Essays: Real -- but artificial |
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Real — but artificial

YOU need six eyes to sort out the traffic jam on Wednesday nights, when The Family (BBC1), Shoulder to Shoulder (BBC2) and World at War (Thames) all get tangled up in the high-speed lane. Last week I button-punched as usual, but the greater part of my bemused attention went to the latest episode of the heavily lauded real-life serial about the Wilkins Family who let television come to live with them in Reading.

The very fact that they did this, you would have thought, must make them self-selectingly feeble minded. Such a suspicion very quickly, although perhaps speciously, elevated itself to the status of a conviction when the all-seeing camera swung a lens towards the Family’s 15-year-old daughter, Heather, who gave an impressive imitation of the mental processes taking place inside a block of wood. We saw her being advised about her career. This advice was delivered, appropriately enough, by a careers adviser, although a tape-recorder set to recite a short list of hopeless alternatives would have done the job just as well — employing anything organic for the purpose looked like extravagance.

Heather had every right to look bored while being told about opportunities in the catering trade: doubtless it is an interesting occupation like any other, but not when it is being pronounced as a life sentence. What scared you was that she got so browned off, so quickly, at so much. She had the attention span of a butterfly. One focused, mesmerised, on her strangely lovely features, waiting for the moment when a flicker of humanity might light them up. Heather was ‘bright but bored,’ her teachers thought. The brightness we weren’t shown.

Back at home, Heather settled down to listen to her mother explaining how staying on to get her school certificate would give her ‘something to fall back on.’ Her mother said this about 400 times, working on the theory that repetition is a linear equivalent of eloquence. A possible reason for Heather’s lassitude leapt abruptly to the mind. It was somewhere about here, while Heather was stalking around in a bra and her mother was engaged in some endless speculation about a stitch in time saving nine, that I decided this show would have to be dropped from my schedule. I disapprove of my own interest in it — a clear sign that a bad habit needs to be cut out.

The show invites me to deal with a feeling of contempt which I am not even sure is soundly based. The people making idiots of themselves on the screen are not the people they would be in real life. The camera changes them just as much as it has always changed me. They’re acting all the time, every one of them. In order not to look directly at the camera, you need to be either distracted with passion or else acting. Heather even knows where the mike is — I saw her time an aside into it while her mother was yelping from the next room. She’s a whole lot cleverer than she looks. The real studies opened up by programmes like this are studies in artificiality — the artificiality of the subject community’s behaviour, and the artificiality of the viewer’s responses.

Part I of The Japanese Experience (Yorkshire) gave us an inkling of what might have happened to Heather if she’d been born with slant eyes. We were shown a toddling three-year-old on his way to the cramming school which would prepare him to get into the right kindergarten. There’s a fight to catch a glimpse of the first rung of the ladder. If, at some stage, the candidate for success happens to make a slip, he goes sliding down the long snake to some drop-out city where everybody lives dangerously from day to day. (The commentator correctly identified this place as the only place to be, but tried to have it both ways by denouncing its squalor.)

Should all go smoothly on the ascent, the rewards are palpable. Even an ordinary worker gets star treatment if he belongs to one of the big companies. We saw a worker with a suspected ulcer getting a rubber tube fed down his throat. Standing to attention with gratitude as he choked, he was aglow with pride. (This scene vied with the forcible feeding in ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ for the title of Second Worst Sight of the Week.) At the top of the heap, conditions are dream-like. The head man at Matsushita owns a zillion pounds’ worth of oriental carp. Since every human being he ever meets is afraid of him, I suppose he needs something around the house that doesn’t care whether he lives or dies.

Baron Philippe de Rothschild (A Rothschild and his Red Gold, BBC1) hasn’t got the same problem. He has all the other Rothschilds to care about him. The only difference between him and them is that whereas they are incredibly wealthy, he is inconceivably wealthy. I strove to get interested in how be spends the loot, but couldn’t. Money as such makes me feel like Heather, although I can get very interested indeed in some of the things you can do with it. The Baron doesn’t do any of those, so I switched him off.

A good Man Alive (BBC2), showing how the ‘planners’ will go on screwing up your local environment even after you’ve supposedly defeated them, so watch out. An interesting play, Catholics (HTV), by Brian Moore and directed by the masterly Jack Gold. The central proposition — that the Church per se will one day be in the van of social change — was hard to believe, and the progressive young inquisitor was a thinly written role, but Trevor Howard beetled lovably as the trad unbeliever who wanted to hold on to the mysteries he’d lost faith in, rather then yield to the new certainties he had never had any faith in at all. Theologically, I thought, the show was a bit underpowered. There was too great a willingness on the part of the recalcitrant monks to admit that their cherished doctrine of the Real Presence was irrational. Any unreconstructed Jesuit still in the vicinity would have told them otherwise. Also it was gross flattery of Ireland to suggest that the Emerald Isle would the last bastion of the old dispensation.

The show on the Osmonds was repeated by BBC1: a documentary that tells you a lot about the music business, and you could always shield your eyes when little Jimmy — the Worst Sight of the Week — came on. Lots of music about: Leonard Bernstein did a riveting extended mime, complete with real tears, to Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ (Aquarius, LWT), Count Basie did a half-dull, half-exciting set to open the series Big Bands from the Dorchester (BBC2) and the second and last show on Ravel (BBC2) crowned its own excellence by giving us Boulez conducting ‘Daphnis.’ Boulez once said he was in business to burn the mist off Debussy. He did the same for Ravel, with his bare hands, and no bad acting. Copy him, Lennie: it’s not too late.

Did you know that Terence Alexander is in ‘Two and Two Make Sex’ at the Cambridge Theatre? A voice-over told me that at the end of this week’s episode of The Pallisers (BBC2). I think it is high time that the mad little practice of telling us what actors get up to at night was cut out. All the Beeb has to do is stop doing it — it’s as simple as that.

The Observer, 21st April 1974