Dimbleby is almost devoid of a sprightly manner, but in Panorama (BBC1) he did an exemplary job of following up his earlier investigations of South Africa. By now he has made himself part of the landscape down there, to the extent that he will probably be invited back when the big change comes. That the big change will one day come emerged from this latest programme without having to be stated.

Dimbleby has always made a point of letting the white South Africans put their case. But the way they go on putting it is enough to tell you that they will one day lose everything unless they see reason soon. A white farmer explained that there was nothing wrong with cramming 120,000 blacks on to a piece of arid land which had previously been designated as fit for a tenth that number: if you put six whites in a car they would complain about overcrowding, but you could put sixteen blacks in and they wouldn’t notice.

By contrast, the black and Coloured leaders were articulate and widely comprehending. Not that Dimbleby was out to prove that the white ruling class is congenitally stupid — only that it has a vested interest in not being able to understand the issues. In South Africa it takes an unusually perspicacious white to see that if power is not soon shared then the non-whites will take all of it.

From where we sit, any of us can see it straight away. This makes it easy for us to be contemptuous, but Dimbleby, to his great credit, never lapses into a sneer. His manifest objectivity has by now won him the respect of all the contending parties, with the possible exception of the police, who at one point threw gas at him. External reporting will probably not have a direct influence in South Africa, but it is certainly useful here, where people who should know better seem constantly to need reminding that it is possible to be objective and politically committed — indeed that for a television reporter his objectivity is his political commitment.

On the first day of the British Open (BBC2) I tuned in and found the blond head of Jack Nicklaus barely protruding from the deep rough. Five strokes adrift from the leader, he seemed on the verge of going down the sluice, but a birdie at the 18th kept him alive. He registered disappointment with a slight down-turn of the lower lip. So it was with Don Juan in Baudelaire’s great poem: the calm hero leaning on his sword. What Baudelaire left out was the rain, which fell on Muirfield as if Wimbledon had been only a rehearsal.

The Observer, 20th July 1980
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]