Essays: Serving at 140 mph |
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Serving at 140 mph

‘ROSCOE’s just pounding that thing in there,’ said Jack Kramer (Wimbledon, BBC1 and 2), and indeed Roscoe was.

Eliminating Jimmy Connors, Roscoe’s serve must have been doing every m.p.h. of the 140 which the media had on the brain. Dan Maskell found it difficult to mention Roscoe’s serve without adding that it had been ‘timed at 140 m.p.h.’ 0n an afternoon in which I myself had been timed at 1.4 m.p.h. on my way to the refrigerator for more ice cubes, Roscoe’s serve was a fearsome sight. The new low-down, wide-angle camera caught it going full blast. It looked like incoming artillery. Connors could hardly see it at all.

For the first time it was possible to feel a pang of sympathy for Connors, who tried so hard this year to be less awful. Nastase, too, was a changed man. When he is not being a pain in the neck, his poetic talent is as beautiful to watch as Maria Bueno’s used to be — and, indeed, still is, since she survived in the tournament long enough to make us marvel all over again at her elegance. Nevertheless Roscoe’s serve, timed at 140 m.p.h., was the big story of the Wimbledon fortnight.

Timed at 140 m.p.h., it drew many an ‘Ooh I say!’ and ‘Now that’s very extraordinary’ from Dan. Bill Tilden’s serve was timed at 151 m.p.h. in 1933 — a statistic which puts paid to the notion that tennis was slower in those days. But Roscoe Tanner III is fast enough to be going on with. ‘Rather remarkable, that’ as Dan puts it.

A tribe called the Asmat featured in the latest World About Us (BBC2). They were more sociable than the previous week’s hyenas, but certain unsavoury aspects could not be gainsaid. For example, it seems quite likely that they ate Michael Rockefeller. Apart from human flesh, which owing to government sanctions is increasingly difficult to obtain, the Asmat diet is heavily biased towards sago. After a hard day’s head hunting, a steaming dish of sago is what the men come home to. The women dance to drive evil spirits away froth the sago. It’s a sago a-go-go.

Asmat warriors bravely inserting large nose-bones constituted the Bad Sight of the Week, but were really less sinister than the missionaries bent on saving them, who sounded very bent indeed. ‘Who’s coming to work on the airstrip today?’

The Editors (BBC1) once again starred Harold Evans of the Sunday Times. The programme celebrated his commendable tenacity in the thalidomide affair by showing the paper in action during the week in which it was finally allowed to publish the big story. Timed at 140 m.p.h., Evans was dynamism incarnate. Scurrying minions rearranged the decor around him as he hustled about. Pot plants were carried into position. Tea was made. ‘The Editor’s lunch arriving,’ said a voice-over crisply. The dreaded Australian Mafia spoke impressively; Ron `Badger’ Hall answered the telephone in dramatic fashion; but it was Evans who embodied the spirit of crusading journalism. For all its bustle, the programme had many touching moments and one profound one — when an actual thalidomide pill was shaken out of its wrappings on to somebody’s desk and lay there looking as harmless as a peppermint. Rather remarkable, that.

The interesting series Destination America (Thames) dealt this time with the Italians. A second generation over-achiever explained how his family had made good in the garbage business in San Francisco, thanks to ‘a gut feeling for the problem of garbage.’ Like most of the interviewees, he was impressive in his family pride — one of the characteristics imported from the old country and jealously guarded. The three generations of the Bettucchi family were shown speaking Italian at home. But not all Italian-Americans had preserved the old ways. One man, refreshing if brutal in his iconoclasm, thought his upbringing had been ‘malarky.’ He refuses to eat pasta any more, associating it with his deprived childhood, when ‘if there was any good stuff, the priest got it.’

A less satisfactory, though still admirable, documentary was The Battle of the Somme (BBC1), in which Leo McKern gave us a guided tour of the site where the massacre started on 1 July 1916 and went on for four-and-a-half months, killing so many men so thoroughly that 73,000 of them are still missing. The camera glided down the original roads and traced the contours, now green again, of what had once been ‘a strip of murdered nature.’ There were telling visits to the elegant rooms in which the staff officers took their catastrophic decisions. Selective use of photographs and letters home added to the immediacy. But finally the words were lacking.

This last condition never applies to Kenneth Griffith, who gave us an Omnibus (BBC1) called ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.’ Full of Welsh knowingness (he says ‘You see’ as often as Clive Jenkins), Griffith filled us in on the events leading up to 1776. With sneers, snorts, pop-eyed shrieks, unexpected sittings-down, histrionic wheelings to camera and sudden darting walkabouts timed at 140 m.p.h., Griffith dramatised the historical events in a way that made them immeasurably less vivid than they had been before. ‘Sam Adams is a candidate for being the most lethal OPERATOR in the history of America,’ he ranted, and that I know is really saying something.’ He gave imitations of the Founding Fathers’ voices, thereby fostering the impression that they had all sounded like demented Welshmen. Compulsive viewing, but then so is a cobra.

The Explorers (BBC2) is being repeated. I missed the episode on Pizarro and the Incas on its first run and was grateful to get another chance. A superb achievement. The whole series was critically underrated at the time — especially Snowdon’s contribution. The memorial programme for David Munrow (BBC2) left you with a nagging question about the magnitude of despair that can make so prodigiously gifted a person feel justified in doing away with himself. Bernard Levin, Julian Bream, André Previn and others all spoke movingly. The Anglo-Polish co-production of Conrad’s The Shadow Line (Thames), directed by Andrzej Wajda, was scrupulously done but suffered, as do all adaptations from Conrad, from being unable to transcribe the interior life of his prose.

The Observer, 4th July 1976