Essays: Water on the brain |
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Water on the brain

AT LEAST once a year, Horizon (BBC2) tells you to watch out for the sun. Last year it wasn’t producing enough neutrinos. This year it’s getting hotter. Even in cool countries like Britain, rays from space heat up the foreheads of television executives, causing them to run amok and purchase rotten American series about mechanical women or men with supernormal powers.

The latest man with supernormal powers is Man From Atlantis (LWT), who can breathe underwater. At the start of each episode, younger viewers are warned not to copy his trick of sleeping in a full bath-tub, but they are not warned against copying his acting. Man from Atlantis — or Mark Harris, as he is known to his human friends — wears dark glasses when he walks among us. Yet Mark’s elevated dialogue is unmistakable evidence of alien origin: like all the supernormal heroes in the Hollywood serials of old, he has been unable to master the apostrophe. ‘Do not follow me,’ he tells the beautiful scientist, ‘I am going to the main airlock.’ When he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I do not know.’ If he knows, he says ‘I will tell you later.’

But a man who has to hold his breath all the time can be forgiven for stilted diction. Back in the water, Mark can flood his gills and relax. Now we can see the way they must have looked in Atlantis, with their webbed hands and long yellow bathing trunks. Meanwhile, alien water-breathing parasites invade from space. They adopt human form but we can tell they are extraterrestrials by their unblinking gaze and their habit of saying, ‘I need nershment,’ when they want to eat.

Only Mark can stop them. The beautiful scientist gazes at him with an unspoken love. Have she and Mark been climbing into the bath together? Or is their union an anatomical impossibility? What goes on under the yellow bathing trunks? Perhaps he is webbed there too.

Although there can be no possible doubt that shows like ‘Man From Atlantis’ liquefy the cerebral cortex, it remains a moot point whether TV violence can warp the personality. Milton Shulman has watched television for years, yet shows no signs of becoming an axe-murderer. The topic has been aired all over again recently by the trial of Ronny Zamora, some of which we saw on Tonight (BBC1).

After watching thousands of people being killed on television, Ronny started killing people on his own account. To the anti-TV-violence lobby it must look an open and shut case. There is, however, an additional factor, namely Ronny’s stepfather, who according to Ronny’s mother has made a regular practice of beating Ronny up. This would be a more plausible reason for Ronny’s psychopathic behaviour, but harder to prate about. It’s easier to rail against ‘Starsky and Hutch’ than to deal with the likelihood that a lot of parents are actively engaged in turning their children into killers.

The best reason for objecting to the number of imported American TV series is that so many of them are no good. Most of the fuzz operas, for example, have nothing in them except the weekly car-chase. Nobody would really miss ‘Cannon’ or ‘Dan August’ or ‘The Streets of San Francisco’. Even here, though, the matter is really not all that simple. I wouldn’t want to lose The Rockford Files (BBC1); James Garner, a droll leading man during his time in the movies, is worth watching even when the script is routine. There is also the consideration that clearing the screen of derivative American series might do nothing but make room for derivative series of our own. Look, or rather don’t look, at 1990 (BBC2), the nth series about Britain’s totalitarian future, which will apparently consist of Barbara Kellermann standing haughtily around while Edward Woodward and other luckless males try to stop the script from reaching her.

Many harsh things have been said in this column about Ron Pickering, but he did a good job of fronting a World About Us (BBC2) on Cuban sport. The Cubans obviously enjoy the whole idea of sporting excellence, perhaps because they live in such a favourable climate. Selective schools train the future champions, but nobody calls it elitism. Pretty girls are encouraged to look on while young boxers clobber each other, but nobody calls it sexism. The Revolution reigns supreme, but nobody calls it totalitarianism. Everybody is running and jumping happily, but you couldn’t help wondering what would happen to anyone who wanted to stand still.

Sight and Sound in Concert (BBC2 and Radio 4) was a simulcast starring Elkie Brooks, an ex-scruff turned glamour-queen. Along with the well-cut clothes comes some Helen Reddy-type show-biz patter (‘Whew! I’m hot,’) but at least she has not yet succumbed to making shapes with her mouth. The two Abba girls, featured in The Best of Abba (BBC1), make shapes constantly. So does David Essex (BBC1), in addition to wobbling his lower jaw sideways. But the most dedicated mouth-shaper of the lot is non-singer Pam Ayres (LWT), who can smile a map of Australia.

On Nationwide (BBC1) the lovely Sue Lawley played host to French lingerie expertette Nadine Grimaud. French models paraded in dreamy nightwear. ‘Ziss one is so sexee,’ purred Nadine, and she was right. ‘My goodness,’ cried the worried Sue, ‘it’s probably very uncomfortable in bed.’

Unabashed, the girls continued to sway past, each of them accompanied by a descriptive comment from Nadine. ‘Ziss one is also veree sexee ... sportive ... sexee.’ As Sue was patently aware, it was an arousing display. Randy cameramen zoomed and focused desperately on filmy knickers hugging soft crotches. For any watching rapists, it must have got the evening off to a flying start.

The Observer, 16th October 1977

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]