Essays: Heroes on wheels |
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Heroes on wheels

MRS MAO, up for trial in China, was looking well pleased with herself on all channels. She was back in show-business.

It’s no wonder that the Chinese are going mad about their first imported television soap opera, ‘Man from Atlantis.’ The whole country is a soap opera already. Meanwhile, back amongst the capitalist squalor, Dallas and Mackenzie (both BBC1) were showing signs of convergence. The leading man in each series spent the latest episode in a wheelchair. Some semioticist has probably already worked out a formula to explain this phenomenon. After a certain number of episodes of any given soap opera, the hero will be on wheels. Let f be the number of his love-affairs, n be the frequency with which he goes bankrupt, and p be the snapping-point of the viewer’s credulity. When f times n equals p, the leading man will be rolling instead of walking.

JR was in a wheelchair because, as you may have gathered, somebody shot him. Fanned by the BBC news outlets in this country, and by similar organisations throughout the world, the whole planet was supposed to be on tenterhooks to find out who did it. Actually to anyone in possession of the appropriate semiotic formulae it was always transparently obvious who did it — Miss Ellie. The writers, however, worked a switch at the last minute. Having led absolutely nobody down the garden path by focusing suspicion on Sue Ellen for a few months, they finally sprang the news that the mysterious assailant had been Kristin all along.

It won’t wash. Kristin couldn’t have done it for the same reason Sue Ellen couldn’t have done it. Nobody who moves her mouth like that can possibly shoot straight. Miss Ellie tried to frame Sue Ellen and is now trying to do the same thing to Kristin. Alert viewers will have spotted how Miss Ellie did everything she could to help the blotto Sue Ellen convict herself. ‘I keep hoping for a miracle. Some proof of your innocence.’ Helping Sue Ellen to strap herself into the electric chair was, as you might have expected, the ever-irascible Jock, leaping to the wrong conclusion as usual.

The latest episode of ‘Mackenzie’ was also, alas, the last. Several instalments having already gone by since f times n equalled p, Mac was tardy in acquiring his vehicular sedentary device, but once tucked in he lost no time in setting about doing what he always did best — making large, emphatic gestures with his hands. Mac had crashed a car while driving with his eyes full of blood because his son Jamie had hit him. You could tell Mac was twenty years older than his son Jamie because Mac had a moustache and some white powder streaked into his hair.

Jamie was still obsessed with Mac’s wife, who had once been his, Jamie’s, fiancée. ‘There is something you can do for my father. Hold his hand when he finds out his new daughter is really his grandchild.’ Diana, the classy mistress, suicided in order to get out of speaking any more dialogue. She took what Mac’s wife described as a novadose. The whole series was a novadose, but millions of viewers will miss it.

The Waterfall (BBC2) is plainly a higher class of event than ‘Mackenzie,’ but there are certain similarities. The third episode started very well, with the hero in a coma and the two ladies left free to interview each other. When Jamie is awake he tends to talk about cars or else say, ‘You’re so lovely. It’s so lovely when I'm with you.’

The ladies, Jane and Lucy, attain higher standards of semanic cogency. ‘Do you think it has any meaning, all this?’ ‘I think it must have.’ They both love Jamie, even though he is not just a car nut but a lousy driver as well — hence the coma. But they have been friends since childhood and you get the idea that they will last longer in each other’s lives than Jamie will, especially if he climbs into a car after he gets out of that hospital bed. What he will probably climb into, however, is a wheelchair, since f times n is in grave danger of equalling p.

In Oppenheimer (BBC2) the first atomic bomb went off. The excitement of the scientists was easy for the viewer to share — a measure of the success the series has had in avoiding the standard thoughts about nuclear weapons being a very bad thing. They are a very bad thing, but so is a hand-grenade rolled into a restaurant, and anybody who can’t find an indiscriminate weapon morally outrageous unless it yields an explosion the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT or above is not to be trusted as a student of political reality, although of course he might be handy to have around if you are organising a petition to stop somebody selling thermonuclear warheads to Idi Amin.

But that’s as may be. None of the scientists at Los Alamos seriously doubted that the atomic bomb had to be built. The ethical problems arose with the question of how to use it. Oppenheimer was shown giving the reasons why it was better to destroy a real target than stage a demonstration. For young people watching the series, this scene probably enrolled Oppenheimer among the warmongers, but in fact the reasons were convincing at the time and remain so even to hindsight.

When he bent his majestic intellect to the problem, Oppenheimer came up with the same answer as General Groves. In a brilliant performance — one of the best I have ever seen on television — Manning Redwood turned Groves into a sympathetic character without distracting you from the necessary conclusion that wars are bad things to get involved in if you need men like him to help win them for you. The series has made drama out of moral issues — which it had to do, there being no other kind of drama. A pity it fudged the physics.

Tireless as ever in its search for weirdo sports, World of Sport (LWT) brought you the world lumberjacking championships from Wisconsin. ‘A whole new wave of young log-rollers ... Fred’s slipped right off and fallen in that water! Let’s take a look at that in slow motion.’

Shoestring (BBC1), from a near-nothing start, has become must viewing for the millions. The millions include me, for reasons I can’t quite analyse. The mysteries Eddie solves are small beer. The big plus, apart from the hero’s undoubted charm, is probably the fact that the minor characters are satisfyingly filled out. The same might be said of Pamela Stephenson in Not the Nine O’Clock News (BBC2), but she has an uncanny ear to go with the rest of her. In a recent show she impersonated Sue Lawley hostessing a typically shambolic edition of ‘Nationwide.’ It takes somebody with Pamela’s dish-aerial aural receptors to pick up the weirdo Doppler and wow effects of Sue’s voice.

Another stalwart of the Not squad, Rowan Atkinson, was one of the better things in The Royal Variety Performance (BBC1). Atkinson delivered a speech about the economic situation. ‘We must not exhibit purposelessness. We must be purposelessnessless.’ I have to go to Australia now. Back in the New Year.

The Observer, 30th November 1980
[ An abridged version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]