Essays: Call for the swordsmen |
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Call for the swordsmen

AFTER a week of repeats and glamorous sludge, I philosophise.

Television ought to be lean meat. It ought to keep its elbows in and radiate (‘Horizon’ on The crab, Pan’s People, Derek Hart), rather than barge about and expatiate (‘Search for the Nile,’ ‘Younger Generation,’ Michael Barratt). Focused, television can set fire to a damp brain at 200 miles: unfocused, it won’t even light up your eyes. The only way it can overwhelm is to penetrate. Television is a swordsman.

The presiding spirit of television being astringency, it follows that lavishness rings false and the wastrel looks a fool. And sounds a fool: our instinct to hurl abuse and stray toys at any time-serving lame-brain found flannelling on screen is justified by the absurd violence he is doing to the inescapable principle that words on television are more resonant, not less, than they are in life. So much so that it’s better to have none than just to trowel a few in for fillers.

Pot Black (BBC-2) used to be one of the tightest little shows in the videospace, with nothing on offer but the game, the informed commentary and the effortless aura of seriousness arising from concentration on a display of skill.

It was a paragon programme, arising spontaneously our of the opportunities offered by television’s developing technology: rumour has it that Philip Lewis, [text indistinct] producer, thought the show up in about two seconds, simply by asking himself which sport needed colour in order to be understood.

Lean and hungry, quick and quiet, the programme wore shirt sleeves, black tie and a trim waistcoat, like the players. Now it’s looking more and more double-breasted, like Alan Weeks. This time the game was postluded by a flatulent encounter between Weeks and a comedian identified as Jack, against whom I have nothing except his total irrelevance to the matter in hand.

Even worse were the interviews with the players, part of whose mystery depends on their silence, and none of whose value depends on their ability to tell Weeks how it feels to miss that pot at 49. Michael Ayrton once invented a character called a Verbiage Collector, who shovelled the stuff into bags and carted it away. Television neglected to retain his services.

No collector of verbiage, merely its greatest diagnostician, Ludwig Wittgenstein at first glance led the least televisual of lives. And at second, third and 104th glance. Nevertheless, his name was invoked in Part One of a Hugh Whitemore play called The Thinking Man as Hero* (BBC-2). The play was less about his than about other people’s lives, forming a tangled skein above which Wittgenstein’s troubled shade was required to hover informatively.

Keith Barron was a television producer, Peter Bowles was a devotedly trendy writer, and they were getting together to make a programme about Wittgenstein. Their qualifications for doing this seemed minimal. ‘Although I couldn’t understand his work’ muttered Barron sepulchrally, ‘I somehow sensed it was important.’ Not an attitude Wittgenstein was eager to encourage, at either stage of his career.

The Bowles character had never even heard of him, which must be a record. It’s possible, though, that this sensationally uninformed scrivener was based an Hunter Davies, who, in his Beatles biography, revealed himself as believing in the existence of a Dutch painter called de Stijl. Far from losing credibility by such lapses, Davies has continually increased his reputation for resilient arterial vigour unimpeded by the cholesterol of mere book-learning.

So that was to be the story — Hunter Davies meets Ludwig Wittgenstein. As the show pounded on, the writer got into bed with the producer’s wife, who was worried about her dying mother. Meanwhile the producer was chasing a prominent women’s libber. Styles of seduction (self-deceiving from Barron, hairy confidence from Bowles) were gone into with some perceptiveness, but the relevance of Wittgenstein grew less and less obvious.

Somebody referred to a newspaper re-creation of an accident which used model cars: it was this, apparently, which inspired the central notion of the ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.’ The reference was followed immediately by an overhead shot from a hospital roof of real ambulances looking like toy ones. For a moment you got a hint of how a show along these lines might be made to yield emotion. Just a hint, though, and quite fortuitous.

With the ‘Tractatus,’ Wittgenstein thought that he had established every word as a picture of something in the world, and that he had brought philosophy to an end. Later on he changed his mind, thinking that words were anchored only to their use, and that the use varies according to the game. I suppose, trepidly, that this development will be taken advantage of in Part II. I’ll be watching, still keen, for something taut, edgy and austere. But the prognosis is bad. The language of Part I couldn’t have been deader.

The abiding paradox of Wittgenstein is that the man who said that the philosopher shouldn’t be seduced by language was himself the possessor of an ineradicable poetic gift. The play stated this anomaly, but lacked the wherewithal to embody it.

Panorama (BBC-1) showed us why a lot of people will never be able to buy a house, and Man Alive (BBC-2) told us how we were exploiting Asian labour. World in Action (Granada) had a model of Martin Bormann’s head.

The Observer, 22nd April 1973

*  A Thinking Man as Hero