Essays: Rose Bowl battle |
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Rose Bowl battle

HIGHLIGHT of last weekend’s Grandstand (BBC1) was a screening of what the Michigan and Washington professional football teams did to each other in the Rose Bowl. It left ‘Match of the Day’ looking pretty tired.

In fact the only department I can think of in which British football can compete is that the kit costs less. An American player has to suit up like someone preparing to go into orbit. But leaving aside the outlay on hardware, everything from then on seems to be pure excitement. Perhaps not all games are as thrilling as the one the Beeb screened, but they would only have to be half as good to hold your attention.

Attention is not the same thing, of course, as comprehension. I spent most of my time trying to find out who was carrying the ball — the wrong attitude, because the real action was taking place among all the players who didn’t have it. These were either trying to get it or trying to stop people getting it. The noise they made when they ran into one another, fully armoured, was like a demolition derby.

The complexity of the game was matched by the complexity of its television coverage. Cameras were everywhere. The commentary was deeply informed and highly statistical. ‘John, this reminds me of the fake punt Stanford ran in 1957...’ Or it could have been 1857: my notes are a scrawl. Action replays and freeze frames helped demonstrate that every flurry of action was an intricate plan either working itself out or else being countered with similar intricacy. The whole affair, appealing as it did with equal force to the aggressive instincts and the intellect, rated with the Karpov-Miles chess final in The Master Game (BBC2) as an answer to the pressing demand for a moral equivalent of war.

The moral equivalent of war was one of George Steiner’s subjects in the first Bronowski Memorial Lecture (BBC2), entitled ‘Has Truth a Future?’ A combination of fundamentalist preacher, operatic tenor and universal scholar, Dr Steiner kicked up a storm. He sang a hymn to mankind’s passion for abstract truth. He plunged into a dirge for the catastrophe to which that search might lead. He found a sonorous harmonic equilibrium in the consoling vision of a cosmos tending inevitably to heat-death. He quit the podium to a flabbergasted hush and an uproar of applause.

The applause was not entirely misplaced. Dr Steiner’s all-embracing range is no bad thing in itself, even if you suspect that his grasp falls short of his scope. The Cambridge dons who scorned his eclecticism were more dangerous in their narrowness than he was in his breadth. Forced to their choice, I would now take his side against theirs. Students should be inspired rather than stifled.

Dr Steiner was, and is, the man to arouse them, even if only with curiosity about the way he manages to get seven vowels into the words ‘trigonometry.’ With this lecture he set the level of literacy for what should prove to be a considerable annual event. Whether he also set the standards of rigour remains to be seen. Did he actually say anything? It was hard to tell. The supercharged vocabulary baffled the ear. Perhaps ... overwhelmingly ... first and foremost ... human crux ... the very notion of ... almost unconsciously ... life itself (glasses off for emphasis) ... which we still don’t understand ... overwhelmingly ... perhaps...

In temporary possession of the latest model two-hour capacity video-cassette recorder, I left it to watch the Alan Bennett play and went on the town. Next day the video people returned my older model, one hour capacity machine and took away the new one. It hadn’t occurred to me that the two machines ran at different speeds. I am telling you all this only to explain why I have no comments to offer about the Alan Bennett play, beyond saying that when viewed at double speed it sounds like a Bugs Bunny cartoon and looks like a blizzard. Is this a new trend in Bennett’s work?

With Bennett out of the running, my playwright of the week has to be David Hare, whose Licking Hitler (BBC1) was an unnervingly assured piece of work. Much, although not all, of what David Hare lacks as a writer he makes up for as a director. What he lacks as a writer is a receptive nature. He has all the chill confidence of his generation of State-subsidised theatrical rebels, made more terrible in his case by authentic talent. In short, he has an artistic intelligence as cold as Ingmar Bergman’s outside loo.

This time he was talking about World War II, but once again the real subject was the class war in Britain. The two principal characters were members of a black propaganda unit. There was a brilliant yob from Glasgow and an upper-class English girl who didn’t even know how to make tea. He violated her with his worldly knowledge. It was a fine, radical theme which was completely convincing until you reminded yourself that upper class English girls usually can make tea and do a lot of other things besides. Kate Nelligan gave the character flesh, which Hare pointed his camera at with masterly skill. The film was stamped with authority in every department, but finally it was icy.

In Britain black propaganda was wound up at the end of the war. White propaganda, which is currently being examined in a series called Propaganda With Facts (BBC2), was carried on into the years of austerity, but eventually it was wound up too. Direct opinion-control is not something we have ever had to live with for long. For what it is like to live with full time, you need only to look at the Soviet Press.

Tonight (BBC1) did a good programme about Pravda. Determined interviewing was met with equally determined condescension. Only the editor sounded cynical; everyone else was sincerely doltish. Try as it might, the programme had trouble bringing out the full squalor of a newspaper which consists of nothing but lies from start to finish. One of the disadvantages of living in a free country is that it becomes difficult to imagine what living in an unfree country is like. Hence the inevitable emergence of young playwrights eager to tell you that there is no real difference. There is not much difference between life and death, either — just a breath of air.

The Observer, 15th January 1978