If a choral group of 14 guys sounds mighty fine, then a chorus of 300 is a lot better and you really bang into glory if you can get several thousand and hook up two or three continents at once through the magic of television. The whole damn world can bleat together.
It didn't surprise anybody, I hope, that Channel 26 canceled its well-promoted "Christmas at Kings" show in favor of a three-way satellite linking Bahrain, Britain and Germany for an hour of carols dropped like bombs.
Television in general decides at Christmas that the troops in Arabia are there very much as the Virgin was in Bethlehem -- to fulfill divine will as announced by the archangel Gabriel or his current viceroy upon earth. It follows, therefore, that a music program of loved ones in Britain and their soldiers in the gulf, all electronically brought together by television, is a smash holiday offering.
But it is far otherwise. The show was a mess, bearing a yoke of hokiness, but there's nothing wrong with that. The same could be said of a great many Channel 26 shows.
What was bad was the cancellation of the modest (now there's your problem) and superb (now there's your problem) choristers of King's College, Cambridge. The group is made up of 14 men and 16 boys. If your TV machine could get Channel 22, you could hear them there, but not many in Washington can receive that Maryland station.
If you consult the holiday schedule of Channel 26 you see hours in which the King's music could have been broadcast even if its original hour was taken away in favor of general uproar.
It goes without saying I sympathize with the station, which like all mass media is much concerned with counting beans. They are never going to get over their 30 share from their Civil War series. They will not again see such public success until they come up with a 10-parter on "The Romance of People Magazine."
You have only to endure their frequent money-begging weeks to comprehend how keenly they wish to be a truly public station, reaching out to all. This leads to satisfying the needs and desires of that public, so that soon a good bit of the programming is indistinguishable from that of commercial television, except that it is less polished.
And yet Channel 26 has always held to a few things like "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" and the Metropolitan Opera once every blue moon, to show it has superior taste. Only Congress in this capital can rival Channel 26 in the constancy with which it praises itself as a savior.
The King's choir has done its bit to avoid pretentiousness. They did not trot off to Westminster Abbey or Gloucester or Ely or Durham or Canterbury, those overwhelming churches, to do their program but remained modestly in their own college chapel. It is pretty, even quite beautiful in a Tudor sort of excess, but it is modest enough in comparison with greater buildings. Still, their chapel is their chapel and they wisely contented themselves with it.
They also avoided flashy processions with banners and torches and religious symbols. The readings included such modest masterpieces as Mrs. Cratchit fussing about her Christmas pudding -- was there too much flour in it? -- and such relatively low-voltage poetry as that of Auden. I thought that was enough reaching out for one hour.
But they could not conceal the fact that they sing carols better than any other group on any television outlet in America. There's your problem right there; any mass medium gets nervous if singers are so obviously superior to the rest of the holiday crowd.
The King's choristers do not have fabulously fine voices but routinely nice ones. They do not sing music of astounding majesty, just sweet old carols. The trouble is the polish with which they do it. The director has begun with competent performers and then has rehearsed them till they drop. He has listened with intense care. The bass here is a shade heavy, the treble here is a shade sentimental, the phrasing here is just the least bit too self-conscious and vulgar. Stop it. So they try again till they get it right. Same way you train saints or dogs.
But it's weary drudgery. Heel, blast you, heel. In time it works.
You wind up with a Christmas choir to end all Christmas choirs. Never were lambs herded better; never were hounds more faithfully in tune.
Public television knows how good their program is and rightly offers it as a highlight of Christmas programming.
Unless, of course, it has the miraculous chance to present in its place 10,000 cows a-bellowing, in full cry from Scotland on the first day of Christmas in the morning.