Just for a change why doesn’t Panorama etc get out of the rut?


TV critic Milton Shulman turns his withering eye on current affairs programming

Ireland's Saturday Night masthead
From Ireland’s Saturday Night for 27 February 1965

WITHOUT current affairs programmes or documentaries, television would be hard put to it to justify any claim to being a serious medium of communication.

It is programmes like Panorama, This Week, World in Action and Gallery that provide the solid bulwark of respectability behind which television channels can cower while peppering us with Compacts, Coronation Streets, Beat the Clocks and Take Your Picks.

They achieve a remarkable standard of consistent, pungent, informed comment and their continued existence and well-being is as essential to TV as the Kremlin is to Communism.

But there are signs that longevity has brought its inevitable toll of orthodoxy, smugness and hardened thinking. This is particularly true of Panorama, where methods of presentation have remained as static and predictable as a pagan ritual.

There inevitably sits the Buddha-like figure of the Great God Dimbleby aura-ting (if the verb doesn’t exist it ought to) resplendent waves of common sense and reliability.

With the slight frown of a benevolent teacher asking a series of hypothetical questions to which he alone knows the answers, he takes us gently by the minds into the confusing maelstrom of such issues as Vietnam, the trade gap or the Congo.

On Monday, with a condescending smile, he showed us the Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, defending his latest fiscal statement against the combined scepticism of a BBC reporter, a financial journalist, Edward Heath and ICI’s Paul Chambers.

Then he whisked us off to Rome and a short profile by John Morgan on the new British Cardinal, Dr. John Heenan. And finally Derek Hart summarised for us the argument for and against travelling to Spain during the present crisis over Gibraltar.

Everything was impeccably well-mannered and balanced. Mr. Callaghan answered questions from the reporters without being remotely drawn on anything concerning the Budget or anything he had not said in the House.

Mr. Heath and Mr. Chambers made their statements to which Mr. Callaghan listened with firmly closed lips since it appeared obvious that they had agreed not to talk to each other but at each other. The new Cardinal’s profile was friendly – almost obituary-like in tone with John Morgan failing to take up the one issue which non-Catholics might have been curious. The Cardinal said it was the Church’s view about contraception he was supporting and not his own. own. [sic] He was merely concerned with the truth.

Harold Wilson and Richard Dimbleby
Harold Wilson is interviewed by Richard Dimbleby on Panorama

He agreed, however, that he would find no difficulty at all in accepting the changed attitude to contraception if the Church decided a different line was valid.

If, then, to-day’s truth can become to-morrow’s lie, how is Cardinal Heenan so convinced that what he supports to-day is the real truth? John Morgan did not ask the question.

Derek Hart’s contribution on Gibraltar, with its efforts to brighten up to discussion with some long-ish sequences of flamenco dancers was, by journalistic terms, a very dated story that should have been scrapped since it had nothing really new to offer.

A typical Panorama week. A dehydrated discussion, a scrappy profile and a tired news story. The programme has been better but, of late, traditional reporting and respectability seems to be clogging its arteries.

This Week, under Jeremy Issacs, has streamlined its format by eliminating the resident compere and being more flexible in the time it gives to any one subject. Lately, indeed, it has tended to devote a whole half-hour to subjects that hardly warrant it.

With James Cameron in the chair, it managed to inject a note of urgency into an analysis of the recent financial dilemma facing the United Nations.

By stopping the story for pressing transatlantic telephone calls to Desmond Wilcox in New York one was given the feeling that Albania’s intransigence was about to smash the United Nations and that we were in an international crisis not far removed from Vietnam.

The programme’s chief weakness is using the same trite techniques – silhouetted, shadowed, masked figures – for probing into taboo sociological problems like homosexuality.

The sight of the crunched face of Magee or Wilcox displaying concern in film reverses (shots taken after the actual interviews) has now become one of the cliches of TV.

World in Action, once Granada’s challenge to This Week, has deteriorated recently in both the artificiality of its anger and the strident, hysterical note of its commentary.

It programme on bronchitis was marred by a sensational lingering on sputum and coughing sufferers as well as a faked-up procession of coffins that jarred, and to some extent nullified, the reality of the problem.

The programme last week on Vietnam was practically all old newsreel clips with a minimal amount of film shot specifically for the programme.

Its best item, seen before – was an evangelical sequence of President Johnson, before he became President, in an unbelievably home-spun and corny frame of mind.

But no one should be allowed to get away with a script that contains lines of such bathos as “This is a civil war… brother set against brother”, or: “This is a battle for the hearts and minds of Vietnam… (the Americans) failed to win friends and influence people.”

Alex Valentine, the producer, should immediately get himself a new scriptwriter or this series will drown itself in its own muck sweat.

All these programmes, exciting and provocative as they sometimes can be, are suffering from an inability to get out of a format rut.

There is no evidence of experimenting with fresh techniques of presentation nor any signs of new thinking about the way in which an old problem can be given a fresh impact.

They all tend, in addition, to see only the ponderous, significant and urgent side of life. It is a long time since any of them gave me a laugh.

Since they profess to be mirroring life surely they must sometimes be tempted to show us what life looks like in a distorting mirror and with its trousers down.

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