Essays: The wind machine |
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The wind machine

THE viewing week ended in a frenzy of beauty contests and political carnage. Of the beauty contests I will say more next time. There is nothing useful to say about the bombings unless one is in possession of the antidote. I only wish mirth were it.

A certain sardonic levity did, however, seem appropriate when a megabudget documentary called The Weather Machine (BBC2) dragged its slow length through a large part of Wednesday night. Hosted by Magnus Magnusson, narrated by Eric Porter, scripted by Nigel Calder and bankrolled by the BBC, SR, KRO, OECA, ZDF and WNET/13, the show surveyed the winds, rains, droughts and hurricanes of the entire planet, purporting to see these many movements as the components of a vast machine. Confidence in this analogy never wavered, although it surely must have occurred to Nigel Calder, if to no one else involved, that machines are purpose-built and weather systems are not, and that it therefore courted waffle, if not disaster, to call the weather a machine.

As it was, the only real subject of the programme was the perception that the weather was composed of variously interacting forces. Scope-wise, this concept was elastic. It needed to be focused, but got jazzed instead. Magnus Magnusson appeared bestriding a globe of the world — which was actually a colour-separation overlay with a ladder behind, but looked expensive. Are we threatened, he asked, with a new Ice Age? It appears that one of these could be ‘due now any time’ Magnus’s suit was full of wrinkles, boding ill. ‘Polar bears are coming nearer.’ You wondered if a polar bear had already found its way to Television Centre and was sneaking up on Magnus. But at this point his globe filled with eddies, jet-streams, whirling clouds and purposeful arrows, while Eric Porter’s voice-over took up the narrative. Soames Forsyte reads the weather! Too much.

The Ice Age, having served its purpose, which was to get you watching, was not heard of again for a long time. Instead we saw a round-up of weather-research world wide, accompanied by the standard litany of computer-worship. ‘A mathematical model of this storm’ (footage of storm) ‘is raging in the circuits of a computer’ (footage of computer). Many computers were fated to appear in the show and perform their dreary number. Other devices, though, were weird enough to keep interest flickering. Professor Fujita, a Japanese tornado expert, had built a blender-sized gizmo which duplicated the mighty wind in miniature. Smoke gathered, spiralled and collapsed. Professor Fujita, who looked inscrutable, was one of many Japanese scientists who were to appear throughout the programme, eventually outnumbering the computers.

‘Tight little eddies... invisible feelers of rising air... a day in the life of one cloud-cluster.’ The script was rich in the vividness that reveals nothing. In this context, foreign professors gained undue value as light relief. Klaus Wyrtki of Hawaii was a student of currents, and thought ‘zat zer zerge in zer kernt’ had something to do with ‘zer trate vints.’ ‘Fifi robbed the world of a large crop of bananas,’ Soames found himself intoning, as the script milked a hurricane for human interest. But by then it was interval, and time for a quick cuppa while wondering if the polar bear had caught up with Magnus.

Part Two started off again with the Ice Age, whose imminence was foretold by the wind patterns. Professor Reid Bryson placidly warned that the jig was up, but Professor Bert Bolin of Sweden seemed more optimistic. ‘There is a lot of öl and there are vast amounts of cöl left.’ We should watch out, however, for excess carbon dioxide, which threatens to overheat the atmosphere. According to my own computations, carried out on an abacus, this would be highly desirable, since it would hold back the Ice Age and keep the polar bear from eating Magnus. ‘The dim predictions of an advancing desert may be right,’ mused Soames, ‘and they may not’ A sample of mud was correctly described as ‘meaningless mud to the casual eye.’

Japanese scientists swarmed. We were shown for the nth time how a research team ‘communicates with a powerful computer.’ Magnus, still in one piece, was back on top of the world. Persil fell from the gantry, representing snow. ‘According to old Norse Folk Lore... end of the world.’

‘The Weather Machine’ was son and heir to last year’s blockbuster ‘The Life Game,’ which was similarly elephantine and trivial, and pioneered the dubious technique of using a lavish budget to flesh out a nebulous script, with Science in the star part. In both cases it looked as if the narrative had been written around the footage. I have seen this kind of epic compared to series like ‘Civilisation’ or ‘America,’ but really there is no similarity, because those were personal views, whereas the science blockbuster tends to be a collective picture, eclectic from the beginning. It has become a very bad tradition and ought to he given up.

The Mighty Continent (BBC1), on the other hand, is similar to ‘Civilisation’ and ‘America,’ except that it has none of their virtues, and is really Peter Ustinov’s standard after-dinner speech about his grandfather, except that he delivers it in various European capitals. But Cakes and Ale (BBC2) is excellently done. Maugham is, of course, ideal dramatic material, being all character-points and no style, which leaves plenty of room for fruitful activity on the part of everyone from the director to the wardrobe mistress. Since most of the characters spend a good deal of their time standing around discussing what a vital, generous, warm-blooded creature Rosie is, it is something of a triumph that Judy Cornwell, who is playing her, should be able to race on and actually convince us that she is vital, generous and warm-blooded.

Jennie (Thames) is ageing even more slowly than Glencora: while the boys around her turn to men and the men turn to doddering fools, she goes on looking exactly like Lee Remick. I was getting set to be divertingly snide about this, but then it all happened in Beit Shean, and then it happened again in Birmingham, and the thrill was gone. Polar bears, coming nearer.

The Observer, 24th November 1974