Essays: Tearful occasion |
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Tearful occasion

SEMI-INTELLIGIBLE in five different languages, Sacha Distel was just the man to host Miss World (BBC1), a contest which he had every right to call a voyazh of discarvry.

This year even more than in previous years, the salient challenge proposed by the voyazh of discarvry was to discarvre among the contestants a girl you would bother to look twice at in the street. The smart money was on Miss Mexico, who had a fetching smile. But of Sacha’s five languages she seemed to misunderstand him in three, one of them her own. Her subsequent confusion probably did her no good at all with the judges — a panel of intellectual giants which included the lead singer of Thin Lizzy.

When Sacha asks a girl if she has any howareowebees, he is really asking her if she has any hobbies, but she would need to have known him a long time if she were to rumble this straight away. Those girls with English as a native language usually ignored Sacha and addressed themselves straight to camera, placing due emphasis on their philanthropic activities. My compatriot Miss Australia was outstanding in this department. Her main howareowebee, it transpired, was visiting the aged. She loved old people. She had known a man who was eighty-four years old, but he had died.

As usual, the show’s main area of purely visual interest was not near the end, when the few finalists were clumping around being interviewed, but near the start, when all the girls in the contest came lurching forward one at a time in national dress. Thus we discarvred that the national dress of Malta, for example, is a coal sack. But the climax was rich with drama, even if it was short of personnel. Of the seven girls left in, Miss Mexico certainly did not expect to finish as low as fourth. Her smile at hearing the news was the bravest of her life.

Miss Argentina, on the other hand, was certainly not expecting to win. She reacted as if tragedy had struck. Did she face death from some radical group if she finished higher than third? Perhaps it was just all too much for her. Certainly there is something about the way Sacha sings that makes a girl feel life has no more to offer. Beside herself under her crown of tinsel, Miss Argentina cried as if her tiny heart would break. The star-filters in the cameras turned her cataracts of tears into nebulae.

At the moment television in the evening is like an Open University extension course in the sciences. Top-rating lecturer is undoubtedly David Bellamy, otherwise known as Botanic Man (Thames). Bellamy’s enthusiasm has a lot to make up for. To start with, there is his beard. He also has an extraordinary manner of speaking, in which one impediment is piled on top of another. But it can’t be denied that he generates excitement when he appears abruptly from among the mangroves and starts poking frogs at you.

‘Vese are Hamilton fwogs,’ he announces, holding a Hamilton fwog. The Hamilton fwog looks at Bellamy as a fwog might do if, after a blameless lifetime in the mud, it were suddenly to find itself an international celebrity. Undeterred, Bellamy raves on, explaining that Hamilton fwogs possess special skins ‘fwew which vey bweave.’ Thus the Hamilton fwog is able to survive and not become one of the ‘mere memowies of pahst ages of evowution.’

Meanwhile, back at The Voyage of Charles Darwin (BBC2), the theory of evolution is an increasingly noticeable glimmer in the hero’s eye. Like Bellamy, Darwin has a beard, but it is a different shape, allowing him to speak more clearly. Happily naming mountains after each other, Darwin and Fitzroy are currently sailing up and down the coast of Patagonia. Something of a nutter, Fitzroy has been trying to convert the locals. But Darwin is occupied with something even holier — the quest for understanding.

One of the many strengths of this marvellous series is that it knows how to give dramatic force to such elementary propositions. You really feel, when Darwin starts digging up bones on the beach, that he is engaged on a sacred quest. Slowly the prehistoric skeleton takes shape. Is it Plasterkasterops? Is it Proposaurus Rex? No, it is a perfectly believable-looking ancient beast. The production values are consistently high. There have been some unconvincing natives jumping up and down shouting ‘Boola boola,’ but doubtless the original tribe likewise jumped up and down shouting ‘Boola boola,’ while Fitzroy said things like: ‘My God, Darwin, these fellows look unconvincing.’

In the second episode of The Body in Question (BBC2), Jonathan Miller cut back on the philosophising and got to grips with his subject, which in this case was a pain in the guts. How to diagnose it? Tricks of the trade were revealed. I was stunned to hear that a certain kind of pain which has haunted a friend of mine for years, and which has defied the diagnostic skills of numerous physicians, is in fact one of the elementary surefire signs of kidney trouble. This made me wonder how many tricks of the trade the trade was actually in possession of. Do all those doctors out there know what Miller knows, and if not why not?

Anyway, the camera once again went inside the large intestine to watch peristalsis taking place. The gut contracting and dilating reminded me of something. I button-punched to the News on BBC1 and found the Prime Minister making a speech about the necessity to go on curbing inflation. The way his mouth contracted and dilated reminded me of something. Button-punching back to ‘The Body in Question’ I suddenly found that everything had become clear. There is a close resemblance between the mouth and the large intestine at those moments when they are both in the process of manufacturing the same stuff. I had made what James Burke would call a Connection.

One has been kept from previous series of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em (BBC1) by its awful title, but it is time to say what everybody else is saying — that the show is a must. Largely due to Michael Crawford’s pertinacity in setting up his stunts and special effects, the slapstick is almost invariably funny. The level of language is high, too. ‘Did it have to come to this? Ejaculated from our fixed abode.’ It is fitting that a hero so maladroit should be a Malaprop as well. The central character is so consistently developed that the audience take it for granted the house will fall down only a few weeks after he has started to live in it.

The Queen Mother attended the Royal Variety Performance (BBC1). She also once volunteered to be bombed by the Luftwaffe, but that was some time ago, and perhaps nowadays she should be more careful about exposing her august and beloved person to mechanised outrage. David Jacobs recited a poem in her honour. Miserably composed, it referred to ‘a Scottish larse.’ I tuned out when a rabbit in a red spangled suit started playing the piano.

The Observer, 19th November 1978

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]