Essays: Turning bright yellow |
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Turning bright yellow

A MAN from the GPO, or is it British Telecom, appeared on Nationwide (BBC1) to explain that the underlying motive for the current proposal to paint all the telephone booths yellow was to find out if people really and truly wanted them left red. ‘We’re very pleased at the reaction,’ he confided.

He went on to put the minds of the watching millions at rest. ‘We have certainly not got huge stocks of yellow paint.’ This was probably only because the yellow paint manufacturers had been temporarily delayed by industrial action, but it left time for ‘Nationwide’ to play its part in deciding the question of whether telephone booths should be left the colour they are or repainted a different colour at heartbreaking expense.

As I switched off to go and have a lie down, the ‘Nationwide’ presenters were telling the watching multitude how to set about casting their votes. This is your country, not mine, but I can perhaps be permitted to say that if you keep this sort of thing up I might as well go home. After all, what with Rupert Murdoch taking over The Times, everything I left Australia to get away from has by now come here.

1,263,357 readers have written in to point out that the international passenger ferry in Triangle (BBC1, recurring) leaves from Felixstowe, not Folkestone. Sorry, felix. I mean sorry, folks. There’s something about the script that numbs the senses. While we’re on the subject, did you notice that in the latest episode the inevitable but long delayed romance between the Captain (Michael Craig) and the torchy purser (Kate O’Mara) has at last started to unfold its luxuriant bud? Stuck half-way up a binnacle with a ringing hangover after yet another bout of non-communication vid his Scandinavian vife, the Captain looked pretty creased. The purser stood bravely below with the exotic breeze of Folkst... of Felixstowe tugging at her heavily lacquered coiffure. ‘You shouldn’t miss dinner,’ she husked, ‘it’s not good for you.’ If that isn’t love, what is it? Answers on a postcard to ‘Nationwide.’

Edward Teller, variously known as the Father of the H-bomb and the prototype for Dr Strangelove, had an Horizon (BBC2) all of his own. Only the loudly billed fact that this was the man himself stopped you thinking that he was being impersonated by a ham actor with glued-on bushy eyebrows. The charm came through, however. You could see why so many brilliant people found him difficult to hate, even when he was carrying on like a mad bomber. At Los Alamos he wanted to go straight for a fusion bomb without bothering to develop a fission bomb first, even though it was universally accepted that a workable fission bomb would be needed to set the fusion bomb off. What Teller was after was a really apocalyptic bang, not merely a huge one. They put up with him because he was brilliant as well as batso.

He finally dished himself with his peers by giving evidence to discredit Oppenheimer, whose General Advisory Committee was against the H-bomb. ‘I managed to retain a few frents and ackvire some new ones.’ At this point Teller snared the sympathy of at least one viewer. Or, to put it the way the script would have put it, at this point Teller snares the sympathy of at least one viewer. The whole lengthy voice-over was written in the historical present. ‘Virtually oblivious to the surrounding political chaos, Teller enjoys the company of the leading physicists of the time.’ A certain cheap immediacy can be gained from writing like that, but there is a price to be paid in temporal confusion. ‘Robert Oppenheimer ... will lead the effort.’ But he won’t be leading the effort, will he? No, because he led the effort.

Despite the tangles the script kept getting itself into, the programme could not avoid being a subtle and disturbing probe. Teller’s power of argument, not to mention his forceful command of the piano, reminded you that the mad bomber is a highly cultivated European intelligence whose early life gave him good reason to believe that the United States has a right to defend itself by any means. By the end of the show he had started to look positively cuddlesome. What are those eyebrows, after all, but the nests of a pair of rather messy sucking doves? Warming to him as he growled and purred, one sometimes found it hard to remember that here was a man whose idea of a sane defence policy includes not just bigger and bigger bombs to throw, but deeper and deeper holes to hide in.

If the same firm advertised bombs and shelters you would smell a rat. Rats of this nature were assembled for the smelling in a ‘Play for Today’ called Beloved Enemy (BBC1), written by Charles Levinson and David Leland. The plot, which could trace its ancestry to Milo Minderbinder in ‘Catch-22’ and to various novels by Richard Condon, dealt with an exchange-deal by which the Russians ended up with our missile-killing laser cannon while we got rich from their cheap tyres.

I’m bound to say that all this seemed pretty standard stuff, but we were told to be frightened because this time it was based on truth. ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing, must be allowed to interfere with the flow of those credits ... word is that in another six months’ time there’s going to be mayhem in another little corner of South East Asia...’ So went the dialogue. It all depended on whether you could believe in Britain’s capacity to develop a satellite-killing laser cannon without somebody wanting to paint it yellow.

Britain’s economic dilemma was cruelly exposed in an excellent episode of Man Alive (BBC2) presented by Peter Bazalgette. The scene was the Liverpool docks, where Jack Jones arranged that a lot of men should be given Jobs for Life in return for allowing machines to replace them. As a card-carrying Luddite I can see nothing wrong with this: if somebody dreamed up a machine to replace me — and I understand that Hitachi is already working on it — my price for standing quietly aside would likewise be a Job for Life, if I had the clout to swing it. Unfortunately a lot of men standing around with slung hooks add up to an expensive item, so that several of the Liverpool stevedoring firms have gone broke as a consequence. The costs can’t be absorbed because the total volume of cargo is down. The total volume of cargo is down because the economy is depressed. The economy is depressed because...

Joe Gormley (the miners) and Sir Derek Ezra (management) squared off against each other in TV Eye (Thames). Sir Derek regretted the possibility of redundancies consequent upon pit closures. Joe regretted the possibility of a miners’ strike with a general strike to follow. The viewer regretted that the two of them couldn’t swap jobs for a while, since it was touchingly apparent that Joe’s scope of comprehension was not only at least as large as Sir Derek’s, but was accompanied by a better memory. Joe remembers, for example, that the miners were asked for increased productivity. This they gave, with the result that there is now so much coal in stock that there is no room to pile up any more. Nevertheless the Government allows coal imports to continue, since foreign coal is cheaper. Foreign coal is cheaper because...

Seals swimming under a roof of ice in Wildlife on One (BBC1) provided the visual thrill of the week. The Winter’s Tale (BBC2) was worthily done, but one gets uncomfortable for the actors when they are surrounded by cubes and cones. You can’t quell the fear that if one of them sits down on a cone instead of a cube the blank verse will suffer. Bill Haley was the first rock star to die of old age. I can remember when he was young. I can remember when I was young. In a while, crocodile.

The Observer, 15th February 1981
[ An edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]