I watched the 2014 documentary about Gerry and Sylvia Anderson “Filmed In Supermarionation” the other day. It was really entertaining. Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray and Thunderbirds were part of my childhood, although I lost interest somewhere around the first broadcast of Joe 90.
My favourite part of the documentary was when Gerry Anderson’s son claimed that his father had always said the puppets were “little bastards” and that he hated working with them. Indeed, this trailer starts with Mr Anderson saying that he almost vomited on the floor when it was first suggested that he should make a television series with puppets. He constantly tried to move into making live action films with human actors. When he finally succeeding in doing so, the programmes had none of the charm of the puppet series, and the company’s fortunes went into decline.
One series, The Secret Service, was made in the late 1960s during the transition from puppets to people. It was eye-wateringly awful. It featured Stanley Unwin as a secret agent working undercover as a vicar who got out of tricky situations by speaking gobbledegook (this was Stanley Unwin’s whole schtick. He spoke goobledegook with great fluency). It alternated close up puppetry with more distant action shots of human actors.
The meaning is clear. Some of the best-loved children’s programmes of all time were the result of an accident. Although puppetry created the necessary suspension of critical faculties so that viewers could enjoy the primitive special effects, the results embarrassed the programmes’ creator. He did not understand what was good about his own product.
This kind of thing is common in music. For example, Bruce Springsteen is, in my opinion, a really fine songwriter, but he has done his best to keep it secret throughout a career where bombast has been the defining feature. His best album was Nebraska, a bleak and understated LP featuring unadorned acoustic versions of finely crafted songs concerning ordinary American lives, such as Johnny 99. The album was his masterpiece, but he has never released anything remotely similar.
Almost every vernacular musician who has ever gigged has had the experience of feeling that the band would be great if an irritatingly sub-standard member was eliminated, only to find that the band is never the same after they have gone. Far from being a passenger, the source of irritation turns out to have been the carrier of the band’s creative spark.
The failure to understand what is good about a good idea is a common failing of senior politicians. It probably arises from prioritising ambition over the need to understand things properly. Jeremy Hunt is rather prone to it (it is probably a co-incidence that he sometimes avoids eye contact in a fashion that makes him resemble the puppets in Thunderbirds, as can be seen in this BBC interview).
Over some years, the medical profession drove progress to upgrade out of hours cover in hospitals, to improve the senior medical presence and to understand patterns of hospital mortality. Mr Hunt managed to take a good idea and turn it into a terrible one. He contrived a completely unnecessary and pointless dispute with the junior doctors over seven-day working, based on an almost wilful failure to understand either the hospital mortality data or the likely consequences of his plans. Public sympathy for the junior doctors was strong, and the dispute might have been his undoing, had the BMA not snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at the last moment. Mr Hunt persists in promoting muddled responses to complex problems. This undermines any possibility of resolving important issues and often worsens everything through his insistence that major new activities require no extra resources. Unfunded initiatives are one factor contributing to the unprecedented crisis over NHS resources.
Mr Hunt’s party leader shows the exact converse pattern. Zeal does not improve a bad idea. She has taken a very bad idea (Brexit) that she campaigned against, and is trying to curry favour with the electorate by implementing it the most damaging way possible. She appears to fail to understand what is bad about something that she acknowledged was a bad idea a year ago. Insincerity and the volte-face are part of the basic political tool kit, but Enlightenment values are truly dead when politicians deliberately render themselves functionally unintelligent.
Some believe that muddled or incoherent policies have covert objectives, such as the destruction of the NHS and the creation of a dystopian unregulated UK with no workers rights and no welfare state. I do not. I see a weak Government following the line of least resistance with no attachment to any political principle other than the retention of power. There is no avoiding Brexit, but the so-called “hard” version (hard for whom?), with no access to the single market, repeal of the Human Rights Act and zero immigration are likely to be as successful as Tracy Island with no puppets.
This Government should be easy pickings for the Opposition. Unfortunately the Parliamentary Labour Party is pre-occupied with replacing Jeremy Corbyn, who may well turn out to be just like that dodgy guitar player; irritating but hard to replace without destroying everything. In the background, Ken Livingstone is demonstrating that he does not understand what was good about himself in the first place. Pedantry is no defence when you are being offensive. He is offering a lesson that Mr Corbyn should heed: left wing politicians throw charm, tact and political nous out of the band at their peril.
Truly, sometimes bad is bad.