Essays: Visions for Nelly |
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Visions for Nelly

TIRED of pronouncing on intolerance, terror and the collapse of civilisation, this week I gave most of the heavy stuff a miss. The BBC, for example, had a programme about the Nazis. Judging by the publicity, it consisted mainly of 100,000 ex-SS officers lining up to tell the interviewer that they had always wanted to be ambulance drivers but Himmler wouldn’t let them.

Besides, trivia has its importance too. Or to put it another way, trivia have their importance too. Michael Barrett, having retired from the BBC’s Nationwide only a short time ago, is now to be seen in an ITV commercial, plugging Sainsbury’s. Advertising agencies will get away with this sort of thing if the IBA lets them, and it always seems to let them.

They will put Gordon Jackson in a commercial for a bank or a building society, simply to cash in on the fact that all the punters who loved him in ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ associate him with probity. They will put old ‘Softly, Softly’ stars into commercials for instant coffee, making it virtually compulsory to drink the stuff. On ‘Nationwide’ Barrett built up an image as the yokels’ representative, putting hard questions on behalf of the public. Brash, no-nonsense, etc. If Barrett plugs Sainsbury’s, that practically makes it a government store, like GUM. It’s all official.

Actors, or even front-men like Barrett, are not to he begrudged their additional screw. Almost everybody on British television is underpaid when you consider the uncertainties of a performer’s career. But the way the commercials use ex-BBC men to tone up a product verges on outright exploitation of the Nellies. (The Nellies are all those people sitting at home who think Noele Gordon in ‘Crossroads’ makes up her own dialogue. The kind of television they like is known around the ATV building as Nellyvision.)

Such practices are really much more questionable than the mere bad taste and Philistinism which high-brows are customarily enraged by when they watch commercials at all. Not that these elements are anything less than rife lately. Schubert has just turned up in a commercial for some brand of lager. ‘Hey Schubert,’ shouts an actor in Viennese attire, ‘vot aboudt your Unfinished Symphony?’ Whereupon Schubert lifts his foaming stein and bellows ‘Vot aboudt my unfinished Zilchenberg?’ Another lager commercial shows a group of tourists being shown at high speed around an art gallery, racing past the Renoirs so that their guide can get to the bar and order himself a large jar of Schlurpstein. Needless to say the tourists all join in with a cheer. They didn’t understand the paintings, but they know where they are with a nice tall glass of pale yellow something or other.

The big story about Anna and Angie continued to develop. What made this piece of trivia particularly noxious was the fact that Anna Ford has long been known in the trade as a first-rate presenter. Suddenly she takes an ITN news reader’s job and becomes famous overnight, with Fleet Street shutterbugs trying to get pictures of her legs, principally because it had been discovered at an earlier date that legs were what held the top half of Angela Rippon off the ground. It must all be very galling for Anna.

Sports trivia were rampant. The repeat of Mexican Madness (BBC2) featured the trivial line of the year. The programme dealt with the Rio Balsas Power-boat Race, in which overpriveleged idiots race powerful boats through 400 miles of gorge and rapid, courting death while undernourished peasants look on in amazement. ‘One wonders whether, had there been more races in the past,’ mused the voice over, ‘there might have been fewer revolutions.’ Ghastly international playboys zoomed towards sharp rocks but unfortunately missed them at the last moment.

The activities in Ski Sunday (BBC2) were equally pointless but were blessed with the redeeming presence of David Vine. The venue was Finland, the event was the 70-metre ski jump, and David had equipped himself with yet another new line in priapic dialogue. ‘Got good hang,’ David would intone, as a jumper standing horizontally to attention with a ski-tip in each nostril went sailing down the valley. The really important thing for a jumper was to have good hang. There was no point having the explosion if you did not have good hang.

‘There’s the explosion!’ David would cry as the jumper launched himself into the void. ‘Hang, hang, hang ... and that is long! Kokkonen had extremely good hang and exploded enormously, but the man I liked was the one who lost a ski on the way down and had to choose between landing on the leg with the ski or the leg without. He chose the leg without — a huge error.

A new archaeology series called Living in the Past (BBC2) should prove to be a rich source of trivia. It appears that ‘at a secret location in the West of England’ selected volunteers have spent a year living in Iron Age conditions. I seem to remember that a few years ago a Scandinavian family tried the same scheme, with Magnus Magnusson reporting. But this effort is on a bigger scale, with several families involved, including some small children. The first question that sprang to mind was how much volunteering the small children had done. Doubtless it will be answered in time.

Not all trivia are bad, of course. Spike Milligan’s Q7 (BBC2), which has now come to a lamented end, was probably the most trivial TV series of all time, but it had at least one sublimely inventive moment per episode. In the second-last instalment there was the body-builder’s rosary (it had beads like cannon-balls) and in the last instalment there was a brilliantly funny interview with the Queen’s chicken, featuring John Bluthal as Huw Weldon and Spike as the chickenmaster. Such flights of inspiration make the common run of light ent. look hopelessly ponderous. I think what I’m saying is that some trivia are good trivia. On the other hand, perhaps I need a change of scenery. I’m off to Japan for two weeks. Martin Amis will be minding the shop.

The Observer, 26th February 1978

[ A brief excerpt from this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]