Essays: A distinct shortage of juice |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

A distinct shortage of juice

‘TRY and combine going to the toilet with cleaning your windows’ advised Ronnie Barker on The Two Ronnies (BBC2), making his contribution to solving the energy crisis.

His scheme didn’t sound notably worse than anybody else’s. The brainwave about shutting television down at 10.30 p.m., to take a leading example, can scarcely have saved enough juice to compensate for the national sense of grief consequent upon the discovery that entire evening schedules had perforce to be not only truncated but reshuffled. Most dreaded of voice-overs, the words ‘And now, another chance to see...’ resounded like a doxology, indicating that some of the new gaps were to be plugged with old programmes.

Uri Geller reappeared, bending David Dimbleby’s spoon all over again. In our house the usual dialogue recurred. ‘I suppose you want me to give my undivided attention to this posturing jerk.’ ‘I want you to bend a spoon.’ It is remarkable, every time another Cagliostro-like shamus pokes his questing nose over the horizon and starts doing tricks to astonish wives, how a man who continues to believe in the laws of the universe is branded instantly as a cynic. What I want to know is, if this fork-twister is so good, why can’t he make coal? Synthesise petroleum? Stop the telly from going off at 10.30?

The politicians didn’t hesitate to obtrude their despised heads into what constricted video-space they had graciously allowed to remain. The magnitude of the Wilson disaster was given a new measure: here is a man who, when the economy is falling like an earthquake-stricken city into a yawning social division deliberately created between an elite rewarded for piracy and a proletariat castigated for poverty, still can’t represent a credible alternative to Edward Heath. Healey did rather better, and in fact offered us a screen image of such competent toughness that one could suppress only with difficulty the urge to fling oneself sobbing into his arms. It would have smashed the box, but that wouldn’t have been much loss.

Quite apart from tidings of national collapse, the international news was of a virulence calculated to send even a stoic ga-ga. A pack of kids, we were told, had tossed a phosphorus grenade into the front door of an airliner at Rome airport and roasted the passengers in their seats. To be caught unready by death is an ancient fear, and here once again was the modern version of that very nightmare. One dreams fitfully of being gunned down in Munich airport by an Eskimo terrorist sent from Tokyo by the Friendly Islands Liberation Front.

But when making his true observations about man being the only animal that laughs and weeps, Hazlitt forgot to add that man is the only animal able to do both those things simultaneously. While being regaled with the first stills of the charnel house at Rome, we were treated to the silliest statement of the year: Fiumicino, we were informed, has ‘the best security system of any airport in Europe.’ Ma scherzi — you’re kidding. The efficiency of any Italian police operation varies in inverse, not direct, proportion to the amount of fuzz involved, and it’s precisely because Fiumicino is swarming with a thousand self-conscious cops that your grandmother could walk through with a bazooka stashed in her reticule.

There was a clash on Sunday between BBC2’s film Anchors Aweigh — one of the weaker MGM musicals, but containing some velvet singing from the young Sinatra and a Spanish routine by Gene Kelly as good as anything he did in ‘The Pirate’ — and the Barbra Streisand spectacular put out by ATV. To the latter, called Barbra, I ended up giving my devotion, in an effort to see whether she would find the odd moment to do some performing during the hurly-burly of being overwhelmed by the production. There were multi-level transparent sets, computers, smoke machines and a lighting plot so elaborate you began to understand why the country was short of electricity. Only rarely did she feel it incumbent on her to uncork, most noticeably in her duet with Ray Charles, who inspired her not just to the routine showbiz declarations of love but to a heel-lifting recrudescence of the steaming yiddisher blues-shouting which has always been her true vocal talent: she’s a bagel-juggler who can belt it like a black. For the rest, it was another one of those Grade moments in television history: eye-popping production values and no guts.

There was an absorbingly intricate episode of Spy Trap (BBC1) written by John Gould, who has the other writers in this genre beaten sideways. Our boys at DI74 or whatever it is were hot on the trail of a Red spy-ring employing a failsafe system of couriers all unknown to each other. Chalk, blackboards, leg-work and brain-power were used to crack the conundrum. Finally the home team succeeded, thereby proving, to my satisfaction at least, that they could not possibly be employed by the British Government, and were themselves Soviet agents. God bless us, every one.

The Observer, 23rd December 1973