Essays: Prejudicial fury |
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Prejudicial fury

DES WILCOX gets the Sheer Guts of the Week award. On Where It Matters (Yorkshire) he played host to a discussion about race prejudice. The tumult in the studio sounded like a rough day in Beirut.

Luckily the bursts and salvoes were purely verbal, although there was a man in a bad shave and a beanie who looked as if he might produce a grenade at any moment and take Des hostage. ‘Mr Ennals,’ Des asked after a few dozen attempts to get beyond saying ‘Mr Enn’ and ‘Mr Enna’, ‘is it possible to educate people out of prejudice?’ Most of the noise, it should be pointed out, was emanating from people who were against prejudice. What they were fighting about was what to do about it. The amount of fury available made daunting viewing. Des cultivated inner peace while the battle raged.

The tennis season got under way with Sue Lawley interviewing Billie Jean King on Platform One (BBC1). The main topic was Billie Jean’s erstwhile Sapphic affair with a lady who eventually proved her selfless devotion by telling all to the gossip columnists, whereupon Billie Jean had the choice of either clamming up or else defending her civil rights. With the bravery of a true champion she chose the latter course, while the trash press got on with its self-imposed task of digging the supposed dirt on the female tennis circuit. A Saturnalia of orgiastic inverts was evoked, wherein grizzled veterans haunted the shower-rooms in order to descend without warning on fresh young virgins, tear the braces from their teeth, and imprint their trembling lips with the forbidden kiss of perversion.

Billie Jean did her best to tell Sue that not much of this sort of thing happens, but Sue, who otherwise got most of the points, didn’t look too convinced. Yet it should have been clear enough from the rest of Billie Jean’s utterances that what the tennis champions are chiefly passionate about is tennis. Only love of the game, Billie Jean averred, will get you to the top. The big, unspoken, unspeakable secret in the life of any star performer is that he, or in this case she, spends most of the time concentrating. A great truth that makes dull copy.

‘You’ve said that you like to keep your private life private,’ Sue soothed, commiserating with Billie Jean on the unfairness of forfeiting your privacy just for being good at something. ‘It’s not fair but that’s the way it is,’ said Billie Jean stoically, apparently conceding that such treatment is the price of fame. Sue might have done more to speculate about why this should be so. After all, champions get famous by their own efforts, not just because of coverage in semi-literate newspapers. What the junk journalist doesn’t realise — or does realise, and waxes more aggressive so as to shout down his vestigial conscience — is that he is not really a party to the star’s fame, which is based on solid public appreciation and would still be there even if the tabloid press disappeared overnight. I have always liked Billie Jean and after this interview I liked her even more. Those used to victory find it doubly hard to be gracious in defeat, but she has stuck up for herself in a classy manner and made her tormentors look the dunces they are.

Other things being equal, Billie Jean usually won, which made her hard to admire for those people who can only stomach excellence when it is well diluted with fallibility. On Tennis 81 (BBC2) Dan Maskell made it clear that even in these professional days the old metaphysical distinction between gentlemen and players still applies. ‘V. J. Armitraj, one of my favourite players, both as a man and as a tennis player.’ When you scraped the flummery off that statement, what stood revealed was an enthusiast of the old school, who could never endorse Billie Jean’s approval of the attitude to success in America, where the runner-up is rarely thought of as being more gallant than the loser. ‘It was here, in the middle Twenties,’ burbled Dan, surveying the vista at Queen’s Club, ‘that I served my apprenticeship to the lovely game.’

To Dan, God bless him. There is, after all, something to be said for the old attitude. But the gentlemanly air of not trying too hard tends to crack under the strain if it becomes tainted by resentment for the habitual winners. Some of these were on show at the pre-Wimbledon warm-up tournament, the Stella Artois Grass Court Championships (BBC2). Roscoe Tanner seems to have found a way of making his service go even faster, so that the ball is now quite invisible, like STEALTH, the American supersonic bomber which nobody has ever seen.

Indeed, just as we have to take the Pentagon’s word that STEALTH exists, so we have only the noise made by Roscoe’s racket to prove that there is an actual ball on the way. Perhaps he is faking the whole thing. John McEnroe, meanwhile, looks as endearing as ever. Let me make it clear, before Wimbledon is upon us to stifle all reason, that I like McEnroe’s urge to win: indeed I can’t see any other reason for playing competitive sports. What I don’t like about him is his urge to lose — all that splurge of temperament which stops him being as good as his talent.

One of the plays that made Harold Pinter’s name, The Caretaker (BBC1) showed itself to have a lot of mileage left in it, mainly because it features so many and such extended examples of Pinter’s most resonant motif, the interrogation. It is hard to tell where Pinter’s characters come from: all you know is that they are on the way to Sidcup and are well informed about the bus routes leading through the Angel. In Pinter the unplaceable new class that Orwell talked about found its theatrical voice. Yet what makes Pinter not just a post-war British playwright but a twentieth-century writer is the way he distils to an essence the characteristic modern political experience, which is to search, as if your life depended on it, for answers to questions that make no sense.

‘Jenkins,’ sneered Jonathan Pryce, interrogating a heap of rags which turned out on close inspection to be Warren Mitchell, ‘Jenkins. Sleep here last night?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Sleep well?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I’m awfully glad ... what did you say your name was?’ ‘Jenkins.’ ‘Jenkins. Jen-kins ...’ A lot of this was like being sold a suit by a man with echolalia or interviewed on ‘Start the Week,’ but there was humour in it too, albeit a bit mesmeric. The camera angles were not half flash in places — detracting from the claustrophobia rather than adding, I thought.

The Making of Mankind (BBC2) is much more interesting now that it has reached a stage where Mankind started leaving a few consumer durables lying around. The hunter-gatherer phase reached its peak during the last Ice Age, during which the hunter-gatherers, while waiting for the bison to show up, whiled away the time in deep caves by painting pictures of such astonishing accomplishment that you marvelled all over again at just how lousy our own artists were during the Middle Ages.

Unfortunately Richard Leakey and the programme-makers persisted in giving this material help it did not need. Animations of cave life appeared on screen. Cave-dwellers looking like the Grateful Dead or Hell’s Angels sat around doing various conjectural things. ‘In another corner the skilled tool-makers would be at work.’ The animations couldn’t have looked less convincing but it was better than having a mob of Equity card holders sitting there chipping flints. If you want to evoke things, though, the thing to use is the English language.

The Observer, 14th June 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]