Essays: Heavy with Snow |
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Heavy with Snow

ALL the time that Max von Sydow was chasing Liv Ullmann with an axe in The Night Visitor (Thames), ITN was putting up captions telling you to stay tuned for the hostages, who would be presented live shortly after midnight, in a satellite hook-up fronted from London by Jon Snow.

Max having dispatched Liv, the screen was cleared for Jon Snow and a man billed as the Archbishop’s representative. At some stage the Archbishop’s representative had been to Iran and actually seen the hostages, which made him an expert. Jon, as far as I could gather, had never met the hostages, but had been to Iran, which made him an expert too. They were thus able to have an expert discussion while waiting for the action to develop in Algeria, where the Boeing 727 carrying the hostages would shortly land. The Archbishop’s representative was asked to predict what condition the hostages would be in. He agreed with Jon that the hostages would be exhausted.

Jon then introduced a film-clip résumé of the whole hostage business from day one. This was followed by a run-through of the year’s major events, in order to underline the fact that the hostages had not been around to witness these, on account of being incarcerated. Any hopes that you might at least see some pictures of the incoming plane circling the airport in Algeria were dashed when Jon admitted that the satellite link had conked out. ‘But at least our correspondent can see what’s happening. What’s happening down there, Sam?’

‘We ... we’ve just seen a plane land,’ said Sam from Algeria. ‘We’re not absolutely sure it’s the plane with the hostages aboard ... if it is the plane, then surely the hostages are exhausted...’ Jon felt it incumbent upon him to break the news to Sam that there were no pictures. ‘Sam, let me butt in here ... we ought to explain that there has been a technical failure ... Sam, can you see the plane from where you are?’ There was a still photograph of Sam holding a telephone in the alert manner of a foreign correspondent. ‘Irony for the hostage families,’ mused Jon. ‘Let’s leave Algiers, and let’s hope that they can repair that satellite before you can say knife ... and let’s return to the Archbishop’s representative.’

The Archbishop’s rep once again reached the conclusion that the hostages would be exhausted. Jon tried tuning into Algeria by sheer will-power. ‘Let’s now ... let’s hope ... those pictures ... tragic irony ... airport full of things we want to see, people we want to see, and we can’t see it.’ The next best bet was to run some film about Wiesbaden, whither the hostages would be flown after arriving exhausted in Algeria.

There were pictures of wide streets in Wiesbaden with not much happening. ‘Their first chance to experience free space,’ Jon explained, ‘will come on the open streets of Wiesbaden.’ There was some footage of Wiesbaden’s opera house. ‘The opera house, which sports lavish German performances nightly.’ Yes, Wiesbaden would certainly be the place for the hostages to get back in touch with German opera performances. So much for Wiesbaden. ‘Well, I think there’s still no chance of getting those pictures back ... so Sam, what now?’

‘Well, as you say, Jon, the plane, we think it’s the plane, but so far the hostages, if they are on it, have not come off it ... all we can do at the moment is wait.’ Jon gave the Archbish’s rep a brief rest and wheeled on another expert. ‘Let’s look at the wider implications. I have with me Dr Treverton, of the Institute of Strategic Studies.’ But then a flash on the monitor caught Jon’s eagle eye. ‘They’ve got the pictures, and THERE’S THE PLANE!’ Sam, who can tell a 747 from a 727, cooled him down. ‘That is in fact not the plane, Jon.’ But Jon had spotted another plane landing. Now it was following a little truck. Jon got terrifically excited about the little truck. ‘The pilot follows it ... he stays in his plane of course.’

Stuck in Algeria, Sam was badly placed to hold Jon’s hands, but he did his best. ‘I think, Jon, that is not the plane with the hostages...’ But another plane was coming in. Surely this one must be it. As if in confirmation, the satellite link conked out again. ‘If you’re still wondering what ‘s happened to those old pictures,’ said Jon for the benefit of any children who might have been watching at half past one in the morning, ‘we’ve got problems up in those mountains and...’

It was a bad quarter of an hour in Jon’s life, no question. For all he knew, the plane with the hostages on board had been hijacked to Cuba. Luckily he had an ace up his sleeve. ‘Watching here with me ... is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative ... what sort of emotions do you think will be going through their minds as they step off the plane?’

The pictures came back. There was a 727 standing on the tarmac. The question remained of whether it was the right 727, but meanwhile there was time to speculate about what, if it was the right 727, might be going on inside it. ‘An extraordinary confusion of emotions must be locked behind that door,’ ventured Jon. The extraordinary confusion of emotions stayed locked behind that door for a long time.

Sam’s voice: ‘One wonders what the hostages are going through ... any second now ... there is the door opening ...’ But nobody came out except a few diplomats. There were diplo faces everywhere. Maybe it was the wrong plane after all. Maybe the right one was already in Havana. Glimpse of a steward in the doorway. Jon’s voice: ‘Certainly you can see a steward ... let us be certain this is the hostage plane ... bear with us while we sort this out.’ More diplo faces in the VIP lounge. Back to the plane. Still no action. Then, suddenly, there they were, waving. ‘There they are, waving!’ shouted Jon, superfluous to the last.

Every year, by strict rotation, a BBC television crew gets the chance to make a mystery series somewhere around the Mediterranean. This year’s perk is called The Treachery Game (BBC1). The setting is the Dordogne, which is not strictly the Mediterranean, but at least isn’t Southend, and with budgets running so thin who’s complaining? The plot is either intricate or hopelessly confused, it is difficult to tell. Mark is a British spy accused of working for the KGB. A scientist called Aird has been killed. Who cared about Aird enough to kill him? It could have been Baird. There are at least three different sets of heavies, many of them with bad shaves. Will Karl kill Arle before Gale nails Kael? The flesh is sad, alas, and I have read all the books.

The Nine O’Clock News (BBC1) featured a gung-ho American officer talking of ‘the capability to project Marines ashore in a hostile environment as the case may be.’ His name was Colonel Looney. On Nationwide (BBC1), Frank Bough interviewed the man who pulls the ugliest faces in Britain. His name was Ron Looney. I merely present these facts, without comment. Introducing a re-run of an old episode of Ironside, a BBC link-man blew his only line of the day. He asked us to look forward to a story ‘revolving round the wheel-bound chair ... the wheel-chair-bound Los Angeles police chief.’ It’s moments like those that make job my while worth.

On Did You See...? (BBC2), hosted by Ludovic Kennedy, Trevor Phillips of LWT’s ‘Skin’ programme said several penetrating things about Wolcott (ATV). He said it was badly observed and that the leading character employed three different West Indian accents in one episode. What he forgot to say was that the whole series looked as if it had been financed by the National Front for the specific purpose of demonstrating that blacks glaze over when asked to talk.

Proof that this contention is not necessarily true was variously available in Babylon (LWT), which fielded some highly articulate black activists, and Parkinson (BBC1), starring Muhammad Ali, who once again demonstrated that he has a way with words, even after having taken one punch too many to his clever head. Freddie Starr was on the same show, on his way through to the asylum.

The Observer, 25th January 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]