13 FEBRUARY 1959, Page 16


America First

By PETER FORSTER IN effect, you can view it all on Sundays—the big variety shows, quizzes, religious pro- grammes, interviews, the most terrible, the most typical, the offbeat, the deadbeat, the beat. The best is brilliapt, and of course some of the cast-lists are dazzling (Tebaldi, Belafonte, Maurice Evans on one bill; Ed Murrow talking to Beecham, Callas, Borge); in fact all the big names of TV are seen more often in the avidly competitive American market than are their equivalents in England. The worst is bad in ways with which any British viewer will already be familiar—the cops, cowboys, crooners—and if the audience participation shows go better it is because amateur entertainment must thrive when everyone is an amateur entertainer, and in that most extrovert of nations every cabbie is a comic, •every waitress a Bergman-in-waiting. (Not to mention one waitress I met who was con- vinced she really was the Duchess of Windsor.) The brand of relaxed Michelmore charm, so rare. in English television, is commonplace in America, especially in small neighbourhood stations. Tech- nically, they are still the master-gadgeteers. with small wire-less remote-control panels for changing stations—plus, if you can produce a doctor's certificate to state that you are too ill to get out of bed, a button to turn off sound during com- mercials. My first experience of colour involved a green Ed Sullivan introducing a mauve Edith Piaf, but later glimpses of a properly golden Dinah Shore redressed the balance; and being just old enough to remember being told that colour-movies and CinemaScope were passing crazes, I can only aver that in time colour will be perfected and become standard.

Their categories are more blurred in outline than ours; the sapping, silly kind of, Features-versus- Talks-Department battle does not seem to rage in the same way. For years a top variety show has been presented by Ed Sullivan, a hickory-hewn, Bogart-like journalist who has stayed at the top by applying a journalistic sense of news values which gives back to variety its literal meaning, in contrast to the self-conscious, uncritical style of Show Biz ComOres. Recently, for example, he flew to Cuba and filmed an exciting interview with Castro, which went in with surprising effectiveness among the jugglers and comics.

This same shrewdly planned ragbag quality pervades the most interesting programme I saw in America, the Jack Paar Show, which goes out from New York five nights a week from 11.15 p.m. to I a.m.. being bought in varying sections by local stations according to inclination and local time. (The problem of networking shows all over the US is fantastically complex.) Mostly Paar simply gags and chats with a succession of visitors —a dapper, elfin-faced comic of about forty with the manner of a softer Bob Hope; after years in the wilderness, this nightly marathon brings out his particular quality, which is that whereas other comics project act-characters, he is so patently himself, with all neuroses showing. Silly or serious, and sometimes both at once; idly sticking pins into a doll while crooning to his girl friend; making political comments; in a good mood or foul; pro- voking Zsa-Zsa Gabor to outrageous comments on her lovers, or welcoming Errol Flynn back from the front in Cuba with a dove of peace from Castro for the Boy Scouts of New York, Paar is the be-all of a show which is funny or irritating, sometimes beautifully vulgar (as when he got a fit of the giggles while delivering a commercial for underpants), always utterly casual : and unique.

There are noticeably fewer good new live plays than on British television—indeed, a recent survey showed that 80 per cent. of viewers neither knew nor cared that a vast amount of their TV was on tape. Playhouse 90 can fairly boast to be 'the only quality hour-and-a-half drama programme'; it is put out by CBS, which struck me as the most culturally enterprising of the four national net- works which between them dominate the 400-odd local stations. But again, the top people are con- sistently on view; on Playhouse 90 a new play by Rod ('Heavyweight for a Requiem') Serling was followed the next week by a new one from Reginald ('Twelve Angry Men') Rose.

Yet there is much more offbeat work than I was led to expect. Murrow's Small World inter- views are fascinating (he is a major force at CBS, a sort of Brooks Brothers Cassandra, deploring current trends yet responsible for much of what is best in American TV), and CBS also put half a million dollars a year at the disposal of a very bright young Englishwoman, Pamela llott, to pro- duce an unsponsored, denominational-in-turn religious hour every Sunday morning. Miss llott told me that the network attached no strings: `They didn't even object when I put on a Christ- mas ballet in which the Virgin Mary danced.' Rather as an afterthought, she added : 'She was danced by a Negress, too!' Other experiments have had the leading players from West Side Story giving numbers from the show, then dis- cussing its and their own ethics—think how many West End managements would allow that!

What seemed a notable gap, in this world of direct sponsorship of programmes by firms, was the equivalent of quality advertising in quality newspapers. Chevrolet is obviously plugged by Dinah Shore in order to get at a mass market in a big way; at the other end of the scale, the huge chemicals firm of Olin Mathieson subsi- dises Murrow for clearly prestige rather than sales purposes; but I noticed next to nothing promoted by the kind of makers of costly goods for whom a few sales might represent a handsome profit, and who might be expected to promote something like the BBC's medium-size minority programmes. With the market so assiduously researched by advertising agencies one can only assume that such programmes are not feasible under the American system, and we may ponder the lesson.

The commercials are also no longer a strident novelty to an• Englishman—some in fact are the same, notably that nauseating little Alka Seltzer doll who always predisposes me to a hangovcr.The current gimmick is that in all programmes, even dramas; the stars themselves are brought in to plug the product at the end. When done as infectiously as by a Dinah Shore (who in any case has an endearing way of laughing at a joke as if she had not rehearsed it all week), this appears in- offensive, the more so as with variety artists there seems somehow no integrity involved. But to have newscasters plugging also does take more getting used to, and Robin Day and Co. may be grateful. Murrow told me that he is unaware of any direct censorship, but in Savannah, Georgia, I met a newscaster /compiler at a station aimed mainly at Negroes, who alio denied censorship, but did say that he used tact. And what was tact? Well, for instance, his sponsor being the Savannah bus owners, he didn't like to say much about bus- boycotts in Alabama. . . . Offhand I cannot think of a clearer illustration of the dangers of commercial TV and radio.

Random moments: A New York parish priest quietly and in detail alleging graft in a housing project on a Sunday morning interview. . . . Peter Lind Hayes mixing bad jokes with religiosity in a morning show of definitive horror. . . . The superbly presented and deeply impressive televis- ing of Eisenhower's State of the Union message to Congress. . . . Excerpts from old Garbo films, which had four people misty-eyed at ten in the morning beside the beach in bright Miami sun- shine. . . . TV Guide, with its fast-growing, six- million-plus circulation, which unlike the Radio and TV Times, contains controversial criticism and pungent pieces about repair-sharks. . . . The poor TV reception in New York. . . . The fun- niest woman 1 have seen since Bea Lillie, a pop- eyed, wide-mouthed, sexy blonde giraffe called Carol Channing, at once dim and sophisticated of a George Burns show, and singing a riotous song about a band vocalist unable to strike cor- rect cha-cha time with her maracas. PS: I must apologise for the fact that last week, referring to the production of No Fixed Abode, I offered to Henry Kaplan the congratulations due to James Ormerod.