Essays: Stationary kicks |
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Stationary kicks

‘ONE was doing a stationary movement and the other was doing a fast movement,’ explained the learned voice-over on Come Dancing (BBC1) when a couple kicked each other in the knee. Stationary movement — a phrase for our time.

It is stationary movement to watch an episode of Cannon (BBC1) and find that the plot is a synthesis of ‘Strangers on a Train’ (proud mother and psychopathic son), ‘Compulsion’ (boy genius kills) and ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ (town bullies gang up on harmless-looking lone avenger, only to be felled by startling display of karate). That must have been why Ruth Roman was cast as the mother: because she had once been in ‘Strangers on a Train,’ even though in a different role. The melodrama you were seeing had been compiled by people remembering melodramas they had seen. Nothing new could happen, except a diminution of expectancy. Apart from the sheer physical unlikelihood of Cannon being able to quell the heavies by dint of martial arts, nothing untoward was possible. Stationary movement.

Star Trek (BBC1) fell into the same category. A repeat of a repeat, last week’s episode was one of the very few that I had not previously memorised, but the only way I could tell I had not seen it was the different way the same things were arranged. Kirk, Spock and Bones were overpowered again by asteroid-dwellers in period costumes. Bones fell in love with the beautiful high priestess again. The high priestess said, ‘Does McCoy find me attractive?’ again. When you know exactly what will happen in a programme, but watch it anyway, it is useless to tell yourself that you are watching it for the variations on standard themes. You are watching it for the standard themes. For the stationary movement.

But Spitfire! (BBC1) was rousing stuff. Hosted by Raymond Baxter, who 35 years ago flew Spitfires himself, it was technically matter-of-fact and all the more poetic for that. Beautiful modern air-to-air colour film of a lovingly preserved Spitfire was combined with equally beautiful archive footage of the first prototype buzzing about. Disturbingly young-looking — surviving war pilots always seem to age well — the aces harked back. Douglas Bader and Stanford Tuck, holding models of Spitfires and Me109s, showed how the Spitfire had to half-roll into its pursuing dive if it were not to suffer fuel-starvation and so let the accursed Hun escape.

The small-boy aspect was undeniable, but so was the enchantment: in all of history, the Battle of Britain must have been as near as warfare ever got to realising the chivalric myth. Only the upper classes, or aspirants thereto, were allowed to play. Apart from the historically neglected sergeant pilots, the lower orders were permitted, at best, to build the toys. Some of the workers in the Spitfire shadow factories were traced and interviewed. Obviously they had derived extreme aesthetic satisfaction from putting together such a clean machine. Miss Horton amazingly turned up — the very lady who, as a slip of an aircraftwoman, had been sitting on a Spitfire’s tail when the thoughtless pilot took off. She recalled her ride through the sky with wonderful detachment.

Discovery (Yorkshire) was about supertankers — now-obsolete items of a technological impact comparable to the Spitfire’s, except that nobody loves them. It was revealed that the Very Large Crude Carriers were mostly financed by Very Crude Men, who had no responsibility to anybody and over whom we should not grieve, now that they are stuck with a lot of useless hardware. Austin Mitchell posed minatorily in front of mighty hulks rusting in remote fiords. Sic transit globtik.

Julian Pettifer fronted the first of three ‘Panorama’-substitutes called Spirit of 76 (BBC1), on the general subject of Whither America? The specific topic of the first programme was race, the venue being Atlanta, which was investigated implacably — a good job of leg-work by Pettifer and his team. Ten years ago, Martin Luther King was arrested for trying to buy a cup of tea in Atlanta. Blacks were forbidden to try on clothes in stores. Now there’s a black mayor. All changed, changed utterly.

Except that when you dig deeper the blacks are still losing. They dominate the city only because the whites have moved to the suburbs. Since the whites are earning high salaries in a city where they pay no local taxes, they take all the benefits and leave the blacks all the burdens. If the black mayor annexes the white suburbs to the city, he will dilute his black vote. And anyway, as an impassioned black sceptic (one of the last of the old King men) pointed out, the whites will just move again. Mayor Jackson, who must be the whitest looking black in the world, blamed the Federal Government. A black lady blamed racism. Nobody any longer seemed to persist in the idea that racism is eradicable. This programme was a downer — proof of its seriousness.

Shuttlecock (Thames), a Henry Livings play about child-bashing, tried to be the downer of the decade but luckily the characters were too sketchy to be altogether distressing. This was a mercy, because the subject matter was awful. Dinsdale Landen played the heavy father. Blazer, RAF ’tache, slick hair — a bounder. Loudly faux bonhomie, driver of a rorty Morgan, he lurched about drunk, beating up his foster-son in fits of pique. The boy called for help by leaving turds in a drawer. The story was good enough to be hard to take, but finally the father wasn’t human enough to be disturbing, except near the end when he had an all-too-believable moment of self-hatred. ‘Have a drink,’ he asked the doctor, as if that could mend the boy’s broken ribs.

‘When did you discover you actually preferred little girls to grown women?’ a silhouette was asked in This Week (Thames). Instead of bashing children, the central figures of this programme merely molested them sexually. The show had its funny moments — there is something jokey about a man standing with his penis wired up to a machine which measures his reaction to girlie photographs by the degree of twitch — but sadness prevailed. If a man who attacks boys gets his preference changed by aversion therapy from boys to women, wouldn’t that mean that he might start attacking women? The viewer was left puzzled.

Worldwide (BBC2) was about off-beat sports: canal-jumping, finger-pulling, glunf-nurdling, etc. Most of this was harmless idiocy but as often happens the Japanese made you wonder. They have a game in which two teams of 500 men batter each other so hard with 18-foot bamboo poles that they reduce their crash-helmets to shreds. Accompanied with many a cry of ‘Ngrk!’ and ‘Htah!’ the game is supposed to make spring come early. Masked referees are trampled flat.

The Omnibus (BBC1) on Jacques Tati was highly rewarding. Tati, as truly humble as most comedians are truly the opposite, has evolved to the point where he would rather hover on the periphery than take the centre of the screen, which he now likes to reserve for ordinary people. Interviewing, Gavin Millar was properly worried that Tati might take this too far: ordinary people have their funny moments but it is Mr Hulot who is funny in himself. Tati defended his position, but his mind is surely divided on the point. A great man: recalling all the things I remembered from his films, I found that there was no end to them, right down to the tiny sound (‘thproing’) the dining-room door makes in ‘M. Hulot’s Holiday.’ The opposite of stationary movement — ageless creativity.

The Observer, 16th May 1976