Essays: Harold and Harry |
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Harold and Harry

LATEST guest host of Friday Night ... Saturday Morning (BBC1) was Sir Harold Wilson, erstwhile Prime Minister of Great Britain. Those of us who expected him to be terrible received a shock. He was really terrible.

His guests did their best to help him out, especially Harry Secombe, who was first on. Harry attempted to lighten the atmosphere by saying ‘Whee hee hee!’ That having failed to produce results, he switched to ‘Na-hah! Na-hah na-hah na-hah!’ He then addressed Sir Harold disarmingly as ‘Sir Harold Parkinson,’ to see how that would work. The audience dutifully convulsed itself, a cue for Sir Harold to remind Harry about the longevity of their friendship. ‘We’ve known each other for years.’

Pat Phoenix, Freddie Trueman and somebody calling himself Tony Benn succeeded Harry in the role of interlocutor. Sir Harold’s wit sparkled fitfully as he attempted to make his presence felt, usually when someone else was talking. He read the autocue as if it was the Rosetta Stone arranged on rollers. Interviewing somebody on the air is a cinch as long as you listen to what he says. This, however, is not easy to do if you are busy trying to remember what to ask him next. Interviewing somebody on the air is consequently not as easy as it usually looks. The great merit of Sir Harold’s stint as a chat-show host was that he made it look as tricky as it is.

What had he expected? What arrogance led him to take the job on with so little preparation? Was he as thoughtless and conceited when he was Prime Minister? But it might easily have gone the other way. There is no law which says that a politician can’t host a chat show. Shirley Williams is a case in point. Even at its dullest, Shirley Williams in Conversation (BBC1) has provided substantial talk. She has established herself immediately as one of the most formidable performers on television, and probably hasn’t done her long-term political prospects much harm either.

Her latest guest was Willy Brandt. In sharp contrast to other quondam premiers who shall remain nameless, Brandt is a man of stature and vision, but for an English-speaking interviewer he is not necessarily easy meat, since his English, although good enough to sound like his first language, is not sufficiently flexible to express his ideas fluently. Mrs Williams did the right thing and gave him time. As a result we heard the rationale of the Ostpolitik directly from its inventor’s mouth.

Mrs Williams rather overdoes the business of holding her chin thoughtfully. All she has to do now is relax and she’ll be ideal. She has so much real personality that there is no necessity for her to do anything but be herself. The first requirement of being yourself, of course, is having a self to be. Were Sir Harold Wilson to relax and be himself, he would either contract suddenly to a small, white, not very hot dot, or else blow himself all over the studio, leaving scraps of limp skin hanging from the gantry.

Chairman Hua of China did a quiet number on the current affairs programme Newsweek (BBC2). (The Beeb’s executives must save a lot of wear and tear on the brain by calling programmes after magazines. Look forward to programmes called ‘Encounter,’ ‘National Geographic’ and ‘Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.’) It was not easy to tell whether Hua was on the up-and-up, since the interview was conducted by Felix Greene, whose access to China has always depended on his willingness to ask only those questions which fit the prepared answers. But since the film he brings back is more interesting than no film at all, ‘Newsweek’ was well justified in running his latest effort. Richard Kershaw came on at the start to excuse ‘this departure from our normal style.’ By style he meant standards, but there was no need to be ashamed.

After a breathtaking opening sequence, in which Felix Greene arrived at Hua’s residence to be informed that the Chairman was expecting him, the intrepid film-maker sat down and got on with the job of nodding gratefully while Hua cranked out the usual quota of agitprop slogans which in Communist countries serve as a substitute for political analysis. Mao, it appears, remains the fountainhead of all wisdom. His wonderful revolution came within a whisker of being hijacked by the Gang of Four. Everything that went wrong after Mao’s death was due to ‘sabotage by Lin Piao and the Gang of Four.’ The task now is to make up ‘the time lost through their sabotage.’

There were some action shots of Hua underlining things with a pencil, but he was soon back to castigating the Gang of Four. Six million people had appeared on the streets to demand that the Gang of Four be put on ice. There was no need to add that these six million people had put in their appearance ‘spontaneously,’ but Hua added it anyway, perhaps afraid that Mr Greene would miss the point.

Hua had good grounds for supposing that Mr Greene, if left unprompted, would miss any point in the world, since it apparently never occurred to him to ask the only question that mattered — the one about what was so wise about Mao if he couldn’t see the Gang of Four coming, especially when one of them was his wife.

Penmarric (BBC1) treads the same ground as the late-lamented ‘Poldark.’ The ground is in Cornwall, towards which, by now, so many series have rolled down the road that the soft verge must be littered with powder puffs and exhausted sticks of make-up. It turns out that Penmarric is a house, rather than a person. ‘I intend to stay at Penmarric!’ ‘Arthur’s dead!’ ‘Do I inherit Penmarric, father?’ ‘You’ll not get a penny from my estate!’ ‘I’ll marry if that’s what you want, but I want Penmarric!’ Some good people. including Angela Scoular and Annabel Leventon, are somewhere in there among the costumes.

The Camerons (BBC2), on the other hand, is set in Scotland — West Fife, to be precise. Whereas the Penmarric people ride around in carriages trying to inherit houses, the Camerons sleep three to a bed trying to think of something more rewarding than coal-mining. I have never been fond of series in which the roof of a coal mine falls on the hero’s father. In the first episode I saw of ‘The Camerons’ the roof of a coal mine fell on the hero’s prospective son-in-law. As comely and vivid as always, the excellent Morag Hood, playing the mother who holds the family together, does the same thing for the series.

Donald Sinden is now busy Discovering English Churches (BBC2). Since there are more than 16,000 churches awaiting discovery in England alone, the series will presumably be endless, giving Donald plenty of opportunity to express himself. The voice he does this with has been described as fruity, but really the metaphor is inadequate, since it confines itself to only one course. Donald’s elocution is an entire meal, with particular emphasis on the vegetables. A word like ‘bound’ comes out as ‘bind.’ Yet his enthusiasm is undoubtedly genuine as he chunters on about the typical Saxon grind plan underlying what looks to us like a mind of rubble. Let the bells resigned.

The Observer, 21st October 1979
[ An incomplete version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]