Essays: Savaged by dog-lovers |
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Savaged by dog-lovers

LAST WEEK I wrote a hundred times as much about Bergman as I did about dogs. Letters are now arriving by the van-load. There are a hundred times as many about dogs as there are about Bergman.

Woof woof. What else can I say? One lady, obviously convinced that the idea has not occurred to me, points out sharply that whereas I am at liberty to make my own mind up about whether or not to smoke, the dogs have no choice in the matter. Others give lengthy details of their dogs’ personality traits, in which the loyalty of Gunga Din is combined with the ratiocinative powers of A. J. Ayer. In a PS it usually turns out that to be pro-dog is to be pro-Bergman. This is as I suspected. To my fellow-sufferers in both departments, salutations. To all those strangers who have stopped me in the street and given tearful thanks for helping to release them from the thralldom of that cheerless Scandinavian grief-monger, stay cool.

(Autobiographical parenthesis. At the age of five I was attacked by a cattle-dog and came within an ace of losing my right foot. The cattle-dog was not employed to guard cattle, but to help make life interesting for the moronic parents of a young friend of mine. Neither they nor the friend ever forgave me for being the cause of the dog’s subsequent execution. Bluey, its name was. Madder than Himmler and with the ability to excrete a rancid mound of pup-wallop every two minutes. I have been afraid of dogs ever since, a fact they easily detect. At the age of 18 I had to be rescued from a pekingese by the police. When I take my tiny daughters to the park, there is always some klutz exercising his German wolf-hound — meaning that he lets it off the leash to see what it will do next — and laughingly assuring me that ‘He won’t bite.’ The largest dog in Britain is living in sin with a man in the next street from us. It is taller than a small horse, dumber than a large ox, and deposits a pyramid of ordure into which unwary children have been known to disappear.)

But back to business. There were several high-quality documentaries on view, of which Michael Frayn’s film on Berlin — screened as a special episode of 2nd House (BBC2) — and Richard West’s film on Vietnam (The War That Never Ended, BBC1) contended fruitfully for first place. Here were two accomplished writers presenting their own programmes with unstrained eloquence. When it works, it’s one of the best kinds of television you can have.

Imagine a City Called Berlin was a masterly job, done in extraordinary historical depth. Frayn has the sharpest eye of his generation for the point of detail that opens a long perspective: the same gaze that saw the rusting car in his excellent novel ‘Towards the End of the Morning’ (its owner said that the rust was the strong brown undercoat showing through) was here detecting the insecurity behind German imperialism. In the sand on which Berlin was built, he contended, nothing could grow except triumphal arches. It seemed no epigram — merely an observation. The epigrams, when they came, were good too: the workers’ barracks that sprang up after 1871 Frayn called ‘solidified suddenness.’

A closely argued interpretation of contemporary paintings helped in the difficult job of evoking the normal life out of which abnormality grew. Old Baedekers were used as guides to the present-day waste land of the Potsdamer Platz free-fire zone. In its quiet way, the script was an imaginative coup, and the direction, by Dennis Marks, rarely fell short. The use of old film — commonly a temptation to self-indulgence — was economical and illuminating. A programme I would like to see again tomorrow night and which should be repeated every year or so as a matter of protocol.

Richard West’s Vietnam programme essayed the more difficult task of telling us what we already knew. That we already knew it, of course, is largely owing to writers like West — writers whose role in Vietnam was, it seems to me, decisive in securing the pause for breath that saved America from irreversibly subverting its own constitution as a free State. On that view, Vietnam was a battle for the world, so it was no wonder that most reporters were out of their depth. West, for all his softness of speech, never was. Aided by Nigel Walters’s photography — which looked gauzily cosmetic until you realised that Vietnam is probably like that — the narrator made an instructive tour of the once tortured and still threatened beauty spots. There are 130,000 heroin addicts at the very least and the war is still killing 400 people a day, but retarded American tourists photograph one another on the battlefields as if the whole thing were over. In a way they’re right: nothing they can do now will change things. Their defeat, which was their salvation, is secure.

The comatose Omnibus (BBC1) fluked a good one with Alexander Walker’s wrap-up of Chaplin. The use of film was pertinent as well as lavish, with useful comments from Walker, who admires Chaplin critically — the only kind of admiration that counts. The Great Dictator was screened on BBC2: if it were not for the ill-judged rhetoric at the end, the film would be regarded as a masterpiece. Der Fooey’s opening speech, even more than the pas de deux with the globe of the world, is one of Chaplin’s all-time knockout stunts: the glass of water down the pants is genius epitomised — the sudden, dazzling flight from expectation.

World About Us (BBC2) had whales on ice. At three-star freezer temperatures, frogmen with underwater cameras jumped out of helicopters and did an aquacade with the behemoths. It’s amazing what you get for your licence fee. In the latest instalment of the increasingly screwy The Venturers (BBC1) I particularly liked Tom’s new plan for a jet-propelled ambulance to fly sick British businessmen out of any undeveloped country they might happen to be exploiting and back here for treatment on the National Health. The Queen in Mexico (BBC News Review) looked as if she was having fun for a change. Michael Tippett, in his Birthday Celebration (BBC2), interleaved some extracts from his works with passages of impenetrable philosophical speculation. The Scotland-Wales rugby thriller (Rugby Special, BBC2) was dynamite. Are you digging Alastair Burnet’s commercials for the Daily Express? ‘When there’s good news for you and for Britain,’ he assures us, ‘you’ll read about it in the Daily Express.’ What do we read while we’re waiting?

The Observer, 9th March 1975