Essays: Kick-off at the World Cup sleep-in |
[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]

Kick-off at the World Cup sleep-in

WORLD Cup coverage got off to a slow, peaceful start. Giant footballs burst open to reveal folk dancers, pipe bands, everything except Palestinian guerrillas. Mädchen in uniform drilled dutifully. Speeches of unimpeachable banality were doggedly read out. Down came the rain and on came the teams.

Brazil were obviously intent on boring Yugoslavia to death. The Yugoslavians fought off sleep and held them to a draw. The only moment of authentic tension came from David Coleman. As Rivelino and the boys drowsily prepared yet another set-piece attack, David cried ‘Another taste of Brazilian torture for this defence.’ Did this outburst indicate David’s disapproval of police activities in Brazil? More likely it was just his irrepressible gift of metaphor sundering the restrictions placed upon it by convention.

Doubtless the lulling hand of Morpheus will be lifted from the World Cup quickly enough. Queen Mab in her tiny chariot will roll away. But, until then, it’s remarkable what a few days of Sir Alf Ramsey’s expert commentary can do for your insomnia. Sir Alf was produced by ITN as their ace in the hole. He inclines his head at the same angle, and emanates the same easy eloquence, as a statue from Easter Island. Malcolm Allison, who has always looked about 10 years old, now does his hair in a different way to obviate that impression, and looks about eight years old. The sense of authority has reverted to the BBC’s panel, anchored by the indefatigably eager Jimmy Hill. Here the viewer is faced with the eternal football questions, such as — how far down his head will Bobby Charlton have to part his hair before he faces the fact that he is bald? Take it from one who knows, Bobby: if you’ll just admit it to yourself, all the tension will go, and your hair might even grow again.

Perhaps it was just a sleepy, dreamy week. Michael Barrett on Nationwide pulled the kind of boner which experienced link-men find themselves committing only when suffering an advanced case of nitrogen narcosis — the dreaded ‘rapture of the deep.’ A young lady with three children to look after was explaining that she couldn’t go out to work because she was allowed to earn only £2 before she lost her benefits. ‘Two pounds is a lot of money,’ Michael found himself saying sternly. Instead of hitting him, the girl managed to deliver at least a fraction of the grisly truth, which is that it would cost her more than two pounds just to get someone to look after the kids. But others abide our question: thou, Michael, art free. The next item came blundering on. ‘By total contrast now we turn to the world of fashion,’ jested one of Michael’s boy assistants, ‘a world in total contrast to the ladies we’ve just met.’ His conscience sounded strained. His facts were strained too, since both the young lady with the children and the counsellor from the Child Poverty Action Group had been glamorous beyond the call of duty.

The Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (BBC2) was a worthy, poorly made American documentary dedicated to casting doubt on the validity of the Rosenbergs’ conviction for treason. Since I have never doubted the Rosenbergs’ innocence for a moment, my objections to the show were all technical. Technical objections, however, are not peripheral — if getting the message across is what matters, they are central. The programme hectored where it should have explained, jumped about where it should have dwelt, and couldn’t develop a sustained argument on the topics that mattered. ‘It is 1946 and a Cold War is moving in from the East. It will freeze the minds of most Americans.’ For good reasons, that style of writing will freeze the minds of most viewers: it is fundamentally bogus. We weren’t allowed to see the alleged sketches of the putative lens for more than a few seconds. There was no reason except a misplaced sense of drama for flashing them up semi-subliminally. The sketches are not classified because there is nothing to classify: they are childishly elementary and reveal nothing — which was part of the programme’s point, so why be coy?

There were, however, some useful moments. There was a tape proving that Harry Gold lied on the Rosenberg issue as on every other, although the programme-maker (Alvin H. Goldstein) is naïve to suppose that such evidence could retroactively shake faith in his testimony. In the Hiss case, Whittaker Chambers came to the witness stand as an admitted liar and found his credibility doubled by the admission. The whole period represented America’s belated encounter with Titus Oates. Nixon was the direct outcome. So were a couple of electrocutions in Sing Sing. Mr Goldstein is right to be concerned, and right again to want their names cleared. But it will take style and cogency as well as determination. Exhausted from his efforts, Mr Goldstein appeared later on in In Vision (BBC2), talking in slow motion to the manifest consternation of the show’s host.

The Living Wall (Tyne-Tees/Border) was a mercifully energetic documentary by Hunter Davies about Hadrian’s Wall. I liked everything about the show — even, surprisingly, Mr Davies’s manner, by which I was confidently expecting to be off-put. He walked from Wallsend to the Solway Firth disseminating knowledge at every step. I didn’t quite catch why it is that the Wall is eaten away in the west. Judging from the massive incuriosity of the local populace, it might have been worn down by indifference. Mr Davies, if anyone can, will do something to cure that.

Search for Life (BBC2) was an ‘Horizon’ import from Boston. The volcano footage was standard stuff, but everything else was of high interest. We saw the close analogy between algae mats and pre-Cambrian rocks, which indicates that life started quite suddenly, almost at the beginning of the earth’s history, and is therefore probably not uncommon on other planets. The programme featured a scientist who could talk fascinatingly about things like silicone giraffes and — which is more important — knew how to make common reason interesting in itself. There is no substitute for this ability and no programme which fails to muster it will ever be any good.

Don’t miss The Accursed Kings, a French series imported by BBC2. A gripping crown opera about Philip the Fair and François the Foul, it currently features Louis X (a weak king), Charles de Valois (a heavy noble) and Robert of Artois (a devious espèce de jambon with lots of teeth and pop eyes). Marigny, stopping at nothing to get out of the series, was beheaded this week. ‘Charles does not shrink from the use of violence to achieve his aims,’ says the Radio Times. The whole thing is done on the first take and if an extra gets his spear tangled in the arras the shot stays in. More fun than the home brew: I tuned in to Episode 21 of The Pallisers (BBC2) and those two blokes were still telling each other the plot.

The Observer, 16th June 1974