Essays: Top of the pops |
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Top of the pops

AS well as some mystifying electronic wizardry and the sumptuous participation of Madeleine Smith clad in a variety of peignoirs, the incomprehensible but rather charming In the Looking Glass (BBC2) had John Fortune imitating Bryan Magee, barely a week after this column had posed the question of whether or not these two media stars are in fact the same chap in different wigs.

Anyway, Magee / Fortune, hereinafter called Magee, was once again on hand to front yet another episode of his new programme Men of Ideas (BBC2). The Man of Ideas on this occasion was our old friend Marcuse, at one time as famous among the young as Yoko Ono. To do him credit, he had never regarded such mass adulation as particularly relevant to his line of thought. He had, and has, a certain modesty which makes him easy on the ears. In fact he gave Magee a good show, which was a nice change, because the previous week’s instalment had threatened to establish this thoughtful little series as the bummer of the decade.

One is referring, of course, to Magee’s historic encounter with Professor Charles Taylor, otherwise known (by Magee, at any rate) as ‘Chuck.’ Being a Marxist, ‘Chuck’ holds a set of views which Magee doesn’t share, but Magee confined himself to eliciting them for our benefit, instead of moving to the attack. Even with the temperature set so low, however, the screen was still a welter of visual activity.

The cameras were so arranged that the participants’ hands were in vision at all times. ‘Chuck’ held his hands about seven feet apart to illustrate the word ‘unprecedented.’ Magee sliced both hands down the centre of the screen and sent them on opposed trajectories along the floor to illustrate the concept of ‘division.’ It was a battle of the giants. Magee, as the more experienced contestant, finally won it, encompassing the entire range of human gesture from Fanny Craddock beating eggs to Bjorn Borg serving an ace.

With Marcuse there was more hope of paying attention, possibly because there was more to pay attention to. As a member of the Frankfurt school of savants, Marcuse has a rich, not to say over-ripe, intellectual tradition behind him. The Frankfurters were ever an interdisciplinary bunch, ranging over politics, sociology, psychology and aesthetics. There is nothing know-nothing about Marcuse.

Yet his revised Marxism is still Marxism, which Magee would have loved to attack, and at one point did. A pity he didn’t do more of that, because Marcuse, for all his undoubted charm, was fairly begging to be rebutted. Magee asked him how it felt to be a top-of-the-pops philosopher, but forgot to ask him how it feels when you float an idea like One-Dimensional Man and then find a generation of ill-informed children taking it as a cue to express an individuality they don’t in fact possess.

When it came to the point, that generation cured itself of the fantasies it had been encouraged to entertain. Helped along by their own genuine benevolence and decency, most members of the so-called Youth Movement reached the conclusion on their own account that the bringing about of a sane society would require a more complicated political approach than just letting it all hang down.

The above, though scarcely hot news, is still worth asserting, lest hundreds of thousands of good people be blamed for giving a few score terrorists the courage to be born. However dewy-eyed the flower children might have been about alternatives to liberal democracy, they never really believed that ends justify means — which is, of course, exactly what terrorists do believe. They and their friends were right up there on the screen saying it, in a two-part Panorama (BBC1) fronted by Tom Mangold.

If it is true that the only sure way to disarm modern terrorism is to deprive it, not of its guns, but of publicity, then this programme was headed in the wrong direction, since its main achievement was to fill the screen, over and over, With photographs of Carlos and his lethal pals. One of Carlos’s lady friends was discovered to be alive and well and living in Bogota, where she was interviewed at some length. She spoke of the burning belief underlying Carlos’s pose as a playboy.

The emphasis was on Carlos as a person. Even Mangold was keen to learn what Carlos is like. He obviously thought that Sheikh Yamani, who had been kidnapped by Carlos and very nearly killed by him, might know. ‘What did he reveal of himself?’ Thus, despite its best intentions, the programme drifted towards wondering what the terrorists might be like as people. They were the individuals and their victims were the ciphers.

The undoubted stars of the show were a West German publisher and a Dutch girl called Ciska. The publisher was the kind of glib chump that poor Marcuse inadvertently helped equip with a vocabulary. The callousness of the terrorists, suggested the publisher, was as nothing beside the callousness of the State — look, for example, at the way the State forced people to smoke cigarettes. Mangold asked the publisher, who was smoking a cigarette, whether he couldn’t be said to be smoking it voluntarily, but the publisher’s confidence in his own wisdom remained unshaken. He would have been the creep of the week, if it hadn’t been for Ciska.

Ciska blinked about once a minute, if that. She was fixated on the purity of her own vision. The one aim of terrorism, she explained, was to stop people being murdered. When it was put to her that terrorists murdered people, she asked, ‘What’s murder?’ Mangold mentioned the Lufthansa pilot. Ciska shrugged.

Destiny (BBC1), a play by David Edgar about the rise of fascism in Britain, was given added topicality by the immigration row. Edgar had the tone of voice right — the keen young conspirators all sounded like Ciska — and had plainly given a lot of thought to how a Poujadist movement in Britain could spring from disgruntled NCOs and passed-over officers.

Parkinson (BBC1) played host to Russell Harty, but the two front-men were thoroughly upstaged by the arrival of Zandra Rhodes, clad in fragments of old parachute which had apparently been dipped in Ribena and botched together with safety pins. To top off the ensemble, she had dyed her fringe bright green, so that her head looked like a bird of paradise run over by a Land-Rover. ‘You have to admit it’s very beautiful,’ Zandra insisted. Harty and Parky strove to admit it, but the words would not come.

The Observer, 5th February 1978