Was it right for the BBC to show all this brutality in the bullring?


Critic Milton Shulman takes a look at the Matador programme

Syndicated to newspapers on 6 August 1966

THE BBC were perfectly right in showing “Matador”, their astonishingly frank and brutal account of bullfighting in Spain.

As a piece of technical film-making, I was not particularly impressed with it. I thought much more might have been done to capture the actual balletic and poetic quality of a matador in action.

It is quite true that El Cordobes, a beatnik toreador with a face blending the arrogance of Nureyev and the contempt Brando, seems to prefer a brawl in the sand rather than an elegant pas de deux.

But if to the initiated his cape-work is ungraceful and his killing is clumsy, it was even more necessary to balance the brutality of the occasion with some evidence of its aesthetic appeal. If El Cordobes himself could not provide it then there were other matadors who obviously could.

The aura surrounding El Cordobes himself was, also, I thought, much too sycophantic and uncritical. Alan Whicker’s commentary too often quivered with the kind of images beloved by aficionados who tend to identify bullfights with passion plays.

His domestic life was handled in a perfunctory manner and no attempt was made to probe the inner motives of this young man who started life as a layabout and could now earn £6,000 [£93,000 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed] in an afternoon.

A shock

It came as a shock to me that he was almost illiterate. If he could barely read, who, then, was handling his millions? Who were his advisers and what sort of entourage did he have? How much of his success was due to shrewd publicity exploitation and how much to his skill as a torero?

But if the programme failed in telling us much about El Cordobes, it certainly revealed to the uninitiated why so many condemn the sport as “an obscene spectacle.”

The camera never turned away at the moment of truth. There were the bulls, blades vibrating in their flanks, kneeling in almost pathetic supplication for their end.

And as they collapsed beneath the final, imperious blow, the crowd roared its appreciation of this ultimate identification with death.

We saw, too, bulls dripping blood from their mouths, horses being gored, and the final humiliation of the noble animal as its carcase was dragged off in the dust to the limbo of the abattoir.

For me producer Kevin Billington’s shrewdest stroke was in not stopping there. We followed the bull to its destined end. The body was dismembered gutted and disembowelled by butchers ankle deep in blood before an audience composed chiefly of grinning, laughing children. And it was this sight that, for me at least, put the whole thing in its proper perspective. That was the fate man had decreed for all bulls and cows. In Cheltenham as well as Madrid.

Could I really complain about the fate of this particular bull when I looked forward to a good entrecote or fillet when I sat down to a meal? And should I be more sickened for contemplating the sight of potential steaks in the abattoir of a bull-ring than in the more respectable environs of my local butcher shop?

Ah, it will be argued, but British steaks do not come from the torturing of bulls! Not having the bull’s own word for it, I would think it would need some really metaphysical arguing to prove that an animal’s death in the heat, excitement and passion of a fight against an adversary was worse in terms of pain and experience than being cold-bloodedly shuffled in a mooing queue to the indignity of a pole-axe or some other form of convenient extermination.


Does it then degrade the spectator or the participant? Will any fisherman, playing with a difficult trout or salmon for minutes on end tell me that he is ever conscious of the pain suffered by the fish as it struggles to free itself from the implacable hook ripping at its jaw?

What about the grouse or the partridge that has been brought back by the retriever with its eyes still blinking to prove that it is still pathetically alive?

Or the housewife, with a respect for good food, who knows that lobsters taste better if they are flung into boiling water still alive? Or the delicious pate de foie gras that comes from the unthinkable torture inflicted on geese?

It may be argued that while these things are true, there is no need for revealing the details of our cruelty in television. We should not, for example, produce a documentary showing in vivid close-ups the agony of a doomed fish or a bird or a fox or a stag, all of which give as much pleasure to Englishmen as the death of a bull gives to Spaniards.


Either we feel it is perfectly moral and right for us to shoot game and eat meat. If so, why should we not face up to the consequences our pleasures and appetites inflict on other creatures?

Or, alternatively, it is immoral for us to satisfy ourselves at the expense of other creatures. If this is so, we should not make documentary programmes about bullfighting or salmon salmon fishing. But at the same time, we should all become vegetarians, ban blood sports, stop carrying crocodile handbags, and give up fur coats.

I am sure if we did all that, there would immediately spring up a society for the prevention of cruelty to carrots and cauliflowers.

Although there is no doubt about the shocking and sickening elements of some bits of “Matador,” I have been assured by the BBC that the volume of response from outraged and disgusted viewers has been far less than they had anticipated.


Indeed, it may be that the BBC have hit upon an ideal method of deflecting criticism from their more controversial programmes.

The technique would seem to be to announce in advance that the hierarchy in Broadcasting House has been going through some profound heart-searching about the desirability of showing some particular programme.

At the very mention of the topic concerned – bullfighting, nuclear war, dope addiction, abortion, birth control – the pressure groups will be put baying down telephones with their protests or thrashing the air with furious threats of unspeakable retaliations.

But since no one will have seen the programme, the fury and anger will be lashing itself against an invisible and futile target.

When this emotional cascade has finally spent itself, the BBC then releases its programme in the trough of the resultant calm. Everyone is by now too fed up with the arguments they have already heard, or exhausted by their previous efforts to start the whole thing all over again so soon after its earlier outburst.

Since, in any case, the social consequences of a single programme on the BBC about anything at all will never remotely live up to the dire predictions of virulent partisans, the affair will pass off relatively quietly with the pressure groups pleased they aired their views, the BBC satisfied that it performed its public service duty, and the vast majority of viewers satisfied that they have caught a glimpse of life and experience that might otherwise have been denied them.

War game

I am sure that by this logic, the BBC could now safely show The War Game with hardly a tremor of reaction from those who had opposed its showing before.

It has already been widely seen in cinemas. It has just won a major award at an important TV festival. It would need far less courage on the BBC’s part to transmit The War Game now than it did to decide to devote three solid weeks to World Cup football. And they might be just as pleasantly surprised and gratified by its reception.



That Adamant business

THE PRODUCERS of Adamant on BBC television thought this was an opportunity for some satirical send-ups of modern life.

Not only was Adamant to be shocked by such devilish aspects of contemporary living as advertising executives, the escalators in the Underground and miniskirts, but his old-fashioned skill with his fists, his walking stick sword and his baleful eye would triumph over guns and hypnotic carnations.

The strain of trying to fit an Edwardian Dr. Who into the with-in world of Soho and Piccadilly has rapidly exhausted the imagination of its scriptwriters.

The dialogue has had to reach the subterranean levels of this exchange. “I suppose you wanted to see Mickey Mouse,” asks someone ironically of Adamant. “Oh, is he your managing director?” replies our hero.

A recent episode concerned Adamant’s adventures in the brain washing world of advertising, and it was like watching an episode of The Avengers with Diana Rigg’s hands tied behind her back.

His victories are not only improbable but incredible. The Sherlock Holmes fighting stance and the unsmiling self-righteousness of Gerald Harper has already begun to bore. And the mixture of kiddeywink frolics and camp (in the self-derisory sense) TV is indigestible.


Adamant often reveals slipshod production values.

Particularly irritating are the street sequences where the chases are often accompanied by the sight of gawking bystanders obviously watching the filming and not excluded from the scenes because the director presumably couldn’t get them out of the way.

It is far too long – it would have its problems sustaining a half-hour show let alone an hour. It is slotted at an hour which indicates a pious hope that it might attract adult viewers rather than little ones. And, with the exception of Gerald Harper, the cast displays an uncertainty of purpose only matched by the dialogue.

Adam Adamant will no doubt soon be returning to the block of ice from which he came.

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