"Decline and Fall: Millionaires on T.V."

by NOELL CLAYBOURNE (c/o Gregory Avery)

I recently paid a visit to the sun-burned streets of Los Angeles when I was suddenly attacked by a nebulous virus---there seems to be a lot of them about in the U.S., and not just in the computer wires---and was thus laid low for several days in my Central Park West apartment, while the invaders burnt and charred their course and I was stoked to the gills on medication. I tried reading the new Joyce Carol Oates creation---"Death came flying", "Death came flitting", "Death came fleeting" and on and on---then attempted, and failed, to start the latest piece of tripe by one of our younger, less-than-luminous English writing lights. My hand found itself inexorably creeping towards the remote control. The television flared to life. And I found myself, in my state of malaise, watching what is supposed to be the most popular program on the airwaves.

It came swimming up through the dark, like something Rimbaud would have seen in his last days in Africa. The drama played out on a set which looked like something N.A.S.A. would have built for training astronauts. Other souls could be seen waving in the stacked bleachers, as if roasting in the Inferno. One is chosen and steps forward, sits across from the crepuscular host (who wears clothing that is all of one color and shines, like the page in a high-fashion magazine), and has but one moment to relish his lofty position before everything swings into motion. The lights sweep around, music screeches on the soundtrack like harpies, and a question is posed. "What color was the old grey mare? Was it, a) purple, b) mauve, c) red, or, d) none of the above?"

The contestant squirms and jars his memory. It is like being tortured on the rack. He has an option to call upon help from the audience, call upon help from some other, more exalted place, by telephone, or to have two of the four answers taken away, leaving one of the correct ones....

I do not attempt to pretend that I understood all that was going on. Memories of the spectacle---which appears on American T.V. multiple times per week, like the old "Peyton Place" series with Mia Farrow---come back like jagged shards of glass. There were moments of exultation, as the contestant, the Chosen One, gives correct answers to the rubrics posed to him or her, and inches, tier by tier, up the money scale towards the sacred temporal peak of One Million Dollars. (This has actually been scaled and won, so I am told, by more than one participant.) At other times, people gave an incorrect response, and found their hopes shattered and their selves thrown down into the dust from whence they sprang. A devastating spectacle. And one that I thoroughly enjoyed. What will such-and-such do when they suddenly found that they had gotten too cocky and blown their big chance?

After the inexorable commercial breaks, the host makes small talk with the burgeoning contestant in an effort to throw more light on their origins. Various significant others are mentioned and pointed out, seated advantageously, for the cameras at any rate, in the bleachers behind. There is talk of what they have done. There is talk of what they will do, once they have become filthy rich. Stunning scintillation. Everyone wants to look like they are at their absolute height on television (a phenomenon not exclusive to the western shores of the Atlantic). So it was with perverse delight that I avidly watched the contestants for that moment when they took their misstep and found their dreams come dangling down. Most maintained their cool poise. (Were they instructed and/or coached to do this before the program was recorded?) At least one became invariably peeved, stalking off the set, with its exposed, spidery chrome latticework like a schoolchild being told to go straightway to the headmaster's office to receive punishment for an infraction, although the gutta percha being not the rule in the States, mental and emotional torture must therefore serve in its stead.

But why be gladdened by the spectacle of other's downfall? Does some part of me believe that they do not deserve to be recipients of such wealth? I pondered this question while winging my way back to London, tapping out, on my laptop computer, something about the passing of dear Sir John to be published at the forthcoming Venice festival, where his last film appearance is to be shown. There, amid the upper stratosphere and the limitless clouds, I was reminded of my corrida-like experiences and flirtations with the television medium, which has been, and always will be, a strange and perilous place. Sir John had once told me that you should go into television only if you absolutely needed the money.

(Noell Claybourne has acted, written and directed for the stage and screen over the course of his 60-year career. He has won numerous awards, and has twice been the recipient of the prestigious Booker Prize. He divides his time between his home in London and the U.S.)