Essays: Stand by for gunge |
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Stand by for gunge

THE SCENE was Kitzbühel, the programme Grandstand (BBC1). The event was the Men's Downhill. A man referred to as 'Britain's sole representative' came plummeting down the Streif. 'He won't be looking for a first place today,' said David Vine, 'he'll be looking for experience.'

At that very instant — not a bit later, but while David was actually saying it — Britain's sole representative was upside down and travelling into the crowd at 60 m.p.h. plus. Spectators were mown down as if by grape-shot. The air was full of snow, beanies. mittens, bits of wood. You had to be watching to get the full impact. It was a kind of perfection. On television the great hours might take place on schedule, but the great moments can happen at any time.

Not that greatness is a word you'd exactly toss around in a television context, although it can happen. But what you necessarily get more of is mediocrity. When it comes to series, the most you can hope for is that the mediocrity will show a certain amount of flair. When even that is lacking, a television reviewer starts feeling like a face-worker. Presented with an episode of Wilde Alliance (Yorkshire), wouldn't the average man prefer to heave coal rather than go on watching?

Amy and Rupert Wilde are played by Julia Foster and John Stride respectively. Julia Foster is a good actress and John Stride is one of the best actors of his generation. It was bearable to see Stride waste his time in 'The Main Chance' because he played a character suitable to his knack for forceful talk. Here he plays an amiable ditherer with little to utter except pleasantries. The amiable ditherer is a thriller writer-cum-gentleman detective, just as if Francis Matthews had never been one of those, in a series that was itself derivative to tho last degree. So this one is derivative squared.

The Professionals (LWT) is derivative cubed. Even the title is a pinch, from a terrible old Burt Lambaster movie about saving Claudia Cardbordoni from the clutches of a pack of Mexican revolutionaries with bad teeth. ('The revolution, it is like a woman, you know?') No need to be in a hurry, however, about recovering from the shock engendered by such a bare-faced steal. It is the last shock you are going to get. Everything else about 'The Professionals' is as predictable as industrial action at British Leyland. The predictability is given a flying start by the news that the show's creator is Brian Clemens.

'Created by Brian Clemens,' says the caption. Clemens also created 'The Avengers.' With 'The Avengers' he was avowedly creating a glossy fantasy, but this time he is creating something more down to earth. The same lack of inspiration unites both styles. What used to he a lot of dull ideas about a gentleman detective and his girl assistant are now a lot of dull ideas about a hard-nosed cop and his two boy assistants.

Our heroes are supposed to be an anti-terrorist squad using fire to fight fire in order to preserve society. Cowley, the hard CI5-man, is played by Gordon Jackson, for whom this is an easy number, as befits his seniority: most of the running around is done by the boy assistants, while Cowley sits in the car or, even cushier, hears about it by telephone.

The terrorists take hostages, snipe at politicians, blow people up, park on double yellow lines. It follows that Cowley's squad must be given special powers, including the right to terrorise the terrorists. There is a good deal of grasping the suspect's collar in both fists while delivering tough talk into his face at close range. Invariably he caves in, probably because the thought of listening to any more of Brian Clemens's dialogue is too much to bear. Mr Clemens's idea of a good line is 'He's out there somewhere.' He is out there somewhere, but in my case he's fast asleep.

What do you get after derivative cubed? The question is posed by the mere existence of Blake's Seven (BBC1), a 'new' science fiction serial created by Terry Nation. Like Brian Clemens or N. J. Crisp, Terry Nation is a name to strike terror into the reviewer's heart. I won't dwell on his past achievements. Sufficient to say that in 'Blake's Seven' (the name recalls 'Ocean's Eleven,' a nothing movie of an earlier period) the galaxy is being colonised by shame-faced actors with British regional accents apt to shout things like 'Cut primaries and reverse thrust! Negative anti-gravs!' Striding around sets which must have cost several pounds, other actors shout 'Compensate for reverse drift and hold!' I suppose the 'Star Wars' boom sparked it off. Suddenly it seemed like a good idea for the Beeb to have its own space opera. Well, here it is. Activate main garbage tubes! Stand by for gunge disposal! Mind your helmets!

Yet a series can be derivative and still offer something, provided its creators know that they are slumming and have the wherewithal to bung on a bit of style. Gangsters (BBC1) deserves its passionate following. It is junk, but the junk bounces. If you can imagine a combination of 'Get Carter' and 'Pulp' with a cast consisting almost entirely of ethnic minorities, you're getting near it.

The setting is mainly Birmingham, although there are locations as far afield as Pakistan. The plot is devoutly incomprehensible, but seems to be drawn equally from 'The Fosdyke Saga' and those awful old Charlie Chan movies where Yul Brynner (in the days before he zapped his dome) answered to the name of Number One Son. I forgot: 'Gumshoe' is in it, too. Yet it all gels, simply because Philip Martin can write a bit. The stunts, according to the credits, are in the charge of Alan Chuntz. Mr Chuntz does the stuntz.

Doors (BBC1) came to a lamented end. I was planning to do a post-mortem on it, but I miss it too much. Meanwhile, in part compensation, The Moneychangers has started up on ITV. An everyday story of banking folk, it hasn't quite got the aura of 'Doors,' but I'm planning to become an addict anyway.

The Spongers (BBC1) was a dramatised documentary about a deserted mother of four being driven to suicide by an uncomprehending bureaucracy. Produced by Tony Garnett, it was highly convincing and should do some good. A comparable programme, Scum, all about Borstals, was denied a screening. I saw the tape privately and found it worthy, dedicated and unsubtle. It would have been a lot more frightening if more thoughtfully done. There was no obvious reason for not putting the programme out, quite apart from the fact that scrapping projects after you make them is an expensive way to run a railroad.

The Observer, 29th January 1978

[ A brief excerpt from this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]