This is television nowhere else in the world can match


Milton Shulman takes a biting look at television

Syndicated to newspapers on 9 July 1966


NOW THAT JULY IS HERE the TV critic thinks inevitably of folding his tent and quietly stealing away. The chances are that the next six weeks will offer him only dross and desert.

Traditionally summer is the time of mindless effort on the part of both the BBC and ITV with old films, repeats and seaside pier standards filling the small screen.

It may have been a recognition of this pattern of entertainment that prompted the BBC into turning over an entire three weeks of its peak-time schedule to World Cup football.

On any other ground, it was the most arrogant and indefensible decision ever taken by a public corporation claiming to cater for the wishes and tastes of its viewers.

Having striven valiantly and expensively to attract viewers away from the commercial channel — and finally having achieved some success in this goal — this wanton disregard of audience preferences and this reckless rebuke to their loyalty will, I am sure, be very costly to the BBC in the long run.

But I find I am losing my temper when the object of the column, when I sat down to write, was to spread sweet compliments all round.

Many times

Having said many times in the past that British TV was the best in the world, I realise that I have not provided many illustrations to justify the claim.

But before the summer doldrums take over, I intend to place on record the kind of programmes — routine, unheralded, unpretentious — that could be found on your box over the past fortnight which could not be matched in terms of imagination and style by a fortnight’s output of any TV service anyhere else in the world.

NOT ONLY… BUT ALSO, which brings Dudley Moore and Peter Cook to BBC-1, manages to be as hilarious on second viewing as it when I first saw them on BBC-2.

Such gems as the parody of the Supercar puppet films, the delirious takeoff of that account of Laughton’s I Claudius, their visit to Heaven and Dudley’s grimace at the of ambrosia (“Not that creamed rice!”) blend with rare mastery the elements of wit and irreverence.

Occasionally they miscalculate. The item on the most boring man in the world was a failure because being bored is rarely funny, only dull.

If the BBC want to enter some of those annual festivals with a chance of winning, they should — if the rules permit — assemble the best items in Not Only… But Also, eliminate the interruptions by singing females (these musical moments no longer make any sense when there is no need for interludes in which costumes and sets can be changed), and startle the world with the quality of our best British humour.

The vulgarity of TILL DEATH US DO PART is as refreshing and startling in its comic concept as Steptoe and Son.

Johnny Speight’s scripts have taken over the formula of the crude, noisy, uninhibited working-class farce and injected into them an ironic, social comment that is almost breathtaking in this context.

Taboo words

I cannot recall ever hearing so many taboo words on one programme as I did in the episode dealing with Intolerance with Warren Mitchell and Anthony Booth shrieking ‘Mick! … Coon! … Yid!” at each other with unrepentant gusto.

Yet, in spite of this, the programme was not normally anger and wounding sentiments that would only hilarious, but managed to say something worthwhile about the stupidity and futility of racial prejudice.

For those wanting a unique and satisfying intellectual treat there was Jonathan Miller’s recreation of THE DEATH OF SOCRATES as told by Plato.

The modern setting — a sort of limbo in Edwardian England — came off beautifully although I would have thought that a further liberty might have been taken with the characters’ names. Somehow characters like Simmias and Xanthippe struck a jarring note when dressed to look like something out of Fanny By Gaslight.


But Leo McKern brought a massive dignity and overpowering persuasiveness to the arguments of Socrates while his resignation and the mundane preparations for his execution gave the event a wistful and autumnal climax.

And even that cornucopia in a single fortnight does not exhaust all the other good things I managed to catch. There was Whlcker’s fascinating account of life in Kuwait, Tony Hancock bringing a fresh, destructive quality to the role of a compere in such a commonplace programme as THE BLACKPOOL SHOW, and a first-class episode of SOFTLY, SOFTLY dealing with the possible bribery of a juryman.

If one adds to this list such regular stalwarts as TWENTY-FOUR HOURS, PANORAMA, THIS WEEK, LATE NIGHT LINE-UP and, of course, full coverage of Wimbledon and the Test match, can any intelligent viewer claim that he is being neglected by TV.

In his handling of the incomes policy, Vietnam and Rhodesia, Mr. Harold Wilson has recently shown that he has plenty of courage. Surely he can summon up the extra courage needed to increase the licence fee to £6 so that Britain can continue to lead the world in this one field of endeavour.

Will the new Postmaster-General, Edward Short, have the persuasive power that Mr. Benn so obviously lacked?

Milton Shulman

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