Complete Head-Bangers

Do you remember The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?

BBC 1 (I think), 8 pm Thursdays, after Top of the Pops.  Now then now then, guys an’ gals…  ‘Nuff said.  It was a one hour slot, in four “Acts”, presumably to accommodate the commercials in the US.

U.N.C.L.E. was the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement and its man was Napoleon Solo, played by Robert Vaughn.  Napoleon Solo – what a fantastic name!  I have a notion Ian Fleming coined it.  Solo had a colleague, a Russian named Illya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum.  McCallum is still with us and so far as I can see has changed very little.  He is Scottish but Illya’s speech had a flat, almost Asiatic quality difficult to place.  David McCallum’s father was a distinguished violinist, leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham.  The LPO once provided the music for a movie in which Stewart Granger played Paganini.  Yehudi Menuhin provided the soundtrack and even auditioned for the part, an experience that he said he “didn’t disenjoy”.  For one particular scene, David McCallum senior lent his Strad to Granger.  Granger botched the scene and in a fit of temper smashed McCallum’s Strad to smithereens. McCallum, understandably, blanched.  Actually the whole thing was a gag.  Granger had substituted a cheap fiddle for the Strad.  If there is one thing I can’t stand, it’s a practical joker.

Solo and Kuryakin’s mentor was an Englishman named Alexander Waverly who week by week would set them a task to avert international anarchy and collapse.  He had a slurred delivery and a puzzled, bordering on demented, air.  “Gentlemen, time is of the utmost!”  Utmost what?

Vaughn played Solo’s role, I think, at an ironic remove, and largely for laughs.  Solo was irresistible to women.  As another woman succumbed, Illya remarked, with evident irritation, “Napoleon, can’t you ever turn it off?”  If Solo wished to communicate with Waverly he would talk to his cuff link:  “Open Channel D!”  U.N.C.L.E.  had a Nemesis with an absurd name:  Thrush.

McCallum and Vaughn made their names in the two great testosterone-fuelled movies of the 60s – The Magnificent Seven, and The Great Escape.  In The Magnificent Seven Vaughn played an ageing gunslinger who is losing his edge and, with it, his nerve.  He takes on a job, a forlorn task, at the behest of Yul Brynner, not for any high minded motive but because he’s barely surviving on a diet of beans, and needs employment.  (As a kid I remember thinking, that’s not so bad.  Pies and beans – my signature dish.)

In The Great Escape, McCallum played a naval officer (Fleet Air Arm?) incarcerated in Stalag Luft III, and struggling to get out.  The escapees are building three tunnels, Tom, Dick, and Harry.  There is a problem – where do you put all the dirt you have excavated from the burgeoning tunnels?  McCallum’s character comes up with the answer, and he presents it to Richard Attenborough’s Big X.  You conceal bags of dirt under your trousers and release them into Stalag Luft III’s compound when nobody is looking.  (Based on fact, at least according to the Paul Brickhill account.)

Well I don’t know about that.  If I had been a dragon on Dragon’s Den and somebody had brought such a proposal to me, I would have ridiculed it as preposterous.

“Let me get this straight.  You take the soil and put it into bags concealed under your trousers?”


“Then you wander around the compound and when nobody’s looking, you pull a cord and the soil comes down over your shoes and you kick it into the dirt?”

“That’s it.”

“I’m out!”

But where is this walk down Amnesia Lane taking me?   Nowhere at all.  I’m just diverting myself, in an attempt to obliterate the memory of the first question on Friday evening on Radio 4’s Any Questions?

The programme came from St Mary’s Church in Chesham, Buckinghamshire.  Julian Worricker was in the chair and the panellists were Andrew Bowie, Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti the Shadow Attorney-General, Dr Sarah Wollaston, formerly Conservative and now Liberal Democrat MP for Totnes, and Peter Hitchens, “Fulminator-in-Chief” (according to the chair) for the Mail on Sunday.

The first question was posed by one Sebastian Heath.  What do the panellists consider to be the likeliest outcome of a No Deal Brexit, and upon what evidence do they base their view?

Sarah Wollaston thought No Deal was going to be Apocalyptic.  So did Shami Chakrabarti, who had to take a moment to calm down even before she’d started.  Even Peter Hitchens, a secessionist, thought the leaked Yellowhammer document an underestimate of the impending devastation.  He wants compromise, and favours the Norway option.  Andrew Bowie, being in the unenviable position of having to support the government, dodged the question completely.  Of course Yellowhammer is a worst-case scenario.  And we are striving for a deal… but it is only right and proper… responsible government… bla bla bla.  It was absolutely pitiful.  There was an echo of derisive laughter from the audience.  I found myself yelling at the radio:  Answer the bloody question!

I did admire Julian Worricker’s chairmanship. He didn’t interrupt, although he did gently try to remind the panellists of what the question was.  There is mileage in letting a panellist spout humbug.  The audience is perfectly capable of detecting it, unaided.  I would have liked him to return to the questioner, Mr Heath, and ask him if he was satisfied with the answers he had heard.  I venture to think he would not have been impressed.

At school, our teachers taught us how to sit exams.  Read the question.  Answer the question as it is given, not as you would have it be.  Aeons ago, when I sat at the feet of Dr Hobsbaum at Glasgow University he would hurl work back at me and say, “It’s all assertion with no back-up, Campbell.  Were you drunk?”

Shami Chakrabarti said to Andrew Bowie, “I met you before the show.  You seem a nice guy, but some of these people in No 10 are complete head-bangers.”

Maybe.  But why?

All assertion and no back-up.  I switched off.  Think I’ll go back to watching repeats of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.            

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