Essays: Week of the Rats |
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Week of the Rats

BIG deal of the week was Prince Charles becoming a Water Rat. What with Sakharov, the siege, the Loch Ness monster and the annual sports round-up the BBC had a lot on its plate, but there was no question that the central story was all about the Prince turning into a Rat.

He turned into a Rat on a show called Royal Appointment (BBC1), whose devotedly jovial commentator introduced the festivities by pointing out that the Royal Appointment was being kept by His Royal Highness in a Royal Car, which was bearing him off to a Royal Occasion laid on by the Grand Order of Water Rats, who wanted to install him as a Companion Rat of the Grand Order, thereby changing him into a Royal Rat.

The Grand Order, it transpired, is composed of famous show-biz figures who normally assemble to aid charity and congratulate one another, but who on this occasion were gathered for the purpose of doubling up with whimsy in the Royal Presence. Under a thin crust of joky daring, the amount of ingratiation going on was bloodcurdling.

In this temporarily deranged company it was not difficult for Charles to deliver a short comic monologue which put him on an equal footing with his hosts. His smooth delivery can make a dud line sound reasonably amusing, provided you remember that he is the heir to the throne — and there were few present who were likely to forget that. They rolled about. They rocked. They choked on their brandies and nudged each other. Why, the young pup was a true Rat, like themselves! Tears filled their eyes, and mine.

Other silly things were happening too, but the brief flirtation with the Beyond drew, one trusts, to an end. The second and final part of Into the Unknown (ATV) was vibrant with healthy scepticism, as one inexplicable phenomenon after another unaccountably declined to show up when the camera came close to where it was supposed to happen. But Colin Wilson was on hand to tell us all about something called Faculty X, which has apparently been at the root of the ‘enormous change in human consciousness’ over ‘the last 50 years,’ a change which Wilson assures us will come to fruition ‘over the next 25 years.’ Precisely what form this efflorescence of mental energy might eventually take was left vague, but it was hard to avoid the impression that Wilson himself — whose own life-span looks to be congruent with the specified periods — constitutes, in his own eyes at least, a fair representation of the new state of psychic being.

Another man explained how he got to the planet Mercury before Mariner 10 did, the space-probe serving merely to confirm his own observations. ‘It took me eight minutes to find Mercury,’ he announced, having presumably checked his watch on arrival, like the March Hare. ‘I don’t mind if people perpetuate themselves in total ignorance until Eternity,’ he went on, adding that he was primarily concerned with exploring his own Psychic Structure.

Like most interplanetary commuters and exponents of Faculty X, this character appeared entirely plausible while having no idea of scientific method — the exact reverse of, say, Patrick Moore, who conforms rigidly to scientific method while appearing as mad as a meat axe. Ending the latest series of The Sky at Night (BBC1), Patrick hoped we wouldn’t be too disappointed by the virtual certainty that except for some ‘very primitive organic matter’ there is no life in the solar system save on Earth. Nevertheless there are countless other stars and sheer probability argues that we not alone.

Patrick’s eyes were full of hope. The screen was full of flying eyebrows. The Beeb’s doomed attempt to smooth him up has by now disintegrated completely. The Werner von Braun haircut has grown out, the shirts have all taken a bashing in the coin-wash, and Patrick once again looks as he should look, as if he has been skin-diving in Copydex.

Lord Hailsham and God were both on Anno Domini (BBC1), in an episode entitled ‘God and Lord Hailsham.’ There is no reason to think that the peer’s reluctance to accept second billing was anything more than momentary. He talked of his ‘changing relationship with God.’ Next night he was back again, talking about the Crossman diaries on Nationwide (BBC1). His main point was that Ministers work hard, which I think no one doubts, the real question in each case being whether they work to good effect.

Not recently as ubiquitous as Lord Hailsham, but perhaps about to stage a comeback, Lord Longford made a tentative reappearance in the Book Programme (BBC2), disguised as a mercifully silent part of the decor while Edward Heath gave a fun-filled speech (‘If I may say,’ ‘far be it from me,’ etc.) at the Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch. We are all keen to welcome Lord Longford back into prominence, whether or not he has learned his lesson, which is that people are frail and the world is as it is, and not as one would have it.

Passage to England (BBC1) was a passable play by Leon Griffiths, featuring an English would-be wide boy (Colin Welland) being diddled by an Indian con-man (Tariq Yunes) who was much, much wider. The acting (especially from Welland) was heartfelt and the direction was subtly realistic, but the show suffered from predictability of plot, since it was impossible not to guess that the Indian’s gold bar was a version of the Green Goods con, in which the mark is persuaded to cough up real cash for false. Still, there might have been a few people in the audience who had never heard of it — all those millions of Uri Geller fans, for example.

Sports Review of 1975 (BBC1) was fronted by Frank Bough and Harry Carpenter, in the presence of all the top sporting faces and a table heaped with trophies which were, Frank reassured us, insured for £l million and guarded by ‘the heavy mob.’ Frank was on dazzling form. ‘You must have had a marvellous few days,’ he told John Stracey via satellite. Stracey could only reply: ‘Fantastic.’

Frank used his patent ‘How did you feel?’ question on everybody. (Standard variations are: ‘When you beat Mark Spitz for that sixth gold medal and climbed out of the pool to be told you had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, how did you feel?’ Or. ‘When your car spun on the oil at 150 m.p.h. and you crashed backwards over the cliff in flames to the rocks below, how did you feel?’) Surrounded by androids uttering mechanical patter, cricketing hero David Steele stood out uncomfortably as an articulate human being. Certainly it was odd to see the title of Sports Personality of the Year awarded to someone actually in possession of a personality.

The Observer, 14th December 1975