Essays: Paean to the military qualities |
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Paean to the military qualities

THE interesting Orde Wingate (BBC2) came and went under the shadow of the Olympics, so it is probably a bit late to start talking about it in detail now. But its originality ought to be acknowledged, if only briefly.

The show’s primary virtue, from which all its other virtues stemmed, lay in the ability of its author, Don Shaw, to submit himself to Wingate’s personality without any hint of that fatal knowingness which so often overtakes (not to say motivates) writers working in the Brechtian mode on such subjects as war, capitalism, etc. Shaw could see that Wingate really was a soldier of poetic stature — there was something numinous about him, not easily to be explained away.

Since the central problem was being faced in its full complexity, it didn’t matter that the sets were sketchily symbolic and that the staff-officers opposed to Wingate were portrayed as caricatures. In fact the alienation effect for once worked rather well. Finally the only thing the show ran short of was information.

We heard only one lecture from Wingate on his theories of long-range penetration and never found out whether the strongholds made much real difference to the Burma campaign. There was a discussion later on in the evening the last episode was transmitted, and of course one can always read up on the topic in Slim’s superlative ‘Defeat Into Victory,’ but really the question of whether it was all worth it should have been tackled in the script itself.

Still, I learned a lot: the emotional ties between Wingate and the emerging Israel were vividly brought out. Barry Foster made a creditable job of embodying Wingate’s genius. Nigel Stock was good as Wavell — not at all poetic (although he was a discriminating appreciator of poetry), but an even greater soldier. And once again it was the concession that there could be such a thing as a great soldier which made ‘Orde Wingate’ strange and rather special: a turn-up for the books in an age where young dramatists spend so much time confidently educating us in subjects about which they know nothing.

To pursue my unaccustomed paean to the military qualities, let me welcome on your behalf the first episode of a brand-new 10-parter called Sailor (BBC1). Filmed on board the aircraft-carrier HMS Ark Royal with the full co-operation of the Royal Navy, it promises, against all the likelihoods, to be outstandingly gripping stuff. For one thing, the Navy’s co-operation could scarcely be fuller: officers and ratings are already opening their personalities to the lens like tropical flowers. So you not only get the ordinary fascination of the big ship going about its business, you get the extraordinary fascination of the confined society pullulating inside her.

Like all military societies, the one on board Ark Royal has a beautifully simple vertical structure, in which the men at the top take little of the physical stress but most of the mental, and the men at the bottom take little of the mental stress but most of the physical. The first impression the show made — and it’s an impression that will surely go on growing as the series progresses — was of the spiritual comfort offered by belonging to a disciplined hierarchy.

The Navy will have done nothing to hurt recruiting, and indeed will almost certainly aid it, by having let the cameras get such a long look at how tight that discipline is. It’s knowing exactly what’s expected of you that makes the Services so attractive, which explains why there are always intelligent people ready to join up even in peace time. As with believing in God, it’s more a matter of psychology than brains.

Footage of what the ratings got up to on their last night before sailing showed that an additional reason for going to sea might be the low standard of entertainment on shore. Incredibly shagged-out strippers jiggled a raddled hip in the faces of pissed tars singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone,’ always a certain sign of terminal inebriation. Back to the ship staggered the blotto sea-dogs, to be greeted at the gangway by a petty officer who had seen it all before. Like Minos in Dante he consigned them to their separate fates. The man who missed the sailing and had to be brought off by helicopter went on Commander’s Report. The man who had left the ship without permission was passed all the way up to Captain’s Report, his offence having been the worst. This was the hapless McLaughlin, whose doom will be described to us next week.

Already separate characters are emerging, and not just between decks. Upstairs on the bridge, the Captain is practically a C. S. Forester creation, marvellously cool as he takes the ship to sea with its port outer engine unserviceable and most of the telegraphs reading backwards. I have already conceived a beautiful hatred for one of the junior officers. The last shot of the episode was of a Phantom landing, so next week we will presumably have the fly-boys added to the cast.

On Who Said That? (BBC2), Lady Antonia Fraser has so far fluttered her eyelashes 246, 315, 786 times. Robert Robinson was a guest in the latest instalment. He is also chairman of Call My Bluff (BBC2) and linchpin of other panel-games too numerous to mention. Pouring his talent down panel-games was probably a chief component in Gilbert Harding’s sense of shame, as revealed in a re-run of his famous Face to Face (BBC2). ‘I shall be very glad to be dead,’ Harding told John Freeman, ‘but I don’t look forward to the actual process of dying.’ The casualness of the first part of the sentence gave the best clue to his interior agonies.

A compilation called Forty Years (BBC2) was a haphazard survey of telly’s past. Clips from the unspeakable TW3 programme on JFK’s assassination and from the more recent, equally unspeakable ‘The Family’ vied with each other in unspeakableness. But it was encouraging to see how Petula Clark has grown younger with the years: in 1946 she looked, like everything else on screen, arch, starched and out of touch. The last 30 years have been the story of TV getting in touch with the country. Things like ‘Z-Cars’ certainly helped. A 1963 episode by John Hopkins got a re-run on BBC2: its attack was undiminished. Word of Mouth (BBC2) is a must. So is It’s Childsplay (BBC1), with Eric and Ernie helping kids put on plays.

The Observer, 8th August 1976