Essays: The Son-in-Law |
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The Son-in-Law

‘THE son-in-law also rises,’ runs the old Hollywood gag. But on grounds of ability there is surely nothing untoward about Peter Jay’s new appointment. Sharp in all but syntax, he has always counted as one of the bright boys in TV current affairs, which, he has been heard to say on more than one thousand occasions, should provide the background along with the story.

This ought to be an elementary point, but in television terms it rates as a profound one. Debates about the ought of television are automatically nobbled by the is. Yes, the news ought to be dealt with by television journalists qualified to probe deep, but there is an automatic shortage of suitable people. Not many journalists can write with any real force, and of those few even fewer are effective on television as well. Of those very few, there are fewer still who are not likely to favour writing over appearing. Instinct would stop them becoming television regulars, even without the evidence provided by the casualty rate among an earlier generation (Mossman, Allsop et al) that television’s atmosphere of permanent crisis is inimical to the contemplative mind.

So let’s be clear on the point, even at the cost of being cruel. We are being asked to conceive of the kind of ideal world in which Peter Jay — among whose gifts the gift of phrase is benumbingly absent — features as the optimum. I once heard Nigel Ryan, editor of ITN, say that he wanted to groom Alastair Burnet as the British Walter Cronkite. It was taken for granted that the American Walter Cronkite was someone worth emulating. The truth (which I have never forgiven myself for not shouting into Ryan’s elegantly groomed ear) was that Cronkite had nothing original to offer beyond a certain degree of common sense. The same applies to Burnet, Jay and most of the others who come to be regarded as television’s men of distinction.

With due allowance for the ought being undermined by the is, The Question of Broadcasting (BBC2), a two-hour drone-in devoted to the Annan Report, wasn’t a bad symposium — or, as the Evening Standard’s Celia Brayfield called it with unwitting sarcasm, moratorium. Chaired by Robin Day, it was a senatorial get-together of BBC and ITV power figures, with a sprinkling of critics and other lone voices to convey the idea — not entirely illusory — that the public has a say in these matters. ‘Feel free to speak,’ Robin commanded the assembled wits. They spoke freely enough, considering that almost everybody present was an employee of somebody else present. Lord Annan sat in the hot seat. Whoever else hadn’t read his Report, he had, and was ready to quote chapter and verse at anybody who tried to catch him out. I mean, they don’t make these characters lords and ambassadors for nothing.

On the vexed question of whether ITV’s news and current affairs are better than the Beeb’s, it was pointed out (it was pointed out in this column before the Annan Report appeared) that the much-lamented discrepancy has largely righted itself: ‘Panorama’ for example, was already starting to get tough again even while the Annan committee was busy deciding that it had grown weak. These are largely matters of personnel: change editors and you change the news. Jeremy Isaacs, Thames programme-controller and a genuinely distinguished man, pointed out that there is a tide in these things. ‘I rather fear for ITN when I hear all these praises heaped on us.’

Isaacs thought that Annan had made a mistake in not giving the fourth channel to ITV, because that would have got television ‘moving again.’ The implication that he doesn’t think it’s moving now was annoyingly not followed up. Philip Purser made the strong point that an ITV2 would probably drain off all that was good in ITV1. This was a valuable contribution for a critic to make, and shames me into trying to make one of my own, to wit: if the fourth. channel is to be a ‘publishing’ channel, then one of the things it ought to publish is repeats. It is important to give good writers an assurance that their work will be preserved.

The symposium-moratorium had a goodly ration of unintentional humour, mainly provided by Mary Whitehouse and Milton Shulman, working in a holy alliance to assert that TV violence causes violence in real life. The fact that there is no evidence except a heap of bad sociology to support this contention fazed them not a bit. Certainly they seem to have convinced Robin Day. When the BBC’s Robin Scott diffidently attempted to point out that a theory doesn’t necessarily turn into reality just because Mary and Milty shout it in unison, Day pounced on him like an avenging angel. ‘Are you still doubting that violence on TV can be harmful?’ he cried. Robin Day is a chastening example of an above-average mentality inexorably being turned into a below-average mentality by regular appearances on television. It’s the adrenalin — it rots the cerebral cortex.

But the same TV voodoo that makes extraordinary people ordinary makes ordinary ones extraordinary. Having done nothing exceptional beyond reading the news without biting her tongue and dancing on the ‘Morecambe and Wise’ show without falling over, Angela Rippon is now the most famous woman in the country after Noele Gordon and the Queen. If the BBC had a decent regard for her welfare it would do its best to protect her from what could easily become a lethal exposure burn. Forbidding her to give interviews would have been a good start. Not putting her in charge of the Eurovision Song Contest (BBC1) would have been a logical follow-up.

Angie, with a chandelier dependent from each lobe, looked the picture of elegance, but had little beyond hockey-mistress jollifications to offer by way of commentary as the votes came in, or failed to come in, from all over the world. As usual, the complicated electronic scoreboard seemed to be reflecting the calculations of a chimp with an abacus. When Angie wasn’t being flummoxed by the garble in her earpiece (‘having trouble with my deaf-aid’) she was being stymied by the balls-up on the scoreboard.

Recurring mentions of this problem (‘I think we’re having a bit of trouble with our scoreboard again’) were alleviated by the occasional well-modulated outbreak of enthusiasm (‘My goodness, it’s really a close race at the top there’), but the general effect was to deepen, rather than dissipate, the chill fog of mediocrity generated by the songs themselves. Meanwhile, only one button away, Teresa Stratas was being sensationally good as Salome (BBC2). I suppose it’s unfair to bitch about the clash, but I nearly fractured a retina trying to watch both shows at once.

The Observer, 15th May 1977