Essays: In the doghouse |
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In the doghouse

IF YOU are a dog or a dog’s owner, you’ll already be watching Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way (BBC2). But those who are neither of those things shouldn’t miss it either.

Barbara Woodhouse trains dogs by breaking the spirit of the owner. ‘Get your dog in, Mr Bagshaw! Scoop it! HALT!’ The expression on Mr Bagshaw’s countenance as he weathers this tirade is pitiable to behold. His nose is dry, his eyes are wet and his ears hang sadly beside his shaking jowls. A dozen owners, each with a dog of different size, cower beside their canine escorts and silently give thanks that they are not Bagshaw. Each sweats with terror that he or she might be next.

‘You were too slow, doctor! You’ve got to do it — BANG!’ Thus addressed, the shattered doctor turns to his labrador for comfort. But there is no time for tears. ‘Keep it up, all of you! There’s a huge gap there! Forward! SIT!’ In the nick of time, the owners remember that this final order is directed, not at themselves, but at their dogs. They push downwards on the rear end of their dogs. For those with tall dogs it is relatively easy, but to be in charge of a corgi at this point means that you must stoop pretty smartly, else Barbara Woodhouse will be snapping at your heels. ‘Can you get down and praise your dog, Mrs Williams? FORWARD!’

Man Alive (BBC2) scrapped its scheduled programme and mounted a special debate on the Olympic Games. Since there are at least three tenable points of view on the subject, it was obvious from the start that the argument would tend to drift. Nevertheless the proceedings were illuminating. Marina Voikhanskaya, who knows exactly what happens to dissident opinion in the Soviet Union, described the process of ‘cleaning’ Moscow in preparation for the games. The reason for moving the children out is that ‘children are spontaneous people.’ Despite the lying Soviet Press, she said, if the games were withdrawn from Moscow then the people would know it was because of the invasion of Afghanistan.

This was a strong view well put. Lord Exeter, representing ‘the Olympic movement,’ had even stronger views, but you could not say that he put them. He dumped them in your lap and left you to do what you could with them. ‘I’ve spent my life in this movement,’ he barked, as if anyone cared about that. ‘We’ve always kept out of politics.’ When faced with the argument that by being allotted to Moscow the Games had been involved in politics willy-nilly, Lord Exeter either chose not to get the point or else didn’t get the point. He just stuck to his line about the purpose of sport being to ‘promote the development of physical and moral qualities,’ as if it went without question that Brezhnev felt the same way.

So far the pro-boycott argument had the edge, but the athletes restored the balance by pointing out that it was unfair to arrange the most important fixture of their lives and then jeopardise it after they had spent irretrievable years in training. David Bedford rhetorically wondered what other action the British Government was taking.

The commentator, Ron Pickering, showing admirable forensic skill, summed up this side of the argument and carried the debate. Wherever the games were allotted, he said, political objections would always be possible. Even the suggestion that the games be given a permanent home in Greece would be open to the objection that Greece had had a repressive regime in the recent past and might well have one again.

Pickering did himself honour and restored the sound of sanity, which had been missing from this discussion ever since Mrs Thatcher took a hand in it. The Moscow Olympic Games might as well go ahead. Complaints about tainting them with politics are nonsensical, since they became fully saturated with politics from the moment they were awarded to Moscow, and indeed have been reeking with politics ever since the Soviet Union was allowed to compete.

President Carter has some excuse, although not much, for needing a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan to tell him that the Soviet Union is a hard case. Mrs Thatcher has no excuse at all. She is supposed to be hard-bitten on the subject. If she wants the Games withdrawn from Moscow because the Soviet Union has invaded Afghanistan, does that mean she thought the Soviet Union was all right before it invaded Afghanistan? Does she think the Olympic Games will be withdrawn from Moscow because Great Britain wants them to be? Who is advising her to make these tiny threats? Does she fancy her chances of kicking an elephant to death?

But enough. This week I have forbidden myself to instruct the British about how to run their country, which they must have done fairly well up to now or I wouldn’t have wanted to come here. A final word, however, on the question of Radley school. I have had several touching letters from people telling me that I am all wrong about Radley, which is apparently not a den of privilege, but a valuable institution in which parents who can afford the fees are able to secure for their children a far better education than any State school can offer. As far as I can tell, this means that it is a den of privilege, but there might be a nuance I am missing.

Gentle Folk (BBC2) was an excellent play by Alexander Baron, who gets about one fiftieth of the publicity generated by, say, David Hare, but who on this occasion turned in a script that said more about the class structure of Britain before the First World War than you would have believed was possible it so short a space. Playing the young lady of the Fabian country house, Sheila Ruskin was a virginal, statuesque sitting duck for the attentions of F. J. Dobbs, who was modelled on H. G. Wells and played to the life by the redoubtable Denholm Elliott.

Whipping up the social antagonism as a well-tested means of securing her interest, Dobbs got up her nose before getting into her bed. Meanwhile the much more suitable young Richard, played by Christopher Strauli, wilted on the sidelines. But Richard not only looked forlorn, he looked horrified. He was having visions of the future — not the Dobbsian future, but the real future. The visions were just the routine atrocity footage with which we are all familiar, but in the context of not having happened yet they looked hellish.

Blind Ambition (BBC2), an American mini-series based on the John Dean version of Watergate, has been unswitchoffable, and not just because of Martin Sheen’s brilliant central performance. The whole thing is admirably well worked out. A less estimable American import was The Lynda Carter Special (BBC1), which was meant to prove that Wonder Woman is not just a large chest on top of a long pair of legs, she is also an all-round entertainer. So is a ball of silly putty.

The Observer, 27th January 1980
[ A shortened version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]