24 AUGUST 1985, Page 33


Reflections of reality?

Peter Levi

Television sets are getting to look old-fashioned. Ours has the moping, dog- ged air of an antique wireless, it is like a disregarded minor prophet except in the school holidays. We watch it, of course, but mostly in hopeless search for news, of Which it conveys amazingly little, like one's nanny telling one just a few titbits from the Telegraph. The real news has to be ex- tracted from real newspapers with a pin, like a shellfish. For example, the Italians were in the news the other day. They were caught energising their wine with anti- freeze, one of the brands being a Sunday Telegraph Best Buy. And the Italian police had to separate two throngs of Italian football fans, who were attempting to stone one another to death. Neither of these interesting items disturbed the placid purring of the screen.

There is more curiosity satisfaction in the old films they show. Last weekend we had a horse with gold fillings in his teeth, Melina Mercouri as a nun, and Frank Sinatra bombing a tank with soda-water. These jokes are not too hilarious, and D'Annunzio bombing the Italian Foreign Office, let alone the Vatican, with beet- root, would have made better use of colour. But all these films are in various degrees and ways xenophobic, that is where they score over the news, for which Abroad is made of cardboard. On Sunday night the enjoyable Japanese in a BBC1 serial were threatening to crucify an entire

village, and the film King Rat (BBC2)

showed them as equally revolting in mod- ern times. These people were remarkably unlike my own Japanese pupils, but if you rely on television you might believe any- thing.

Channel 4 is of course nobly anti-racist, but it does seem lost in a world of its own.

On the previous evening they showed a programme about a homosexual writer son

of a coalminer (Fathers by Sons), and an old black and white film on 'the hitherto taboo subject of homosexuality' (Victim), repeated. Both these offerings were in fact well worth showing, but all the same, sexual liberty today seems to be getting like crypto-communism in the Thirties. My own favourite programme last weekend was Classic Creatures (ITV) with Billy D. Williams, who was sensationally nice and relaxed. It was for children, at ten in the morning, and it explained how film crea- tures like the Jedi and King Kong and dinosaurs and daleks are constructed and operated. It was badly scripted, but the material was fascinating. A mechanical dwarf tends to have a real dwarf inside, or a little boy of 11. The biggest monsters take three or four people to operate. This subject is worth prime time and much more length. After all it is one of the few original art-forms to emerge since 1945, and far too clever and funny to be despised.

Reality is Wogan. His present chat show is masterly, except for most of the music, which I suspect he despises, as he seemed to do on the radio. An exception to that was his extract from the GLC Mikado, which certainly ought to be shown com- plete. Television is about reality, as we are always told, so one appearance of Barbara Cartland, whom I had always snobbishly assumed to be an appalling woman, re- vealed her as extremely charming and jolly. She turns out to have been in youth rather like Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies, and at her present age no worse than a number of my aunts. Wogan's show is like having these people to tea, but with no washing up and no one staying too long. His flair for the obvious is just what one needs at tea-time.

The series of old films made by Rent Cutforth now being presented by Robert Kee, with his modest but incisive introduc- tions, hardly goes beyond the obvious, yet every film has a shape, they are full of nutty detail and unlikely information, and they are lucid and convincing. All the same I did think he exaggerated the clever ordinariness of the camouflage used by the Krogers, the Ruislip spies. When I lived in Ruislip a private bookseller festooned in burglar alarms who kept a flask full of whisky (not brandy) in his bedroom, three kinds of talc in the bathroom, and a giant Ronson lighter in typical Moscow Airport bad taste on display, would have been very suspect indeed. Can Ruislip, of all places, have gone downhill?