Essays: Speaking personally |
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Speaking personally

IN this column I will be expressing a personal view. You will have noticed that ATV has taken to signposting the programmes of its more controversial reporters — Auberon Waugh, John Pilger et hoc genus — with placards fore and aft, minatorily announcing that the view expressed is personal. Other television companies are sure to follow suit. I don’t see why critics shouldn’t do the same.

Actually Pilger’s latest view, expressed on Monday night, wasn’t so much personal as banal. In a programme subtitled ‘The Street of Joy’ (the main title was simply Pilger, Pilger’s personal surname), the grittily committed investigator investigated Madison Avenue’s handling of two new products — Fresh’n Pre-Moisturised Toilet Tissue and Jimmy Carter. If the personal views of the hucksters peddling these two accounts were to be summated, it would appear that Americans will soon be wiping their bums with Fresh’n and Jimmy Carter will govern the country while they do so.

Unswervingly didactic as ever, Pilger was in no mood to leave the account executives unexposed in their cynicism. He was terrifically investigatory. And there was no getting away from the fact that the radiantly groomed lady bigwig in charge of flogging Fresh’n was kind of ghastly. ‘Could you show me how it actually works?’ Pilger asked her. If he possessed a trace of humour, this might have been the sort of funny question that elicits revealing answers, but as it was, she just took refuge behind her residual female coyness. There was no way, no day, that Pilger was ever going to get her talking about exactly how Fresh’n did its thing.

Pilger’s premise was that Fresh’n was a meaningless product and so was Carter. In reality, this premise was two premises. Carter probably is a meaningless product. Fresh’n, however, sounds as if it might be a genuine technological advance. It Was notable that the otherwise remorselessly investigative Pilger never got round to using the product himself and telling us how it worked. When the advertising men told him that they could only hustle a product up to a point, beyond which the public would decide, they were telling Pilger the truth, but he wasn’t listening. I must say, expressing a personal view, that pre-moisturised toilet tissue sounds to me like a good idea, although it necessarily leaves you with the problem of post-demoisturising yourself after you’ve used it.

So widespread is the scorn of ATV’s ‘personal view’ policy that even Merlyn Rees felt safe in making a joke about it at the IBA twenty-first anniversary banquet, held at the Guildhall on Thursday night. For once breaking my rule about never accepting free sandwiches from the World of the Media, I attended this self-congratulatory get-together on your behalf. Seven hundred people sat down and did not get up again, except for toasts, until many years later. The proceedings were of bladder-bursting duration, in no way alleviated by Mr Rees’s address, which was of a humourlessness that made Pilger sound like Groucho Marx. A speech from Lord Hill was the only thing we were spared. On the whole, though, I have to admit — expressing a personal view — that the prevailing atmosphere of satisfaction was to some extent justified as ITV really has turned out a bit better than responsible people once feared.

Not that you would have known from ITV, This Is Your Life (Thames), a celebration — emanating from Bernard Delfont’s hideous New London Theatre and hosted by Eamonn Andrews — of commercial television’s 21 years of achievement. The air of triviality had to be sampled to he believed. I watched on in astonishment until halfway through, beyond which point the mind could take no more. There were a couple of good notions. Asking the chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to sing a medley of jingles was naughty but nifty. Robin Day was funny. But otherwise the light touch lapsed into vulgarity whenever it was attempted; the opening compilation of clips featured an elephant tap-dancing to Verdi, a moment of philistine jocosity which proved only too indicative.

The unspeakable Hughie Greene was reunited with all the girls who had ever been unfortunate enough to function in the role of hostess on his programme. Terrible sequences from ‘The Army Game’ were ill-advisedly resurrected. Putting all this together was something of a technical feat and things were bound to go wrong, but whenever there was an awkward pause Eamonn was ready to step in and make it more awkward still. The whole affair was a pin-headed shambles. ITV stood self-condemned: it behoved a fair man to protest that the victim was too hard on himself.

Under-represented in Eamonn’s nostalgiathon, the serious side of ITV was made conspicuous by Three Days in Szczecin, Granada’s worthy attempt at a documentary reconstruction of the Polish shipyard workers’ strike in 1971. Granada tried hard and I would be the last to mock its commitment, but here was a plain case of the intention exceeding the deed. From the accompanying bumf sent out to the Press, you would have thought the programme was marked by an authenticity so convincing that even some of the surviving real-life participants in the strike could not look upon it without feeling that they were being catapulted back into time. Bernard Levin, having seen the show at a preview, announced in The Times on the day of transmission that it had reduced him to tears, yet given him hope in the uncrushable spirit of freedom.

Well, previewing is not the same as criticism, which happens after the event, and in this case was bound to find the event a bit thin. The words spoken at the big meeting between the workers and Party boss Edward Gierek were all as was, but the flashbacks to what led up to the meeting were ‘a compressed, imaginary recreation of what we know essentially to be true.’ Now it is true that Granada was ‘advised’ by Edmund Bałuka, the actual leader of the strike: he was there. But the writer on the show, Bolesław Sulik, wasn’t, so his compressed imaginary recreations didn’t necessarily have the stamp of authenticity that we were led to suppose they did.

Mr Sulik’s writing was unevocative. Nor did the direction manage to generate much of the overpowering apprehension which undoubtedly. characterised the real thing. As it happens, I have met Bałuka, who expresses profound disappointment with the programme. He thinks they came nowhere near getting it right. Where were the tanks? The reality had been so very much more frightening than the reconstruction.

Yevtushenko met Melvyn Bragg on Tonight (BBC1). Not only is Yevty vain about his baldness, he is dead arrogant. He got up his host’s nose — no simple task, considering the mildness of Melvyn’s disposition, not to mention his caved-in septum. I liked the first part of I, Claudius (BBC1), although I wonder if Caius Octavius Augustus Caesar ever really said ‘It’s a deal.’ Gielgud saved The Picture of Dorian Gray (BBC1), giving young Peter Firth a much-needed lesson in how to speak. Rogue Male (BBC2) apart from Peter O’Toole’s mannerisms, was all production values. Best show of the week was a Summer of 76 (BBC2) on the Royal Academy summer exhibition. The column you have just read expressed a personal view.

The Observer, 26th September 1976