Essays: The Whacky World |
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The Whacky World

IN NEW YORK last week I was up early each morning in order not to miss the true star of NBC’s ‘Today’ show, namely Willard the Weatherman. The way Willard has turned weather into an all-absorbing issue is a lesson to everyone in the land of the media.

British weathermen are confined to small booths elsewhere in the building and often on the other side of the city — their connection with the main news studio is purely electronic. Recently they have tended to break out in checked sports coats and blow-dry hair-styles, but there is a limit to how far they can assert their personalities.

Willard is right in there with the main presenters, sitting at a desk alongside them and often standing in front of them. He is large — somewhere between Eddie Waring and Cyril Smith. He is loud. There is something artificial about his hair, a fact he readily admits, because the admission (he calls his toupee a ‘toop’) gives him more air-time. His avowed concern is with what he calls ‘the Whacky World of Weather.’

Willard talks about the Whacky World of Weather as if the Whacky World of Weather governed your entire life. If nothing much is happening that morning in the Whacky World of Weather, Willard will still refer to the Whacky World of Weather. ‘This morning there’s nothing too unusual to report from the Whacky World of Weather.’

The main presenters turn to Willard if some such issue as the deployment of cruise missiles or a further downturn in the automobile industry might have something to do with the weather. Willard rises from his desk and crosses to a chart. Occasionally he crosses to another desk and starts selling cat-food.

This last, of course, is, for the visitor, the most riveting Willardian activity of all. It would be impossible to imagine in Britain and is hard to take even in America, where the sheer intensity of the sales-pitch has left very few areas of the media free from the clamour of hucksters barking their wares. But until the advent of Willard his fellow-Americans had some right to expect that the weatherman would not try selling food to their cats.

I was in the ‘Today’ studio myself towards the end of the week and took the opportunity to check out Willard’s bowl of cat-food where it stood temporarily unattended on its special desk. It didn’t smell very real but perhaps it had been injected with something in order to withstand the hot lights.

Malcolm Muggeridge was already reminiscing when I left Heathrow and was still at it when I got back. The series is called Muggeridge Ancient and Modern (BBC2) and is the television equivalent of an unputdownable book. From all serious angles Muggeridge is hard to admire, but he somehow ends up cherishable, like an old boiler that doesn’t heat the water, but wins your heart by the way it goes boink-boink in the night.

The latest episode covered the years 1945–56 and was headed by an excellent Trog cartoon in which Muggeridge was to be seen recoiling in fastidious horror from a television image of himself. Thus was neatly encapsulated the theme of the programme and indeed of Muggeridge’s whole life — that he has spent most of his life reprehending the very pursuits to which he has been most actively devoted.

These have included, by his own admission, fornication, journalism and television. Nobody but a gossip would dream of mocking Muggeridge with his own lust if he had not made such a heavy point, in his later years, of warning the rest of mankind about the futility of carnal desire. Similarly his fulminations about the despicability of political journalism lose some of their fire when you consider, as you had ample opportunity to do during this programme, that he spent some of his best years engaged in manufacturing the very product he was inveighing against, and not a very exalted form of it either. As for going on television to insist that going on television is not worthwhile, all it can do is remind you of the Cretan who said all Cretans were liars.

With those caveats entered, it can still be admitted that it was good to have the ugly Mugg dredged up again. The present Muggeridge was reverently interviewed on the subject of the past Muggeridge, whereupon the past Muggeridge would appear in his own person, by dint of resurrected BBC television programmes which preserve him in atmospheric black and white.

The past version, it became clear, was no more scrupulous a writer than the present one. He got his reputation by bending a cliché just far enough to convince the gullible that they were listening to vivid language. ‘They also serve who only sit and sleep.’ ‘In the beginning was the news.’ ‘Give us this day our daily story.’ In a context where nobody else could write at all, writing like this might have sounded like good writing, but in retrospect you can’t help wondering why he didn’t try harder. The real mystery of Muggeridge’s life is that he must know that most of what he is saying is tripe, yet he says it anyway.

Nevertheless the personality shone through. He was one of the first television performers to demonstrate that all you have to do on television is be yourself, always provided that you have a self to be. It was fun to see him giving Bertrand Russell a bad time, and more fun still to hear about the floor-manager who held up a card saying ‘Be controversial.’ Muggeridge’s ebullience, which seems to have grown no less with age, is enough by itself to take the sting out of his message that the world is getting worse.

The world is too complicated a thing to get worse in any appreciable way except by blowing up, but one doesn’t have to be Malcolm Muggeridge to admit that in certain specific aspects human life might not necessarily be beer and skittles. Open Secret (BBC1) dealt with child abuse. Granted that we all harbour these impulses, it follows that in the right — i.e., the wrong — circumstances they would come out, with shattering consequences for nearby children. Tots who die of cruelty are commemorated by booklets enshrining official reports of what went wrong. The child’s name is on the front. CARLY TAYLOR. There is a little picture.

Newsnight (BBC2) had a story on the Atlanta killings and TV Eye (Thames) gave a whole programme to the same dreadful subject. ‘Newsnight’ had the little pictures. CURTIS WALKER. Curtis was thirteen years old. DARRON GLASS. Ten years old. 4ft 9in. 75lb. ‘TV Eye’ had the analysis: Atlanta’s official leadership is predominantly black and there is thus a good chance that the town will be able to take it if it turns out that the killers are white. Perhaps because so many blacks have been elected, unelected vigilantes are not wanted. The Guardian Angels were shown being turned away. There was footage of the Ku Klux Klan engaged in military training with modern automatic weapons. Everybody talked about racial hatred and nobody mentioned the inadvisability of making machine guns available to nutters.

Man Alive was about people dead. Road accidents massacre the population while set-belt bills wait vainly to become law. Hospital footage was appropriately horrifying. There was an upbeat moment in Tony Wilkinson’s down-and-out adventures on Nationwide (BBC1). Arlington House, a commercial hostel, can give you a clean room for £14 a week. The dossers will probably be swept aside by a rush of middle-class applicants. On Top of the Pops (BBC1) Toyah uncorked the best pop single in years. Called ‘It's a Mystery,’ it should make you feel good about life for about three and a half minutes.

The Observer, 22nd March 1981
[ An abbreviated version of this piece appears in Glued to the Box ]