Essays: From Ulster to the Osmonds |
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From Ulster to the Osmonds

IN Omnibus at the Proms (BBC1) a driving rendition of ‘Carmina Burana’ didn’t miss a beat when one of the soloists, perhaps hypnotised by André Previn’s baton, flaked out. A man from the audience who just happened to know the part came bounding forward to remedy the lacuna. We were in the land of dreams.

We were out of it again when Thames screened an excellent ‘This Week’ Special on Ulster — Five Long Years. It is no reflection on Martin Bell’s recent BBC programme on Ireland to say that this was an outstanding review of the long crisis. Bell was giving a one-man run-down of what he deemed to have been happening. The ‘This Week’ team were expending larger resources. The results were a long way out of the common run. Everybody relevant had been interviewed, including star representatives of the UDA and Provisional IRA. Much of the film employed had seldom, if ever, been seen before. Shooting and screaming erupted regularly in between the cool talking heads. In such a context, Faulkner and Maudling looked equally unfortunate.

Seán MacStíofáin was on screen, at large as life, if that’s the word. Wilson’s speech caning the Ulster Workers’ Council (‘Who do they think they are?’) sounded even more dangerously silly than it did at the time. Whitelaw came out of the programme looking the ablest of the politicos, but his policy was shown to have been doomed from the start. The one opinion most participants seemed to agree on was that Britain can’t impose a solution to the Irish problem. This was a tough lesson to take in, in a week which was further demonstrating that Britain hadn’t managed to impose a solution to the Cyprus problem either.

The ecology lobby was faced with a poser in The Rise and Fall of DDT (BBC2). Had they overreacted in demanding restrictions to the use of this busy biocide? Seeking an answer, the programme flashed back to the puissant powder’s beginnings, before World War II. Teutonic scientists from Swiss laboratories gutturally reminisced. Seized upon in wartime Britain, the secret was developed for military use. Boffins recalled the selfless days when colonies of lice were nurtured in boxes tucked down their socks. We saw close-ups of DDT killing bugs in a highly satisfactory manner — pestiferous creatures trembled violently, shed legs and keeled over into a slow demise. Eureka. The new product saved liberated Naples from extermination through typhus. From there, it went on to change the world. But over-use, especially in America, mucked up the life-cycle of fish and birds. Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’ dealt the knock-out punch, and DDT was banned in the United States.

Should DDT come back? Opinions conflict. One view says that the stuff lasts in the sea for 30 years. Another view says it lasts only a few weeks. Workmen in a DDT factory have 80 times the normal amount of the chemical in their bodies, but don’t get cancer. There wasn’t much the viewer could do with these inconsistent assessments except to note that TV programmes on ecology no longer speak with one voice.

In more or less the same thematic area, there were some threatened animals. The World About Us (BBC2) had big cats — Siberian tigers, American pumas. We Call Them Killers (BBC2) had killer whales. A man played the flute to them. Until they move they look oddly like fibreglass models of themselves. The same applies to the Osmonds (BBC1), who were with us every night of the week. Nothing — certainly not the BBC — threatens them. The last time I cast aspersions on the Holy Family in this column, letters and petitions arrived by the lorryload from weenies and micro-boppers beside themselves with rage. I got a Snide Reporter of the Year scroll with 200 signatures on it, some of them in cat’s blood. One little girl said that she hoped my finger would get inphected and drop off. The tots really care, all right, and are ready to forgive the Osmonds their hideous cleanliness in the same way my lot used to forgive Little Richard the foam that dripped from his teeth when he sang ‘Tutti Frutti.’ I can’t help feeling we got better value for our money, but no one stops the wheel.

The Osmonds are capable of some sweet harmonising and guitar-picking offstage, but onstage their act is utter corn — laborious mimes to playback, sub-Motown choreography and mirthless humour. Merrill looks like Philip Jenkinson and little Jimmy (once again the Bad Sight of the Week) must appeal only to children so young they can’t cut up their own food. The star, of course, is Donny. He is a cow-eyed, fine-boned lad of the type you see languishing angelically in a Botticelli tondo. His acreage of gum is a testimonial to the stimulating properties of the power toothbrush. His line of patter is based on the sound principle that any reference to the opposite sex, however oblique, will cause its younger representatives to attain orgasm. ‘We’re having a fantastic time here in Britain. There are so many girls.’ (From the peanut gallery, a vast cry of ‘Eeegh!’) ‘I have a confessiona make, you know? Yesterday I was talking to this girl...’ (Yaaagh!)

Interviewed by the attentive Noel Edmonds, Donny sweats like a hot peach ice lolly. ‘There must have been a time,’ ventures Noel perceptively, ‘when you realised you were being singled out.’ (Eeyaagh!) ‘I love it.’ (Aaangh!) ‘The fans want to get near to you.’ (Wheeoogh!) ‘I love it.’ (Mwaangh!) ‘You don’t mind being pulled around?’ (BLAAEEGH!) ‘I love it’ (PHWEEYAAOOGH!) The toddlers are practically suiciding off the balcony, flailing one another with teething rusks. The young in one another’s arms. Those dying generations at their song.

The Observer, 18th August 1974

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]