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8 March 2021

From the NS archive: When Job’s patience fails

10 April 1981: Julian Barnes bids farewell to his viewing couch and lays down his Sun Light torch-pen.

By Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes – who published his first novel in 1980 and in 2011 won the Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending – is a former New Statesman television critic. In this, his final column in the role, he wrote that a TV reviewer needs not just “Job-like endurance, a fully-sprung viewing couch, a Sun-Light torch-pen, and a freezer-full of booze”, but also luck. In his final week he took in the Boat Race, the Eurovision Song Contest (“Hard not to feel deeply ashamed of the British winner, a quartet of session singers called Bucks Fizz”) and the Grand National, yet this was for Barnes not variety enough. “After a while,” he concluded, as he passed over his baton by comparing TV criticism to eating hard-boiled eggs, “everything on television seems to take on the same television shape: it’s smooth, it seems nourishing, it slips down easily, but then gradually it becomes harder and harder to stomach. One more and you think you’ll gag.”

***

I guess it was Lady Di’s putative nipple that did it. I mean, this column does try, despite the triocular strain, to offer a modestly encyclopaedic rundown on what happens every night on every channel, to chronicle the semiological significance of each twitch of a newsreader’s toupee. And then something like the Great Royal Shadow Incident comes along, and the lethargic sham of your critical coverage is mockingly exposed. There I was the other week, dutifully taking the strain for you in front of some rebuking documentary, while over on News at Ten they were excitedly rerunning furlongs of film and stopping every second frame, all to find out whether or not, when Lady Di wore that dress, she had left undone that which she ought to have done up. High-level cameras which had been loitering furtively on balconies were subpoenaed to give evidence. And lucky rival critics like Russell Davies got an enviably long lead-in out of the probe.

That’s when you realise that a TV critic has to have more than Job-like endurance, a fully-sprung viewing couch, a Sun Light torch-pen (“Can be used by policemen, guardsmen, railroad workers, students and many other people” it says on the box), and a freezer-full of booze. He also needs luck. I missed Lady Di’s soon-to-be-coronetted embonpoint, just as in the past three years I find I’ve missed so many other of the tube’s briefly mythic moments: Kenneth Kendall’s tooth pinging off his newsdesk like a squash ball on heat; Angela Rippon’s earring parodying the same trick; Jimmy Goldsmith galumphing off the set of The Money Programme. l was away for Peter Woods’s notorious “sinus trouble”; I read about Anna Ford’s farewell in the next day’s paper; and I failed to catch that one occasion when Russell Harty’s upper lip was as dry as the Gobi desert. When ITV smuggled its camera round the back of the Knightsbridge embassy to catch the Milk Tray men shinning down their ropes, I was the one watching BBC. The time had come, I realised, to hang up my typewriter ribbon; to give way, if not to a younger man, at least to a luckier one.

Still, it was a varied week to end on. For those who missed one nodule of Lady Di, there was the whole of Linda Lovelace on Saturday Night at the Mill (BBC1). She appeared directly after Nana Mouskouri, and the transition was so eerily seamless as to suggest cloning: both were homely, bespectacled, sturdily suburban ladies dressed as for a PTA meeting. Ms Lovelace, interviewed with no more than predictable lubricity by Bob Langley, was over here to publicise an autobiography in which she startingly reveals that her porno career, far from being of her own choosing, was forced on her by a brutal, psychopathic husband. We’ve become tiredly familiar with Barry Norman pointing out to us that the Hollywood Greats who embody our fantasies were, after all, sexually incapable or frigid or whatever; but Ms Lovelace’s case takes the same cultural irony to grander, madder dimensions. This seemingly carefree pied piper of untrammelled erotic freedom was in fact, we learned, the humiliated opposite – a pleasureless, gagging victim of the basest male enslavement.

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Except that one didn’t believe it was quite so neat, this conversion from porn-again to born-again. There was something a little pressing about Ms Lovelace’s performance, something a little suspicious about the now-retiring housewife hyping her book as hard as she did. If it was all true, one wanted to ask – and she offered an 11-hour lie-detector test in evidence of this claim – what was she doing here? If her purpose is socially and morally admonitory, isn’t it strange that she’s written a book which many can be expected to get off on? And isn’t there something curious about resurrecting that shrugged-off name for world-wide TV appearances which aren’t exactly going to help the transition to that quiet suburban life she claims to see?

“My inside’s like an army’s marched through it, they said.” Not, as it might have been, Ms Lovelace; but a hospital patient in the next bed to the ailing, reminiscing heroine of Elizabeth Alone (BBC2). This first episode of William Trevor’s three-part play, had its Novocaine moments, notably in those Weetabixy flashbacks-to-innocence (“The detrimental influence of Elvira Madigan on British TV serials: analyse and discuss”); but it was held together by a broodingly strong central performance by Barbara Ferris, the thinking man’s Susan Hampshire. It also contained the finest domestic row I’ve seen for years, a whirling teatime tornado catching up Elizabeth, her languidly Burkhardt-quoting suitor, and her hated, angry, self-pitying father (Joss Ackland). Emotional failure, lack of courage, inability to love – these are the areas the play is moving towards; though it’s a river that flows broad rather than swift.

Three of the tube’s increasingly predictable but still unmissable events all turned up together last Saturday. “What’s Another Year?” was the title of the winner of the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest (BBC1) but it made an equally apt so-what epigraph for this year’s whirligig of dreck. Hard not to feel deeply ashamed of the British winner, a quartet of session singers called Bucks Fizz. “We made a lot of mistakes,” they accurately claimed afterwards, “but luckily no one spotted them.” How could they be so sure? Their musical director, I couldn’t help noticing, was a certain John Coleman, who smacked and wheedled the local Irish fiddler into the necessary slick frenzy, while onstage the blond-rinsed Fizz ran very fast on the spot and pummelled out an appalling song about Making Your Mind Up. Halfway through, the two girls in the group took their skirts off; perhaps this helped Make the Mind Up of the Eurojuries. Other talentless entrants included a Norwegian singer who puzzlingly bore the Christian name of Finn; he was punished for this lack of patriotism by not being awarded a single point.

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Earlier in the day the Cambridge crew also scored no points at all in the Boat Race (Grandstand, BBC1). Fat zero as well to Harry Carpenter for his soppy-uncle doting on cox Sue Brown, who must have had the easiest job on the tideway, steering her immensely superior crew through a few bridges. A couple of mild innovations were tried, like one woman commentator Penny Chuter, who at one point exclaimed, “As it comes out of the water it’s smooth and it’s long!” (the Loch Ness monster surfaces again); while Cambridge, for some unknown reason, had green blades on their oars. Envy of all Oxford’s publicity, no doubt. After the race, and the predictable sixth consecutive history of the Dark Blues, Harry Carpenter warned the Cambridge rowing establishment with comical sternness to put its house in order. Sink or win, seemed to be his instruction: you can’t expect to rate a BBC helicopter next year if you go on being so boring.

No danger of lessened facilities at Aintree (also Grandstand), where this year the winning jockey’s recent recovery from cancer was the main story. This, plus the fact that the fellow’s name was Champion, couldn’t have suited the tabloid-shaped mind of David Coleman better. “Bob – marvellous, marvellous, marvellous,” ran his first, searching question in the winner’s enclosure. Not much scope for reply there, so Coleman pressed on with a masterly supplementary: “Well, it’s a great story – twelve months ago you had cancer, and the horse itself hasn’t been too well.”

The great story in this year’s Master Game (BBC2) was of Nigel Short’s gratifying triumph over a field of seven grandmasters. In the final he pursued a dogged, careful attack against what seemed a curiously passive Tony Miles. “So I just continue with my plan,” was Short’s most typical comment, as Miles diddled and puffed and fiddled and bluffed. “What’s he doing? Is he panicking – or is he really doing something?” was the penultimate puzzled comment of the NS’s departing critic as Superbrat pushed another paws. This hopeful bravado was shortly followed by that familiar Master Game cry of “Good God, that was stupid… I’m an idiot.” So, in the nicest possible way, are those responsible for printing my prediction of the MG winner as Hort instead of Short. But then, misprints are all part of the luck you need in this trade. I hope my successor is raedy fro taht.

I also hope he likes the taste of hard-boiled eggs. Seeking an instructive metaphor for this job, I found myself in front of Cool Hand Luke (BBC1). You may remember convict Paul Newman and the egg-eating competition? At first it’s all a bit of a joke, as he smilingly pops the eggs into his mouth; gradually it gets serious – money is at stake; finally, he has to be massaged, rubbed down, and walked around before he can face another of the shining opioid bombs. Hard this week not to spot the allegory, with Paul Newman representing the imprisoned TV critic. After a while, everything on television seems to take on the same television shape: it’s smooth, it seems nourishing, it slips down easily, but then gradually it becomes harder and harder to stomach. One more and you think you’ll gag. I leave my successor to his challenging diet of hard-boiled eggs. Me, I’m frolicking off to where I can get them fried, poached, scrambled, raw, Benedict – you name it…

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)