Essays: And now ... Supermind! |
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And now ... Supermind!

JESUS, what a fortnight. I mention Him first only because He didn’t get much of a look-in among the other festive-schedule superstars. Exposure-wise, He rated somewhere just below the runner-up in the final of Mastermind (BBC1) and just above David Steel in the Liberal Party Political Broadcast (all channels).

The ‘Mastermind’ final was a nailbiter. Held in the Cambridge Union debating chamber, which Magnus Magnusson wrongly called ‘the setting for many a stirring debate’, it featured three men versus the Post Office lady whose weird head-bands had been fascinating the nation for months.

Does the wild head-gear help her think? That had been the question on everybody’s lips as the winsome lass blasted her way to victory after victory. Is that thing on her head wired for sound? Has she got an accomplice outside with an Encyclopedia Britannica and a walkie-talkie? Whatever the truth of the matter, on the big night she appeared with nothing up there except hair. It was probably just coincidence that she crashed to defeat, licked hollow by the bloke with the big ears. Goodbye baby and amen. So for once it was a chap who walked off with the glass trophy, dubbed, by Magnus ‘a glittering prize indeed’.

Thus it was that ‘Mastermind’ was laid to rest, only to rise again a few days later with a new title. After ‘Mastermind,’ Supermind! Once again on BBC1, once again staged in the Cambridge Union, this contest was described, once again by Magnus Magnusson, as ‘a new-fangled battle of wits ... a searching examination of erudition ...’ and a lot of other stuff I didn’t catch, overpowered as I was by the mere sight of the assembled mental giants.

Reading from left to right, these were Radio Brain of Britain, a Former Radio Brain of Britain, the 1976 Brain of Mensa (presumably another planet), and Mastermind himself, none other than our friend with the ears. There were half a dozen different kinds of test but it was clear from square one that the Earthlings didn’t stand a chance against the creature from Mensa. His antennae were taped flat against his head and covered with plastic make-up but that third nostril was a dead giveaway.

What use is a Supermind without a Superbody? That was the message of The Superstars (BBC1), an international contest for sporting all-rounders hosted by David Vine and Ron Pickering. The scene of the action was France, where the pluie was pissant down. David explained that the stuff falling out of the sky was rain. Ron backed him up with an on-the-spot report delivered from beneath an umbrella. ‘As David Vine was saying, weather conditions are absolutely appalling.’

Ron interviewed a drowned rat who answered to the name of Gareth Edwards. ‘I’m not looking forward to this at all,’ said the Welsh rugby-player, eyeing Ron’s umbrella with understandable envy. Edwards complained of a ‘suspect hamstring’ — the in injury of 1976 — but he, you, me and everybody except David and Ron were well aware that the only thing suspect was his head, for having allowed him to participate in the first place.

Empty grandstands glistening all around, Edwards ran an impressively slow 100 metres with only the top half of his body showing above water. Before the next event he had to go back and be interviewed again by Ron. ‘How do you feel this time?’ ‘Not too enthralled.’ By this stage the water was running out of my television set and all over the floor.

The John Curry Spectacular (LWT) was sport too, but of a kind tending towards art. Or at least art is what it tried to tend towards. Not for the first time in the world of silver blades, the art-thrill which sometimes emerges in the rigour of competition turned to kitsch in conditions of creative freedom. The production was brilliantly smooth but things kept not coming to fruition. An orchestra sat on the ice (well, the chairs it sat on were on the ice) while Curry skated amongst them, but he would have skated better if they hadn’t been cluttering up the rink and you couldn’t help noticing the stretch of goose-pimpled shin between the cuffs of the oboeist’s trousers and the top of his socks.

Peggy Fleming, who in competition was the finest artist yet to have appeared on skates, came out of retirement to join Curry in a wispy pas de deux. She has put on a couple of pounds around the stern but was otherwise as lovely as ever. Curry pretended to chase her through the woods. The question of what might have happened had he caught her remained academic.

The first part of a two-part This Week (LWT) grippingly plunged us into London’s Underworld. Here was Soho Vice laid bare. It seems that back in 1956 a villain called Tommy Smithson got killed. The two characters who bumped him off are now out and ready, even eager, to talk. Catching Smithson alone without his bodyguards, they had no hesitation in going for him, even though the odds — a mere two to one — were far from favourable. Their gun jammed, but between them they got it working again, and eventually were in a position to shoot Smithson through the neck at a range of three inches.

So what’s the mystery? Well, a decade later the Serious Crimes Squad did someone else for the same felony. More next week: but for now you may take it that these real-life characters are right up there with Doug and Dinsdale Piranha.

The Python people were in Pleasure at Her Majesty’s (BBC1), along with the ‘Beyond the Fringe’ veterans and others too numerous. A benefit gala for Amnesty, this was one of the genuinely festive of the season’s intentionally funny programmes. Cook and Cleese were to be heard reminiscing scabrously about David Frost. Bennett and Miller were on wonderful form. I spent a lot of time yelling with laughter.

Morecambe and Wise (BBC1) were also good. The union leaders banned from the show by Equity got in as photographs. There were some terrific one-liners. ‘The pound is now worth nothing. This is Ernie Wise, “News at Ten,” Switzerland.’ And there were Angela Rippon’s legs, which went on and on. Fancy her being able to dance like that as well as talk proper also.

Stanley Baxter’s Christmas Box (LWT) fired off some strong material (‘Your godmother is a fairy?’) before the hero got lost in imitations of Eve Arden and other high-heeled semi-stars of a bygone era. Only the film buffs care about that kind of thing, and how much sense of humour have they got? Penelope Keith and Alec McCowen were ideal as Amanda and Elyot in Private Lives (BBC2). Apart from the Beeb’s ‘Christmas With Cagney,’ there were about a hundred movies, ranging from capital works like Five Easy Pieces, La Grande Illusion and Kismet (Dolores Gray! The most!) down through worthy efforts like A Man For All Seasons to the ground floor of big box-office (Tora! Tora! Tora! and Airport) and beyond into the basement, where Solomon and Sheba was a stand-out, since it featured, as Sheba’s first lady of the bedchamber, Mrs Hammond from ‘The Brothers,’ all got up in chiffon and a Pyrex hat. An experience to warp the mind.

The Observer, 2nd January 1977

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]