Essays: Fighting it out in a sandy sea |
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Fighting it out in a sandy sea

ONE’S level-toned treatment in last Sunday’s column of the television reports coming out of the Arab-Israeli war has apparently aroused umbrage in certain quarters. The supposed imputation of tardiness at getting the cameras to the scene of battle has been vigorously denied. If such an imputation was construed, it was never meant. Obviously both ITV And BBC got their men into action with all possible celerity against immense difficulties — the kind of effort that involves 24-hour shifts of unsung work by hordes of people whose dedication is complete.

My doubts have been about the in-studio interpretations. Last week’s elucidatory nattering was better than the week before’s but still left me marvelling at the lack of succinctness and deficiency of conceptual power manifested by most of the commentators. On good form, This Week (Thames) showed how the necessarily fragmented pictures could be best eked out, but other news programmes chatted on to less than totally convincing effect. ITV’s use of 3-D relief maps gave them an early edge over the BBC at showing how a desert conflict is really more like naval warfare than anything else — the strategic features (high ground, river banks etc.) are the only land, and capturing the desert in between means no more than staking a claim to the sea.

But as a general rule, realistic military analysis was slow to be provided. Television spent at least seven days reinforcing the pop papers’ notion that the Israeli armour was ‘on the road to Damascus,’ without — as far as I could see — ever seriously questioning whether capturing an Arab city could be in the realm of sanity as an Israeli war-aim. Murray Sayle, guesting on Real Time (BBC2), seemed to be the only media-man retaining his negative capability on this point. I could go on cavilling here, but must concede that it would be nothing more than a quarrel among all those of us sitting at home and mournfully awaiting an equitable finish to the whole sad problem. An easy emotion, which erupted into a flare of hurt when the news came through that Nicholas Tomalin had been killed. Allow me to state the obvious and the personal in turn, by saying that no man in Fleet Street was more admired by all, or better loved by me. One friend dead among strangers: multiply his loss by the number of slain Israeli and Arab soldiers and civilians, and we start approaching the sum total of grief already engendered by this war.

Enough of that for now, and back to the epoch of David Attenborough, who is currently bobbing up all over the schedules like a cherub on speed. For months now the viewer has been regaled with tapes of D.A. interviewing composers, piano-players and small animals. Meanwhile he was apparently employing his Peter-Panic energy out east, filming a series concerning the outréness of nature in those parts. The first episode, screened the week before last, dealt with Borneo and showed him being pooed on by bats while standing up to his knees in cockroaches on top of a 75-foot hill of steaming guano inside a cave big enough to hold St Paul’s. Remembering that Attenborough had given up an executive position for a chance to do things like this, one fell to wondering about what conceivably might take place in the command levels at Television Centre that wading through cockroaches is better than. Scarcely had one’s puzzled forehead puckered, however, than our tireless hero was to be seen fronting yet another big-budget extravaganza, an inner-space opera called The Life Game (BBC2).

His presentation of this couldn’t have been more engaging, but for a Nigel Calder brainchild the script lacked shape — certainly it was not to be compared with his all-time classic ‘The Restless Earth.’ Ungripped by the dazedly circulating narrative, the viewer found himself fitfully conjecturing about the cost of the studio properties, which included a live elephant. The pachyderm did a thorough job of being ear-twitchingly stationary, and heaven knows how many Hawaiian flies mutated on schedule. A hydra was chopped up and each piece dutifully formed a new hydra. To explain the mechanisms of these organic shenanigans, plastic molecules were wheeled on, looking like rejected items of modern sculpture. Hands up anyone who didn’t get lost among their writhing tentacles.

Not to be outdone, Horizon (BBC2) raced off to the outer end of the infinite and discussed ‘The Black Holes of Gravity.’ This show was fronted by Professor John Taylor, who is a television natural but needs to ease off on the portentousness by several hundred pounds p.s.i. and remember never to write a line, no matter how impressive, that does not make things more clear instead of less. The bit about the universe next door was put with thoroughly confusing ponderosity. The model to follow is the programme on the Crab nebula — still the best programme on astronomy ever made.

David Turner’s Helen — A Woman for Today* (LWT) has been very fine. Having talked myself ragged over the past year about the superlative strength and delicacy of the young actresses now gracing the screen, I’ll restrict myself to saying that Alison Fiske in the title role has been fully as good as she was in the BBC’s ‘Roads to Freedom.’ The very exemplar of a fruitful girl condemned unjustly to loneliness, she was to be found this week getting on famously with a nice bloke at a party. But the meeting came to nothing, and in the midst of her disappointment the randy host jumped on her. Turner has ably written such situations with an accuracy free of didacticism yet painfully close to the bone. The direction equals the script for subtlety — Helen’s empty bed is frequently in shot, but never emphasised by a nudging zoom. I could, however, have done without the lady who proved she was an Australian by vomiting on the carpet. The men, perhaps: the women, never.

Any episode of Spy Trap (BBC1), written by John Gould, is well worth catching. His recent mini-series ‘The Donati Conspiracy’ yielded to thinness, but his episodes for the cloak opera work fascinatingly within the show’s conventions. On Moonbase 3 (BBC1) they had only a few hours to live before the oxygen ran out and Caulder still didn’t hit the hammock with Dr Smith. She’s going to have to hypnotise the stupid bastard.

Final footnote on the World Cup: My colleague Russell Davies wants to know why it took Sir Alf Ramsey 85 minutes to discover that Martin Chivers is a Polish agent called Shivas.

The Observer, 21st October 1973

*  Helen — A Woman of Today