Essays: Sent to sleep |
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Sent to sleep

TO start with an apology. Bruce Norman of the BBC’s Archaeology and History unit says that several weeks ago I attributed the unit’s programme on Schliemann to ‘Horizon’ instead of ‘Chronicle’ and that I mocked the reconstructed story featuring actors in funny hats when in fact the reconstructed story was from a German programme featuring actors in funny hats and the ‘Chronicle’ people were mocking the Germans, this datum having been made clear at the start of the programme.

I must have gone to sleep earlier than I thought. It just goes to show how easy it is to get dazed when you are watching television for long stretches at a time. Scientists in Skylab similarly lose their ability to pay attention after long periods of hanging around weightless while watching globules of spilt glucose float past their noses, an experience not dissimilar to being entertained by Max Bygraves and Jimmy Tarbuck. During World War II fighter pilots suffering from oxygen deficiency would quietly go to sleep and drop out of the formation. Captain Cousteau talks of the dreaded ‘rapture of the deep,’ by which his research group’s most powerful swimmer, inevitably called the Strong Man of the Team, goes limp and drops into the green silence.

There have always been plenty of reasons for even the most case-hardened television critic to contract a terminal case of nitrogen narcosis, but Ray Buckton of ASLEF is the most potent yet. He has a beautifully modulated voice with which he says nothing intelligible at all. Listening to him is like lying tranked in a cradle while being crooned to by a nanny.

On Nationwide (BBC1) Ray was as incomprehensible as ever. As far as I could tell, Lord McCarthy’s ACAS inquiry had found against BR and told them to pay the vexed 3 per cent, no strings. This decision left Ray looking good. Unfortunately it did not leave him sounding good, except in the aforementioned sense of deploying a bass timbre as mellifluous as Chaliapin’s. Ray’s rival Sidney Weighell not only has eight times as many members, he is capable of enunciating whole sentences that you can understand, whereas you feel that if you were to ask Ray for directions to the nearest railway station (or, more likely, the nearest coach station) he would tell you to turn left at the terms of reference and wait until the decision of the traffic lights had been ratified by his executive committee, through the machinery.

Sidney Weighell was one of the panellists on yet another excellent instalment of Question Time (BBC1), by now established, under the brusque chairmanship of Robin Day, as the nearest equivalent television has ever come up with to the Athenian agora. Sid recommended the merging of unions, which sounded like good news for most of us, although it no doubt sounded to Ray Buckton like the kind of proposal which his executive committee, after due deliberation, might feed into the machinery in such a way that it would never come out. The Government’s Norman Tebbit, who turned out to be a dab hand at this kind of debate, slyly said he was all for mergers if the unions could arrange them. Meanwhile a man in the audience who was trying to shut himself up kept apologising for not being able to. ‘No need to apologise,’ barked Robin, ‘just keep quiet.’

The Prime Minister was on TV Eye (Thames), pointing out, as if to an assembled school of not very bright children, that no responsible adult could possibly think of reflating. She made reflating sound like a synonym for flatulence — something which rude small boys did and only the sillier girls giggled at. ‘Of course we can’t reflate. It would be morally wrong.’ Llew Gardner did his best to dispel the air of devotional sanctity. ‘But Prime Minister, the CBI thinks you should reflate...’ He went on, while she nodded with weary understanding, to give a quick list of people who thought she should reflate, but the second that he ran out of breath she pounced, saying that it all depended what you meant by reflation. For people who thought that Ray Buckton had already handed the English language all the punishment it could take, here was a chance to see it being worked over by an expert.

But if you were to put Margaret Thatcher and Ray Buckton on a desert island and wait patiently for their progeny to be born and grow, you still wouldn’t come up with anything to equal Michael Foot in the sheer ability to detach language from meaning and set it free in some abstract realm of its own. On Panorama (BBC1) Robert Kee strove heroically to pin the Leader of the Opposition down with specific questions, but it was like trying to drive a nail through a blob of mercury. Freely invoking ‘the Spirit of Bishop’s Stortford,’ Foot answered Kee’s contentions that the Labour Party might be seriously disunited by saying that it was very important for the Labour Party to be united. ‘Absolute importance of us combining together to win that election ... the spirit of Bishop’s Stortford.’

Kee kept trying. ‘Can you win an election by simply saying you’re going to win an election?’ But Foot, it transpired, wasn’t just saying that they were going to win the election. What he was saying was that they were, in fact, going to win the election. Because they were united. By the Spirit of Bishop’s Stortford. Kee brought up the name of Arthur Scargill. ‘I’m not saying for a moment,’ said Foot, ‘that it’s all got to be done in the old pattern.’ But Kee’s point was that Scargill does say it’s all got to be done in the old pattern.

‘Of course, ha-ha,’ laughed Foot, with the little laugh which points out that the question is too obvious to be worth answering, ‘there have always been such differences.’ But Kee’s point was that the differences might this time be decisive, since the left wing of the party believes in the nationalisation of everything and the Right doesn’t.

Cleverly photographed and directed by Chris Menges, East 103rd Street (Central) showed a New York Hispanic family being consumed by heroin, all except the beautiful daughter, who lectured the others on their folly. She did this in a monotone which might have driven anyone to seek oblivion, but her strength of mind could not be gainsaid. The programme took it for granted that social deprivation was the culprit. To harbour such an assumption is the director’s prerogative, although it begs the question of how some other cultural groups in the same city have managed to lead industrious lives in conditions even worse. The son, Danny, whose sole achievement to date has apparently been the growing of a moustache, proved himself an adept at getting into profile and brooding gracefully. ‘What do you want, son?’ ‘Be somebody.’ It can’t be done without doing something.

Flashing back, 25 Years Ago — ‘Tonight’ (BBC1) justifiably enjoyed a nostalgic wallow. Cliff Michelmore was in charge. He deserves credit for having pioneered the relaxed manner. Cy Grant sang a freshly composed Topical Calypso, thereby reminding you how awful the Topical Calypso invariably was. Only the filmed reports are left to be cherished: the studio stuff, which was the real staple, is nearly all gone. But from the patter of the reporters in the field you got some idea of the show’s flavour. Whicker’s virtuoso talk-and-walk number about the weirdly numbered houses in Northumberland still looked good. What happened to ‘Tonight’? It became ‘Whicker’s World’, ‘TW3’, ‘The Great War’ — it vanished by expansion.

The Observer, 21st February 1982
[ A shorter, edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]