Essays: The Grand Inquisitors |
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The Grand Inquisitors

THE latest Omnibus (BBC1) was called ‘We Ask The Questions’ and by dint of judicious archival research managed to be fascinating about the business of television interviewing, not commonly a subject high on the list of earthly fascinations.

Sir Robin Day, as he now is, gave his off-screen interviewer a hard time. Interviewed on the subject of interviewing, Day had no intention of looking like a soft touch. Surrounding a large cigar, his mouth was set in a firm line, with predictable consequences for the cigar. ‘You’re making a statement and not asking a question. What power do I wield?’ Day was rightly confident that the resolute interviewer performs a public service, especially when, by pushing the awkward question, he obliges the politician on the receiving end of the interview to confirm, by not answering it, that the question is indeed awkward. The same point was backed up by David Dimbleby, who manifested more charm than Robin, but had no cigar.

The political interview emerged as a fairly straightforward business, provided the interviewer can stay awake. The chat show interview was also on the agenda and proved to be a more contentious issue. An old clip of Simon Dee showed how not to do it. Dee, having run out of questions for his guest, asked the audience if they had any questions for his guest. They hadn’t, which made a whole studio full of people who had no questions for his guest.

There was a lesson there for us all: be prepared. Michael Parkinson was shown in the process of getting prepared. A bewitching pre-interviewer called Helen Frazer chatted up a prospective guest. Miss Frazer once did this to me, and it is no reflection on Parky to say that I found it hard to see at the time why she wasn’t allowed to take me off to the studio and interview me herself, since she was so good at it.

But Parky is the star, and stardom counts. Parky did his engaging best to be modest about this fact. The moment he forgets that the guest coming down those stairs is a bigger star than he is, he assured us, will be the moment he is washed up. This was a disarmingly modest assertion, but perhaps not entirely honest, when you consider some of the human wreckage that has at various times come down those stairs. Still, every man to his taste. Every man except David Frost, who hasn’t really got any.

Frost spoke convincingly about the techniques and morality of interviewing, but when it came to the actual event you found yourself less impressed. The famous studio confrontation between Frost and Savundra was dusted off and screened as an example. The question remains about what it was an example of. Many at the time said it was an example of trial by television. Frost gives the same answer now as he gave then: without the interview the case might never have come to court. Nevertheless the interview persists in looking like trial by television.

Frost leant with accusatory finger over Savundra. He was playing Grand Inquisitor. Years later he urged Nixon to save his soul by revealing all. He was playing Father Confessor. Frost is always playing some role or other. Except when he is delivering second-hand special material, he plays most of them reasonably well. Other people could no doubt play them better, but the point of being a star is that millions of people want to see you. Whether this is a good thing or not is a continuing problem, which a further ‘Omnibus’ along similar lines might well go into: David Chesshire, who produced this programme, seems to have a knack for the obvious topic that nobody else has thought of tackling.

The space shuttle last week crowded out what should have been my considered responses to various important television events, such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (BBC1). This I found admirably directed and acted, but the intervening 20 years since I first read the text have brought me no closer to understanding why it is thought to be one of Miller’s better things. The play overcomplicates its ostensible subject: it tries to be profound about persecution, when the fact is that persecutors persecute because they are persecutors. By renouncing all belief in original sin there are a lot of topics you can be exploratory about, but evil isn’t one of them.

Letters of protest challenge me to expand on my contention that The Life and Times of Lloyd George (BBC2) is a dog. It should not have been a dog. The author of the scripts, Elaine Morgan, is among the most consistently high-powered writers in television today. In the normal course of events the odds would be against any script she produced being turned into a dog. Perhaps she is not as good with men talking about politics in particular as she is with women talking about life in general, but a more likely explanation is that the resources to carry out such a series at the level of its intention are mainly concentrated in London at BBC Television Centre, and that when BBC Wales tries something so ambitious the chances are increased that the results will chew bones and bark.

There should have been tighter script-editing, stronger casting, less awkward direction. Should is a sad word, just as a dog, in my perhaps jaundiced view, is a sad animal. Anyway, all concerned will rise again, and Kika Markham was very good as Lloyd George’s secretary — perhaps because Elaine Morgan writes such strong feminist roles, and Kika Markham is such a sensitive actress, that together they can temporarily defeat even a set of circumstances otherwise bent on reducing them to canine status.

‘Delicate little stun screw here,’ whispered the voice-over in World Championship Snooker (BBC2). One of those adolescent Space Invaders champions who can shoot down 64 enemy battle fleets, Steve Davis was so obviously unstoppable that the tournament went a bit flat. Nevertheless I watched every day and evening, since there was always plenty of tension attached to the issue of which player would manage to smoke the most of the sponsor’s free cigarettes. The commentators refer to the ‘Embassy World Championship’ at all times, but what really matters to the Embassy people is the spectacle of a star player taking a drag on the product between winning breaks.

This year everything should have been rosier than ever for the sponsor. The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, was jammed to the rafters with a snooker-crazed audience all ready to smoke like chimneys in emulation of their heroes. Presumably there were millions of viewers out there keen to do the same. But there was a joker in the pack. Steve Davis doesn’t smoke. That was the sub-text during an otherwise unexciting final match, in which Doug Mountjoy was frozen out.

‘This is a desperate situation for Doug Mountjoy,’ whispered the commentators. But it was an even more desperate situation for the sponsor. With Davis not smoking at all, it scarcely helped that Mountjoy was smoking his head off. ‘Watching the title drift away.’ Mountjoy, the close-ups told you, was watching it drift away on a cloud of Embassy cigarette smoke. Still, as long as Davis didn’t actually mention not smoking, the sponsors might still make something out of the day.

Davis won and was hailed by David Vine. ‘Can I now ask,’ David bellowed, ‘the presentation party to come out on stage? Managing director, W. D. & H. O. Wills ... manager ... Embassy ...’ Young Steve folded the cheque and put it in his pocket before accepting the trophy. ‘I’d like to thank Embassy,’ he said. The sponsors beamed. ‘Unfortunately I don’t smoke ...’ Baby Talk (BBC1), an excellent play by Nigel Williams, I will try to say something intelligent about next week.

The Observer, 26th April 1981
[ An excerpt from this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]