CERTAIN television program urns are, in their different medium, the equivalent of the non-fiction book. They are an author tackling a well-defined subject. It might be Desmond Morris tackling man seen as a naked ape; it was James Cameron tackling the ethics of the moonshot and Malcolm Muggeridge tackling the influence of Mahatma Gandhi.
Mr. Morris needs his hundreds of pages and Mr. Cameron and Mr. Muggeridge are allotted their bare hour each. But nevertheless the subjects the latter take on are book-strong subjects and thanks to the ability of television to tell us three or four things at the same time through the words, through the picture seen, through the juxtaposition of one picture and another, through the background sounds and sometimes through music they get book-strong treatment.
This is not to say that a onehour television programme can outdo a 300-page book. Of course much light and shade is lost. But on the other hand the simplified form stands out whereas the subtly shaded, deftly lighted, painstaking study may leave nothing very distinguishable to grasp in the end. And, above all, the television programme is seen, by its millions (seldom fewer than three million actual viewers for any reasonably peak-time programme).
So some millions will have asked themselves, if only cursorily, last Saturday what is the point of all the enormous expenditure at Houston, Texas. and elsewhere just to put a mark on the Moon. James Cameron's programme was entitled Nobody Ever Asks Why and he made in it great play with the pertinence of this query.
But, of course. people have often asked why and the replies Mr. Cameron got were plainly answers long ago evolved in response to just this question. In fact the two aptly named Space Centre top man, Christopher Columbas Craft, put a good case for moon-shooting on the grounds that you must always strive for the hardest thing and you will find incalculable benefits follow.
It is certainly a powerful argument, though perhaps open to a certain amount of dialing. Mr. Cameron was content simply to pass on. Equally, having obtained from an attractively articulate Houston student a sharp comment on the public relations value of prayers from outer space in getting funds for the project, he failed entirely to test the virtue of such conclusions with a few unrelenting questions.
Instead he contented himself with easy jibes like saying of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: "Where else but in Texas would man set up to administer space?" And indeed this was almost all we got, easy jokes and cold phrase-making.
Worse even, Mr. Cameron showed himself to be at the mercy of his own phrases. He thinks up something nice, like looking at some of the more complex machines at Houston and asking whether we were hearing "the first eerie crackling cries for Computer Power" and then he allows this to trick him into believing that boxes into which men feed questions can actually become real creatures, as in the worst science fiction.
In Malcolm Muggeridge's Quest for Gandhi, when one of the students being interviewed produced a pretty glib explanation for Gandhi's theories on sex, Mr. Muggeridge was quick to pounce down and say bluntly: "That's the first cheap thing we've heard." It was. too. What a contrast with the Cameron approach.
This little incident gives us a key as well to the extraordinary effectiveness of Mr. Muggeridge's television-books. He approaches all that comes before him with his whole per sonality. Thus he does not pretend in talking to students to be an opinionless recording angel. Instead he is himself, and if he hears a cheap comment he reacts.
It was this complete eschewing of any talking-down, or what is worse failing to talk at all when something ought to be said, that brought the whole programme into the arena of the real. The quality came out again and again, whether Mr. Muggeridge was putting hard questions to a clutch of Congresswallahs or whether he was taking part with happy cheerfulness in joke-swapping with illiterate villagers.
Certainly Mr. Muggeridge is a phrase-maker too ("Next to showing Jesus Christ round the Vatican, I should like to show Gandhi round his ashram.") But his phrases are always in the service of his argument. They come as a clinching seal, not as an airy-fairy starting-off point.
And indeed the phrase 1 have quoted neatly sums up Mr. Muggeridge's attitude to the phenomenon of Gandhi. He saw him as a great man whose inevitable lot it was to have all that he had striven for progressively neglected. It is a considered and grave point-ofview. It would make a theme for a hook.
It is perhaps open to challenge, based perhaps on the theory that it is the tiny hard granules of belief that the philosopher-figures leave behind them, scattered like Gandhi's ashes to the limitless oceans, that are their real and effective heritage. But this case would have to be made with as much unyielding respect for truth as Mr. Muggeridge employs himself.
And it is this, ultimately, that makes his programmes so calmly and classically watchable. From the responsive honesty of the inquirer comes the patina of authority that eventually invests every part of the complex object that is a television documentary.