27 DECEMBER 1963, Page 7

That Was A Year That Was

- By HENRY FAIRLIE ONE could, of course, have relied on the BBC to do it. Its decision to withdraw TW3 was not, as some have suggested, outrageous. It was merely one of those sillinesses for which one looks confidently to public bodies in this country, and is never disappointed. TW3's re- deeming, if not constant, feature was its gaiety. Two or three moments of gaiety in a single hour are, in these days, in the nature of a bonus; and, although there were long patches in every programme when all one could do was roll over and do something else, the moments of gaiety were usually there. This legitimate and rare fun seems to have passed the BBC by in its solemn and awful heartsearchings.

Did TW3 have any political significance?— for that is the implication behind the BBC's decision. Unlike some others, who speak so con- fidently with no apparent evidence, I do not know; and I do not care. I judged the whole thing simply by its effectiveness as a perform- ance. But I do not believe that we take our elections so seriously—or so trivially--that we may not decently enjoy Mr. William Rushton's infinitely moving imitation of Mr. Macmillan or, now, Mr. Lance Perceval's irrestibly funny take- off of the Prime Minister. The answer, surely, was given at Kinross.

A simple point, in passing, about Mr. Rushton's sketches of Mr. Macmillan. They achieved a remarkable accuracy. Mr. Mac- millan's 'unflappability' was always a superb, almost Roman, disguise, and Mr. Rushton's nervous sketch of him, hopping about, waving his arms in distracted gestures, had something of genius about it: whether consciously or un- consciously he had spotted the disparity between Mr. Macmillan's public and private faces, and it was this illumination of his character which made the sketch something of a work of art, and always very funny. It is hard to excuse the BBC for censoring this kind of observation. It has very little to do with elections—apparently forty-five votes' worth at Kinross—but it has everything to do with knowing humanity and, all too sadly, laughing at it.

I do not wish to discuss in detail either TW3 itself or the BBC's action in removing it. But it is worth recalling an article earlier this year, in which I pointed out that the BBC had lost all sense of its proper purpose. Mr. Hugh Carleton Green, I said, 'originally did an invaluable job by taking the stuffiness out of the BBC. But he seems, at the same time, to be in danger of taking the stuffing out of it.' He has, in fact, left it rudderless, and the panicky (it is nothing else) removal of TW3 is the open confirmation that the BBC is now being blown hither and thither, without compass or helmsman.

The thought has recently crossed my mind that Lord Reith, in present-day circumstances, would have been as likeb, as Mr. Carleton Greene to put TW3 on, but that, having put it on, he would have known why; and he would not have been found manufacturing excuses for its sudden extinction.

T6 axe TW3 is a mean and characteristic stupidity. But, as Mr. Michael Frayn and Mr. Christopher Booker have recently observed, the whole 'satire' industry is running into trouble. Obsolescence was always built into it, but it may be worth trying, at the end of 'satire's' own year, to try and understand why. Two years ago, I wrote what I believe was the first article to question the pretensions to 'satire' of the

cast of Beyond The Fringe, under the title, as appropriate now as then, :Still Alive After All This Satire!' (It led to a hilarious public debate between Mr. Peter Cook, Mr. Jonathan Miller, Mr. Michael Frayn and myself, which was cut short only because closing time comes so early on a Sunday.) Since then, I have deliberately refused to touch the subject, but the time has come to un- seal my lips. My Main concern is with the mis- appropriation of those important words: 'dis- sent'; 'protest'; 'radicalism'; and, in particular, with the claim that Beyond The Fringe, the Establishment Club, Private Eye and TW3 have

represented a new mood of dissent or protest. In fact, of course, the, sharpest comment on this

rhubarb was made by Mr. Peter Cook, leaning back in a New York night spot, when he said that he had formed the impression that England was about to sink giggling into the sea.

Looking farther back, I think the most impor- tant point is that we have, in the last ten years, recovered a manner of publicly discussing public affairs which was riormal enough before the war, and which would certainly not have surprised or alarmed our ancestors.

It is difficult to convey to those who were not of age in, say, 1953 or 1954, how oppressive

was the climate of opinion. The war had created a deep feeling of national unity; the leading members of both front benches had been colleagues in the same government during the war; the Conservatives succeeded the Labour Party, and the result was only 'Butskellism.' The parties, it is true, slanged each other in a con-

ventional. manner; but it was extremely difficult to find any way, to find even the appropriate

language, for making less conventional criticisms of the whole scheme of politics, or for asking less conventional questions of the politicians.

The effective break-through was made by Mr. Malcolm Muggeridge in Punch, and something of his attitude tipped over into the Spectator in

those long-ago days of 1954 and 1955. It was instantly apparent that a mood was there to be

captured. There is'no other explanation of the absurd success of the convenient, but almost meaningless, journalistic phrase, 'the Establish- ment,' except that it supplied a vaguely-felt need. But I do not think there was anything new in the mood or even the tone of voice. It was a recovery of an old standpoint.

The standpoint is the one familiarly occupied by pamphleteers in all ages. They may seem, from

this position, to speak with the accents of 'dissent,' or 'protest.' or 'radicalism' (whether of the left or right), 'and perhaps what they say sometimes adds up (however fortuitously) to something of the sort. But the important point is that, by their nature and their trade, they cannot speak with any other accents. Given to knocking (or simply to knockabout), they cannot help but appear to 'dissent' or 'protest.'

This does not make what they do or say any the less valid. It is simply a question of which comes first, the egg or the chicken. Without born exhibitionists, there would be little gaiety in life and little movement in society. If their exhibi- tionism takes the form of licensed jesting at the expense of authority, or cant, or cruelty, we may, indeed, be grateful—without inquiring too deeply into the original motive.

It is only if we hold on to this simple point that we who are in the business can avoid taking ourselves too seriously and, which is much more important, avoid misappropriating words like `dissehe and 'protest' and 'radicalism.' Mr Booker has already blamed the collapse of the 'satire' business on the fact that those in it came to take themselves too seriously; and there is no doubt that one of the virtues of Mr. Michael Frayn and of Private Eye in their heyday was that they laughed as much at their own preten- sions—at 'teenage satirists' and 'ho-ho satirical jokes'—as at anyone else.

But it is not so much the 'satirists' (whether in journalism, on the stage, or on television) whom I blame, as their chic apologists. It is these who have appropriated 'dissent' and 'Protest' and 'radicalism' and made them into an accessory to dinner-party conversation, some- thing to tuck in their cheeks along with gracious living: a sop to frivolous and ailing social con- sciences. When one such self-professed 'radical' asks us (as she has recently done) to trace the connection between radicalism and Vogue and to find it in the contribution which the rich make to fine living, it is time to call a halt.

There are two things which are at fault about this deluding, and self-deluding, chic. First, it pretends that there can be a kind of ready reckoner of 'dissent' and 'protest' and 'radical- ism.' Against race discrimination: dissent. For freedom for homosexuals: protest. Against capital punishment: radicalism. These (and others like them) may; or may not, be 'good' causes. But the one obvious thing is that there is no mark of 'dissent' or 'protest' or 'radicalism' about them. They are the prevailing orthodoxies of the age, easy, safe and usually thoughtless.

It is not the chosen causes which are at fault so much as the assumption that any list of causes can be used as a test of 'dissent' or 'radicalism.' One might as well feed a punched card into a computer. The effect of this categorising is to petrify what ought to be an alert, free, con- stantly questioning and, above all, constantly self-questioning attitude of mind. There is no doubt that this petrification was one of the weaknesses of TW3: in the end, it substituted reflexes for responses.

The second fault is the assumption that no one who does not share stated attitudes is capable of straight thinking or honest feeling:

. . . the liberal is not only convinced that he is right; he is also convinced that other people secretly agree with him—how could they do otherwise?—and are restrained from saying so only by unworthy motives of worldly pru- dence, material interest and so forth.

It is this fundamentally intolerant spirit which has come increasingly to inform our professed `radicals'; and, again, it has had its effect on both TW3 and Private Eye. So narcissistic a 'radicalism' had to end by eating its own tail.

We 'will -be wise if we keep big words like 'dissent' and 'protest' and 'radicalism' for deeply felt and seriously considered assaults on pre- vailing orthodoxies, stupidities and cruelties in our society, assaults whose object is political action and which can be sustained only if they are conducted within one of the two great politi- cal traditions of this country. For the rest, as journalists (or stage or screen entertainers), we should claim only the licence to be readable (or watchable), in whatever manner we can con- trive. If that is our claim, who—who, indeed?— can provide an excuse for censorship, either before 'or after an election?