Essays: School for scandal |
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School for scandal

‘WE DON’T need no education,’ self-refutingly declares the song currently occupying number one position on Top of the Pops (BBC1). ‘We don’t need no thought control,’ it adds. Hard on the heels of these sentiments follows a miniatory [sic]** exhortation aimed at those repressive forces which would presume to stifle youthful individuality. ‘Teacher, leave them kids alone.’

In the ordinary course of events the mature viewer would probably reflect that the kids had been left alone a sight too much, that education was exactly what they needed, that plenty of thought control should be laid on as soon as possible, and that the song was merely a routine piece of cynical trash marketed by hard-eyed adults who didn’t even have the justification of being bemused by the kind of euphoria that once enabled Ivan Illyich [sic]** to obtain a hearing for his batso theories about de-schooling.

What raises the cynicism to the level of outright obscenity, however, is that the song is seen to be performed by a group of schoolchildren. It is a protest song about the manipulation of schoolchildren and it manipulates schoolchildren. Not for the first time one wonders how much controlling the BBC controllers actually do.

It is axiomatic that freedom of speech should not include the freedom to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. It should be equally axiomatic that freedom of speech does not include the freedom to encourage children in the belief that they don’t need no education. British children don’t need no education the same way the Sahara desert don’t need no rain.

In Paris early this week I was impressed all over again with the way French television maintains an air of literacy despite tiny budgets and low production standards. One of the reasons for the general tone of civilised cultivation, of course, is that everyone is speaking French. If there are any manifestations of flagrant yobbery the outsider — or this outsider, anyway — doesn’t pick them up. But even allowing for one’s own insensitivity to nuance, it is still striking to hear people on television talking to each other in relaxed, human tones. Even the equivalents of Stuart Hall and Frank Bough seemed to be talking in their own voices, instead of a special voice put on for television.

There was a profile of Peter Ustinov which showed the difference clearly. Peter Ustinov speaking French is the same man as Peter Ustinov speaking English but he has to spend less time explaining himself. The French are not puzzled by his versatility, merely respectful. The last programme the BBC asked Ustinov to do was a shambling farrago about relativity, in which he was obliged to lurch about looking stunned while being plied with information which he had plainly been familiar with all his life. I understand that an ITV documentary on the Hermitage in Leningrad, screened while I was away, employed him to less awkward [sic]** effect.

It is unfair to compare like with unlike, and in fact Ustinov’s series on Diaghilev was one of the best arts surveys the BBC has ever screened, but nevertheless it is hard to avoid the impression that on British television a man of Ustinov’s mental capacity must always talk down, while on French television he can simply be himself. The French educational system ensures that everyone who passes through it inhabits, at least to some degree, the same culture. The British educational system is apparently hell-bent on providing everybody with an equal opportunity of misunderstanding everybody else.

I got back in time to see the first episode of ITV’s new blockbuster documentary series, Hollywood (Thames). Written, produced and directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, the series bids fair, on the evidence of its opening instalment, to equal the various excellencies of Brownlow’s classic book ‘The Parade’s Gone By.’ It has the additional virtue of pictures that move. Silent film has been refurbished, supplied with the appropriate music, and screened at the correct speed. The results look splendid. For the first time a general audience is finding out what specialist haunters of film museums already knew — that silent films, far from looking quaint, were often miracles of subtlety.

With all that said, however, it must still be pointed out that a huge error has been made in securing the services of a star actor, James Mason, to recite the commentary. Even the best actors, of whom Mason is certainly one, tend to lack their own rhythm. Olivier’s voice-over for ‘A World at War’ was the only completely dud job he ever did. Actors can be anything except impersonal.

Luckily there were plenty of Hollywood old-timers ready to come on and save the day. Lillian Gish was eloquent on the subject of what she called ‘the revolutionary machine.’ Anita Loos roundly declared that with ‘The Birth of a Nation’ D. W. Griffith gave racism a whole new lease of life. There was film of Griffith himself — a flawed genius whose personality overwhelms even at this distance.

‘Hollywood,’ for all its drawbacks, is a must. So is the BBC’s new series of classy films, ruthlessly scheduled to run opposite. The first one was James Ivory’s ‘Roseland.’ which I hated missing. Since anybody who wants to watch the one series will presumably want to watch the other, a minority audience is thereby split in half. It is high time that a small BBC-IBA co-ordinating committee was set up to resolve such anomalies, which have nothing to do with competition and everything to do with sheer bitchery.

The War School (BBC1) featured the army’s Staff College at Camberley, General Frank Kitson in command. The emphasis was on combating the ‘subversive threat,’ which is apparently particularly virulent ‘in the media.’ As a representative of the media I took no comfort in the thought that the assembled officers might one day be called in to restore law and order by descending on my neck with large boots.

But really there is no point in expecting army officers to be anything eise except ultra-conservative. If the idea of regimentation were not powerfully appealing to them they wouldn’t be in the army. Radical officers who believed that children don’t need no education would not be much use in a crisis. There is no chance of keeping right-wingers out of the army. The thing to concentrate on is keeping the army out of politics.

Pressed on the point of his well-known hard line towards subversives, Kitson generously announced that he had no desire to run the country. It was nice to hear this but the point to go on reminding him of is that it doesn’t matter whether he has such desires or not. His job is to go on being an able officer with a hawk-like profile. Meanwhile the people’s elected representatives can do the governing.

There was a worthy Man Alive (BBC2) all about fat. The commentary was strictly Minnie Mouse but the sheer misery of being obese was not shirked. Slimming, it was revealed, has a low success rate. What the fatty has to do is change his attitude to food. As someone who has trouble passing a refrigerator without pausing to look in, I found all of this touchingly recognisable.

The Observer, 13th January 1980
[ ** In his next (20th January) column Clive blames 'gremlins' for these errors. ]