Essays: The wasp way |
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The wasp way

Dealing with the sex life of flowers, the latest edition of The World About Us (BBC2) should have been fascinating, but a doggedly frolicsome commentary ruined it.

Somebody made the age-old mistake of thinking that all you have to do to be funny is to lighten your tone. It’s a delusion characteristically harboured by those without humour. Addison once said you could tell the man with humour because he kept a straight face while those around him were in stitches, whereas the man without it split his sides while everybody else looked mournful. So it was here. ‘The delights of the wedding night and breakfast next morning at the same moment!’ chortled the voice-over, thereby destroying not just the beauty but the otherwise irresistibly comic effect of a particularly elaborate floral copulation involving wasps.

The flower, whose name I didn’t catch because the commentary was making too much row, puts out a protuberance in the shape of a female wasp. A real male wasp — a bit of a boulevardier, judging by his snappy striped waistcoat — forces his attentions on the decoy, which thereupon precipitates him into a kind of small car-wash equipped with pollen-impregnated brushes. Carrying a yellow knapsack of pollen that makes him look like a Norwegian tourist and thus seriously dents his flâneur image, he staggers off through the air and eventually encounters the distaff version of the same flower, which strips him of the pollen while he is sucking up nectar.

Having it away by way of wasps was, in fact, one of the less elaborate methods of floral fornication on offer, but I found it difficult to follow some of the others because my fingers were in my ears — the very sort of posture which counts as an amorous invitation in the world of the stamen and the pistil. ‘They are designed for one thing only ... sex!’ drooled the commentary. ‘Sex in a hot climate!’ it added, while the screen filled with what was either an Australian or an African water-lily.

By now I had a pillow wrapped around the back of my head to muffle the sound, but there was enough vision left to tell that the Austral-African water-lily has a pink and gold interior like a Hollywood boudoir. Everything is in there except Zsa-Zsa Gabor stretched out on a couch. In wanders a bee. Lulled by the indirect lighting and subdued organ music, it wriggles about sensuously among the multiple stamens. If the bee calls on the second day of flowering he gets out again alive, but on the first day the stamens secrete a slick fluid which drops him into the basement, where he is either converted into fuel for the winter or blackmailed by the flower’s husband.

Once again, as with most programmes about reproduction, the lingering impression was of nature’s supreme prodigality. Underwater flowers sent up pollen bubbles of which about one in a million got through, since there are small fish waiting around which eat nothing else. Similarly in an excellent episode of Wildlife on One (BBC1) there were evocations of helpless young field-mice being thinned out by various predators, including a combine harvester. The mouse programme was narrated by David Attenborough and gained as much on sound as the flower programme lost. There was some amazing footage of Mrs Dormouse giving birth to five jelly-beans with whiskers. A small dormouse with a large acorn looked like the space shuttle on top of its fuel tank. The show could easily have succumbed to an attack of the cutes but managed to fight it off. Other investigators of the natural world please copy.

The latest venue for Grand Prix (BBC2) was Monza, where Nelson Piquet and commentator Murray Walker both blew up at the same time. Under James Hunt’s exemplary tutelage Murray has quietened down considerably lately, so that you can almost hear the cars, but when things get tense he is still apt to go up an octave. No sooner did Piquet’s Brabham gush smoke than Murray was outsoaring Maria Callas. ‘Tremendous drama! What enormous drama!’ The same sentiments would have been more appropriate to John Watson’s high-speed shunt, in which nothing was left of the car except the driver, walking away. The running gag of the ‘Grand Prix’ series is that whereas Murray, safe in the commentary box, sounds like a blindfolded man riding a unicycle on the rim of the pit of doom, the men actually facing the danger are all so taciturn that you might as well try interviewing the cars themselves.

For tantrums, you need tennis. In the US Open Tennis Championships (BBC2) John McEnroe was in fine form against Gerulaitis. ‘Did you see it?’ he asked the referee. ‘Did you see it? I asked you did you see it? Did you see it?’ Gerulaitis countered with a well-placed obscenity. ‘It was a goddam foot over the f---in’ line!’ But even with Dan Maskell helping (‘Ooh, well played indeed, sir!’) Gerulaitis lost. McEnroe went on to face Borg, whom he beat fair and square, no tricks. One hates to see Borg being anything except best, but time marches, although in his case there is no reason why it should not march with dignity. Look at Dan, still perfecting his clichés even in the twilight. ‘A lot of work in front of McEnroe to pull this game out of the um, fire.’ A vocal drop-shot like that needs more than talent. Only with a lifetime of experience can you hope to send the listener crashing to his knees in the wrong direction.

Apart from the opening sequence there wasn’t any flying in the second episode of Fighter Pilot (BBC1), but there was still plenty of tension as you waited for even one of the trainees to betray some sign, no matter how hesitant, of actually being interested in aeroplanes. Even the young man who has already served time in the RAF as an aircraftman could offer no account for his motivation beyond a desire for better conditions. At the end of the instalment he was judged not to have what it took and was told he had failed. He was told this in front of a BBC camera and God knows how many millions of viewers, which argued for unusual openness of character on his part. Off he went home while the others marched unimpressively around the parade ground. One of them was moving his right arm forward with his right foot. It was either hard to imagine him at the controls of a Phantom or else easy to imagine him flying it at supersonic speed into your back yard.

Steadily maturing as the world continues to impress him with its intractability, Jonathan Dimbleby is digging hard in The Eagle and the Bear (Yorkshire), which last week had some awkward questions to ask about whether anybody in the Gulf area actually wants the protection offered by the Rapid Deployment Force. Meanwhile The Defence of the United States (BBC1) was asking whether the Rapid Deployment Force could in fact deploy itself very rapidly or bring much force to bear once it had done so.

Luckily the whole question of East-West confrontation was rendered academic by Ms Anna Coote, who in a Labour Party Political Broadcast (all channels) revealed that the Soviet Union is not a threat after all. Only the media makes people think that. Disarmingly sincere though she patently is, Anna seems seriously to have underestimated the extent to which she is a media person herself, and nowhere more so than in her assumption that the media can make people think things.

The Observer, 20th September 1981
[ A shorter, edited version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]