Essays: Torture by Telethon |
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Torture by Telethon

DOUBTLESS the handicapped children benefited materially from the abundant funds raised overnight by the Telethon (Thames), but one wonders if even they thought it was worth the spiritual cost. Here was a sample of what the Americanisation of television will do to our collective consciousness if we let it happen. There are less painful ways of committing national suicide.

For example, we could all run a bath and stick our heads in it at a prearranged signal. Threatening to be the first of many, this Telethon was confined to the London area. People living in other areas might like to have some hint of what went on. A full description would take as long as the Telethon itself — i.e. a couple of days — but briefly, what occurred was this. A lot of famous people, some of them more famous than others, were asked to donate their services. The resulting shambles took place in the Wembley Conference Centre and was compèred by Jimmy Young, Joan Shenton and Rolf Harris.

Scores of minor celebrities answered telephone calls from members of the public pledging money. A running total was flashed up so that we could all see how fast the target of a million pounds was being reached. Since there was obviously no way of stopping the Telethon except by reaching the target, it was not surprising that the lines were soon jammed. ‘Wo-ho-wo-ho-wo-ho-way,’ sang Leo Sayer, ‘I love you more than I can say.’ If you wanted to hear less of things like that, you had to fork out. An alternative was to switch off the set, but the Telethon had the hypnotic fascination of a rattlesnake.

Joan Shenton talked of ‘projects that make the quality of our lives better in the community’. All unaware that she was engaged in a project guaranteed to make the quality of our lives in the community appreciably worse, she struggled bravely to supply spontaneous link material. So did Jimmy and Rolf. The show needed a lot of linking, because the majority of the turns had no clear start or finish, but consisted of bad comedians trying to make other bad comedians laugh, or people playing darts. Occasionally a star came on. Petula Clark was one of these. ‘God bless the child who can stand up and sing,’ she sang.

This was hardly appropriate in the circumstances, but then Petula was the girl who once climaxed a feminist gala by singing ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him.’ When the applause died down, Petula had some patter ready. ‘Thank you, wow. What an atmosphere here. I just hope the people at home can feel the excitement we feel here, know what I mean?’ Rolf Harris said, ‘Your blood’s worth bottling.’ He said that all the time. Then he said, ‘Let’s see how the darts are going.’ He said that all the time too.

Paul Daniels, a magician who is quite often quite a funny improviser, did some unfunny improvising with a member of the audience. ‘OK, Sandra. You’ve got a lovely leg. What a pity about the other one.’ This, too, was perhaps not entirely appropriate in the circumstances, but by now the Telethon had a momentum of its own, like a glacier on the rampage.

Bob Hope and Michael Caine were scheduled to put in an appearance, but I had either gone to sleep or was in a state of trance. Nigel Ryan, in charge of programmes at Thames, is a bright man but has perhaps spent too much time in America, where telethons are regarded as normal. They are regarded as normal solely because American television is a disaster area.

The only certain beneficiaries of a telethon are the corporations who secure cheap advertising time by putting up prizes or making tax-deductible donations. The audience gets little to enjoy beyond the unintentional humour generated by technical cock-ups. As for the handicapped children, they gain some of the means of life — but life in what kind of world? To do what? To watch Bernie Winters host a darts competition? There has to be another way.

After only two episodes, The Shock of the New (BBC2), fronted by Robert Hughes, is plainly destined to be one of the more considerable series about the visual arts. Hughes is visual arts editor of Time magazine. He is also, I had better say at the outset, a compatriot and friend of mine. Expatriate Australians are usually less likely to praise one another the better they are acquainted, not just because they wish to avoid charges of log-rolling but because to set up an individual identity, instead of being absorbed into a collective one, was the main reason they left home in the first place. Only the leading contributors to Private Eye — the tightest little mutual admiration society in Britain — could possibly imagine I am eager, instead of reluctant, to say that with this series Hughes has gone a long way towards restoring to television the combination of wide knowledge and natural eloquence that has not been seen and heard on this subject since Lord Clark retired from the screen.

Not that the opening episode was without faults. Hughes popped up all over the world in different suits, a sequence of transmogrifications made more glaring by the fact that they all occurred while he was uttering a single sentence. This was no doubt planned but it was a bad plan. On the other hand the subject was tackled coherently from the start. You were given a clear idea of why the great talents did what they did.

Hughes has a highly developed historical sense. In the cemeteries of the First World War he scanned the lists of names and reminded us of the different art that might have happened if the slaughter had not. Always one of the most vividly inventive prose writers of his generation, Hughes brings more verbal talent to the task than the task needs. But that has always been the secret of doing this kind of television well — to have something in reserve.

Subtle direction wins little glory. You could make a long list of prizes which Derek Bailey’s programme on Rex Whistler (BBC2) will not win. Yet anyone with half a clear eye could tell that Whistler’s ebullient talent as an illustrator had here found its ideal appreciator. Whistler was a dandy with fashionable friends, but his creations were genuinely inventive: he had fantasy raised to the level of imagination. There was a tragic vision behind his humour. The tragedy fulfilled itself when he died as a war hero. The script, which faced every issue except the one about his sexuality, sensibly took it for granted that he was an important artist.

The President’s Son of a Bitch (Granada) was an instructive documentary about a man who tried to stop his government wasting a billion dollars and was persecuted for being right. Battlestar Galactica (Thames), though glaringly a cheap ‘Star Wars’ rip-off, looks better on the small screen than in the cinema. The best comic strip science fiction on television at the moment, however, is Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (LWT). The hardware looks good and Wilma Deering looks simply sensational, like Wonderwoman with brains.

For what Wonderwoman looks like without them, there was the dire Lynda Carter Encore (BBC1), in which Lynda capped a series of pitiable ‘impressions’ by attempting to impersonate Bette Midler, the very girl whose inspired naturalness discredited Lynda’s brand of lip-gloss glamour beyond redemption.

The Observer, 5th October 1980
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]