Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Remake, Remodel - Random Ramblings on Repetition

The admirable Michael Henderson's sports comment in today's Guardian repeated an assertion made by Richard Williams that great sporting moments should be preserved in the memory, and not revisited on TV tape-loops.

Hmmm...Would Proust have revisited that madeleine of his pre-manhood? And if so, how often? If not at all, why? He took a few million words working it out and we're none the wiser. Those with incipient Alzheimer's also might disagree that to consign memories to memory is unwise.

As a writer obsessed with nostalgia and the past these thoughts do well up. Would I revisit? Aside of the physical and temporal impossibility of so doing, I suppose I can't help thinking I would. On February 16 1995 I sat holding the hand of my then-sweetheart in Tours, France, listening in her darkened room to music by one of my favourite composers, the Austrian Franz Schreker (1878-1934), a master of evoking sensuality and nostalgia. I'd have that again... would I?

Does this represent insecurity and a complete lack of a life? Probably.

One Sunday morning in 1985 I was awoken by 15 repetitions of perhaps Madonna's most moronic single (quite an impressive boast), Into The Groove, by the adolescent girl next door. I admit I once played Gloria Gaynor's Never Can Say Goodbye 12 times in a row, but being socially respectable and a complete wuss, most of those were in cans.

I am constantly repeating musical phrases and pieces, which, given the absence of any kind of love life and reticence in the drug market, does the right chemical things. There are items - the 26-minute finale of Mahler's Symphony No 3, for example, or the interior of Chartres Cathedral - which simply can't bear immediate repetition, for reasons of emotional exhaustion. If I have had the right cocktail of endorphin and alcohol and serotonin, I can play back the last two movements of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto over and over again. But on a more realistic level, why not listen to it night after night? Of course music plays a role in Proust, as much of a leitmotif in itself as actual musical phrases are in Wagner. Of course Reich, Reilly and Glass's minimalism recognises this desire to replicate past desires.

I would go back to a gallery, were there time, and stare again and again at any work by Friedrich, Bosch, the Breughels, Turner, Monet, Klimt, Nash, Crumb. I can constantly re-read all manner of literature (not a boast) - Hergé, Posy Simmonds, Hardy's widower poetry, any syllable ever committed to paper by Rainer Maria Rilke, Virgil's Georgics, Peter Handke's mid-period, Viz comic circa 1990 (with the summit of the magazine's achievement, 'Balsa Boy'), early Martin Amis, the Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh, The Wind in the Willows, Tove Jansson's Moomin books. Over and over and over and over and over again. But do well-turned artistic efforts become reduced to sense-data as comfort food? Discuss. I think Herr Adorno would have something to say about it.

Henderson argued that to repeat a spectacular sporting moment would be like interrupting the closing adagio of Mahler's Ninth to ask for a repetition of a certain phrase. Great line, but the logic feels slightly wobbly; the pleasures in witnessing a perfect Michel Platini pass, or Shane Warne's 'Ball of the Century' were dependent on their immediate environment; that the Mahler is, in itself, a great work less subject to immediacy is less questionable, although Henderson seems to be arguing (not invalidly) of a Furtwänglerian/Cartesian conception of music, and of all received experience of any performance, insofar that its dasein, it lives only in the moment of performance, at the hands of its performers, as does (did) a Colin Cowdrey off-drive or an Eric Morecambe shrug. In writing these words I have listened thrice over to a thunderous recording of Genesis playing "Eleventh Earl of Mar" from a 1977 bootleg with an almost punky energy (honest - I nearly pogoed). I would love to play it again and again. I would love to feel once again my then-girlfriend's hand in mine back in 1995, but it can never be replicated. Any moment of magic that at least relives magic through whatever medium should be treasured.

Comparing spontaneous circumstantial sporting inspiration, as Mr Henderson does, to a request for a Giulini or Solti (problematic, as they're both dead) to repeat a certain phrase of Mahler 9 is a bit disingenuous. But I bet Mr Henderson plays his favourite recordings of the work many times over, though. I will certainly play my CDs of the Mahler symphonies as often as I guiltily review the reified sights and sounds of great football and cricket, the great insights of great thinkers, and some great Finbarr Saunders cartoons.

Kierkegaard's aphorism about understanding life backwards is now a T-shirt cliché- but it can still provoke enough argument to inspire one to imagine that he may have hit a raw nerve.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007



BBC2, 21.01.07

Television on Sunday was a bonanza for lovers of the extravagantly beautiful. Now there's something rarely said about terrestrial TV, but it was (mostly) true. Musical, artistic, physical, the lot. It also exposed the dialectic of philistinism and integrity fighting for the soul of arts coverage on the box. Over the next month the BBC goes Tchaikovsky-bonkers, splurging the Russian's music on radio and telly in a mulrimedia spesh called The Tchaikovsky Experience. Given classical music's negligible profile on TV, the results will make intriguing viewing.

First up, on Sunday, was The Magic of Swan Lake, prefiguring a performance of the ballet itself. So far so populist, one might say; Pierre Boulez famously said of Tchaik that his 'whole output' was 'abominable'. Tchaikovsky's soaring melodies are the very essence of emotional manipulation, that mainstay of mainstream modern TV. Swan Lake is a camp, cringingly sub-Grimm melodrama of doomed love, played with more archness than anyone can measure. But The Magic of Swan Lake was, despite the hideous title, a slow-burning belter; it may have included as a pundit Katharine Holabird, the authoress of the sweet but slight Angelina Ballerina series of children's books, but it also featured eminent conductor Valery Gergiev, the Guardian's stern dance critic Judith Mackrell and didn't shy from lots of foreign words (fouettés, jetées and the whole balletomane's French argot) or the Nordic origins of the mythology of the swan in European literature. Gergiev talked about the remote key of F sharp. The chief choreographers of what we now know as Swan Lake, Petipa and Ivanov, were namechecked. There was also some superb archive footage of Michael Somes and Margot Fonteyn dancing the lead roles of Siegfried and Odette/Odile in 1954. I.e., the sort of didactic television that turned people on to serious music, dance etc and which one felt, with The Magic of Swan Lake, was being re-enacted here.

Fonteyn's hips were much broader than her contemporary photographs suggest, but she was still outlandishly desirable; almost as much as the contrastingly slender Darcey Bussell, who, apart from being so beautiful that she must hail from a planet a fair way beyond Betelgeuse, made a surprisingly self-effacing job of presenting. Her giggly flub while rehearsing the famous 32 fouetté turns in Act 3 made for endearing TV even if the little aspirant-Darceys around her at the White Lodge in Richmond, the Royal Ballet's academy, looked disturbingly as if they all needed a good meal or eleven inside them..

As attested by a recent Fonteyn biography, ballet has always had an immensely sexual element, and anyone who says they aren't watching it for arousal at all are liars, which brings us to Swan Lake itself. Certainly the indecently pert-bottomed Ulyana Lopatkina, the Odette/Odile of the Mariinsky production of Swan Lake that followed Bussell's programme, had legs as long as the Trans-Siberian Railway. This didn't distract (much) from the astounding athleticism of Ilya Kuznetsov as the ballet's uber-baddie Rothbart, a role so overtly gay that even Freddie Mercury might have found it vulgar, but it was hard to think of anything but Ms Lopatkina's pins long after the final curtain. Fonteyn, Darcey and now this. Oo-er.

Sadly, the transmission of the Mariinsky production looked hacked-about. There was a pervasive sense that the music had been recorded quite apart from the dance. Swan Lake, like most ballets, has been attenuated, extended and generally mucked around with since its 1877 premiere. The big tunes were all present and correct; but this seemed a cop-out, cheap, after the fine work that had preceded it. Swan Lake, even in edited form, usually lasts at least two hours, not 88 minutes. One knew that the producers had fought for even this much to be preserved.

The conductor Leopold Stokowski, brilliant as he was, notoriously cut long or difficult works to pander to his conservative mid-Western American audiences and US broadcasters, and this had the same feel. A masterpiece remains a masterpiece; but when it's been adulterated, as here, there's a sour taste in the mouth.

Nonetheless, these two programmes were two hours that struck a blow, be it ever so feeble, for high culture in TV; one awaits the rest of the Tchaikovsky Experience with interest. Will the BBC show the incandescent performance of the Fourth Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti at the RFH in 1985? Will they raid the archive for performances by the likes of pianist Sviatoslav Richter or conductor Evgeny Mravinsky? Will they apply to French, Czech, Russian, German broadcasters for footage of great performers? Don't bet on it, but you never know.

They could always try, and, given the quality of The Magic of Swan Lake, they may just try. Usually broadcasters are surprised when they get sackloads of mail from people praising them for putting on high, or even middlebrow culture. The mantra that nobody listens to classical music is a self-fulfilling prophecy fulfilled largely by telly. There has been a fair bit of ink spilled on classical's decline in audience share in all media, but this entirely matches its marginalisation by TV almost everywhere, but particularly in the UK, the most congenitally unmusical of all nations.

As recently as 1984, the BBC showed an excellent series of near-academic essays on symphonic form, presented by the onetime face of classical, Andre Previn - ironically, Tchaikovsky's Sixth was among the works programmed. Howard Goodall's 1997 series on the history of the organ (Channel 4) was spectacularly incongruous. Audiences for both were suurprisingly healthy. Goodall still gets the odd commission, and good for him.

There is a valid argument that TV doesn't - can't - do classical well. How many angles can you shoot a bassoonist from (or as the old joke goes, you can shoot a viola player from as many angles as you want)...? But as anyone who has been to gigs of any kind will assent, it doesn't do rock that well either. The Jam and Joy Division on Something Else in 1979 were two of the most compelling rock performances I have ever heard or seen, but then again nobody who ever saw John Ogdon playing the joanna on the TV is likely to forget it. Even so, in every case, something actual and immediate is lacking. Cliché it may be, but there is really nothing like being there - no matter what the genre of music.

Magnificence of execution is partly the rub when it comes to music, when it comes to any artistic endeavour, on the telly - TV no longer wants excellence. It wants inclusivity; it has become a medium obsessed with Blairite buzzwords and marketing mantras. It assumes that if people see and/or hear something that makes them think 'I could never do that', like, say, Gil Shaham playing the Bartok First Violin Concerto, they aren't going to bother trying. Hence European classical music, with its 700 years of history and almost inconceivable technical and emotional range is, like, well outside the pale.

This approach, of course, doesn't quite square with the influence that concert-hall exposure to so many great conductors had on the young barrow-boy John Barbirolli, or countless stories like his. Toscanini's NBC broadcasts in America are still legendary. The young composer Roxanna Panufnik once said of seeing the violinist Ida Haendel on the telly; 'I said to my mum - I was four - "I want a box like that and a stick to make it sing"'. This was because of inspirational TV at its best. Ken Russell's dramatised Elgar and Delius shows remain two of the finest TV programmes ever made anywhere, even if you excise the sublime music. Brian Large's presentation of Patrice Chéreau's unsurpassable 'centenary' 1976 production of Wagner's Ring cycle, shown on BBC2 in soap form with one act every Sunday night in autumn 1982 was, and remains, some of the most emotionally captivating TV the present writer has ever seen. It was modernist, audacious, gorgeous. No broadcaster would touch it today. I'll never sing at Bayreuth or conduct those glorious operas, but I don't give a shit, quite frankly - my life has been massively richer for having seen that Ring and I want to do something for, or to, music. TV is giving fewer and fewer people the chance to feel that.

The audience is out there, and they're not all grey-beards. Hilary and Jackie, about the life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pré, did OK business at the box office (the sex probably helped). No fewer people watched the Christmas Day concerts from Amsterdam's Concertgebouw than watch the pallid and vapid substitutes of today. Everyone expected a Christmas ballet, even if it was The Nutcracker. Again.

It's sad to say, but, sex counts. Every lover of art music knows this and only in the last 30 or so years have they begun to admit it. It's quite wrong that looks predominate over musical or artistic talent, but they play a part which TV plays up, sometimes shamelessly and usually for the Japanese market. Despite her undoubted talent, there is little doubt that violinist Nicola Benedetti won the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year award because her face and figure would, in Woody Allen's memorable phrase, 'induce lycanthropy in a boy scout' - and get people tuning in. We now await classical's next male pretty boy. And yet... and yet... people will be inspired, not only to reach for a box of Kleenex, but for a violin bow. This must be important, for music, and for TV.

It is not ideal, though, and The Magic of Swan Lake - sorry, but I hate that title - seemed to be grasping back in time for this lost world, and the fact that it at least touched it is to be celebrated. Tchaik may be as populist as modern TV, but if this is the way the BBC are kicking off celebrating his life and work, then he may be a little more relevant, thank God, to shaping the present day - and maybe, if culturally-minded folk are lucky, our TV future.


BBC2, 21.1.07

This may be one of the saddest confessions you have ever heard (no, really) but Ski Sunday changed my life. Despite the turbocharged rantings of Ron Pickering, it inculcated a love of snow and of the Alps that now borders on the unhinged. In 1989 I did it, Interrailing to Switzerland, and since then I now consider any Alp-free year a wasted one. The sight of the cyclopean wall of the triple-whammy 14,000-foot peaks of Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch that dominates the Lauberhorn downhill course at Wengen can - I am not making this up - reduce me to tears. Mention the names 'Zurbriggen' or 'Stenmark' and I can babble on all night. This programme has led to a great increase in my understanding of German culture, Mahler, Goethe etc, although there have been snags - there may have been one or two too many airings of the Scorpions' 'Wind of Change' in smoky gaststätte than is strictly healthy.

Which is why the demise of Ski Sunday is so depressing. 'Demise' is apt - the BBC claim that the programme is safe in its hands, but on current evidence this is a dubious claim. Shoehorned into 25 minutes as part of Grandstand, Ski Sunday embodies just about everything that is bad about sports broadcasting, and does it without really seeming that bothered, like an excitable DJ at a rainy rave who just wants his money and to piss off.

Geography dictates that the British don't do skiing, not at home anyway; Britain's tallest mountain is roughly a quarter of Mont Blanc, the highest Alpine peak. Archetypal plucky Brit Konrad Bartelski in the 1980s became a synonym for calamitous crashes. The pills did for Alain Baxter. The absurd Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards and the even more absurd acclaim awarded him in 1988 just about finished skiing as a serious televised sport in the UK. Chemmy Alcott, the British ladies' No.1, isn't really in the world's top ten - but is not only quite good, she is also exceptionally pretty, articulate and full of vim; when the producers won't go with a charmer like Alcott, your sport's in TV trouble.

The BBC's ludicrous answer is to 'sex up' Ski Sunday with lots of ESPN-style 'extreme' snowboard-cross, the sort of loud indie music that was fashionable a decade ago and lots of camera trickery (ditto).

That the result is about as sexy as a pee-stained pair of surgical stockings is instructive as to how the corporation really feel about the whole Ski Sunday brand. Matt Chilton, one of the amorphous Motsonesque generation of young Beeb commentators that talks exclusively in headlines, is bad enough; Graham Bell, former British ski trier (I won't say 'racer' as any Googling of his results will prove), is engaging as co-frontman; his mate Ed Leigh, is just brashly and boy-racerishly annoying and I suspect employed for that very reason. At least once upon a time you could turn this show on and lingeringly imagine its host Hazel Irvine slowly disrobing in a Kandersteg sauna. Or, before her, exactly when the great David Vine was going to big-up a racer who would then, on cue, hurtle into some pine trees at 90mph.

Skiing is, per se, not a particularly telegenic sport; it has less tension and cumulative human drama than soccer, rugby or tennis. The issues are simple- who will go fastest? Will anyone break their neck and/or die? The saving grace is the scenery, particularly at Val Gardena and Wengen, and in the case of ski-jumping, the breathtaking aesthetic beauty of the endeavour - by the way, Eurosport viewers really should check out ski-flying, basically doubling the length of the jump so that lycraed-up loonies can travel half the length of one of the smaller British counties over what is basically an ice-covered cliff.

By comparison, snowboarding isn't that gripping; the half-pipe twirly stunts are as formalised as dressage and are as disappointingly dull as Keith Emerson doing his old organ stunts; the snowboard cross (four in a line) resembles speedway insofar as the first one to the first bend always wins; the only amusement comes from the possibility that one of these born show-offs (tellingly not a trait of top-class skiers) will go arse over tit while being that bit too clever, as Lindsey Jacobellis of the USA (who'd have guessed?) did in last year's Olympics, falling and losing a gold medal about four millimetres from the finish-line because she got too smart-ass.

That doesn't stop Ski Sunday from yelling at you a lot; on Sunday Val d'Isère, one of the very tackiest resorts in Europe was given a serious puff because of its nightlife. Any enthusiast of winter sports knows how French over-development has ruined the Grandes Alpes, but this was never mentioned. Graham and Ed were too busy shouting; the sport of paragliding with skis, which does not even seem to have a commonly-agreed name around the world (I couldn't remember its name after five minutes) was given quite astonishingly indulgent coverage.

But this is now the ailing show's remit; please please try and grab the kids, while remaining unaware that of them either can't afford to go to the mountains or simply don't care. Do not cater at all to the vast majority of those interested in skiing, who are usually skilled, or experienced, or monied, or all three - the core of Ski Sunday's old faithful - or those who just adore the scenery. No item lasts more than a few minutes. Of archive footage, always a winner with sports viewers, there is none; why not Klammer at the Innsbruck Olympics? Why no Girardelli, no Tomba, no Killy?

A week back there was, admittedly, a fine and superbly-filmed 150 seconds or so on Ski Sunday about the WAB, the Wengernalp-Bahn, the lovely little electric narrow-gauge train that follows the Lauberhorn course - but that it stood out so plainly against not-very-well-done appeals to Generation Xers to get on the piste made it seem all the sadder as to how far this show had fallen. Not a word was given, for example, as to how one might train to paraglide with skis and even if there is a grassroots for the sport at all. ly That would have gotten in the way of more shouting and guitars. This is the most telling sign of a sports show that doesn't really care anymore.

One senses this sad state of affaits may be to do with the galloping media Europhobia in the UK, where, the Med or other property-friendly places apart, the Continent, and German-speaking lands in particular are seen as outlandish and comical except by those who can afford their costliest watering holes (Gstaad, St Moritx, Zermatt). Who really wants to know about a bunch of Mitteleurop nutcases? The fatuous celebrity of Edwards was a case in point. As Alcott has rightly implied, he was the worst thing to happen to winter sports in the UK, effectively proving, to Middle England, that ski sports were just silly and/or exclusive. America, with its vain and showoffy resorts like Aspen and Beaver Creek (plus the fact that everyone speaks English and there are celebs around) might be the natural home for Ski Sunday nouveau, but here the major races are run in late autumn, when no UK broadcaster wants to even touch on the idea of snow.

Of course global warming might well render all this irrelevant anyway. But as the nation that invented competitive skiing - or at least formalised it - and as suckers for kitschy scenery, and who take more and more skiing holidays every year, skiing deserves better from the telly than this husk of what was once a cult show. It's time that Ski Sunday got its soul back. And it can start by getting rid of that deplorable bloody remix of the theme tune. God - it's a crime against music. It's... it's like having a dump on the Hahnenkamm.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Just Read It

Howard Jacobson: 'Big Brother' encourages us to embrace a condition far more worrying than racism

*BLOGGER'S NOTE- even I, someone who subscribes to the view expressed by Jane Fonda in California Suite when accused of being a snob, snaps back 'thank God there's a few of us left' - think this is pushing it. But what the hell, it's great. BTW, sub to editor's desk immediately. Who's instead of whose? Thanks to Jessica for passing this one on by the way.*

The debate as to whether Jade and her super-dumb cohorts are racist is not worth having
Published: 20 January 2007
After the Revolution, the Terror. This - the invariable consequence of filling the heads of the uneducated with grandiosity - is what we are seeing on Celebrity Big Brother. In the days when she sweetly knew herself to be pig ignorant, Jade Goody had neither the reason nor the confidence to launch the sort of terrifying tirades to which poor little rich girl Shilpa Shetty has been subjected - never mind with what provocation - this last week.

But then television made Jade a star. Television rewarded her with renown for all the things she didn't know. Television set her up as a sort of Ugly Betty of the reason and the intellect, an example and a promise to everyone who had hitherto felt damned in their own fatuity. You, too, said television, can be rich and famous for being an airhead. Indeed, if we have our way, you won't be rich and famous for being anything else. And now the airhead is a swollen head, and won't be spoken down to by a mistress of Indian subcontinent hauteur. Jade has rights now, whether or not she can spell them, and will shake the planet to its foundations before she forgoes a single one.

Well, and why should she be spoken down to? No reason. Hence the brute little corner of us that cheers her on, at once exhilarated and appalled by the tenacity of her sense of wrong. "Your mother would be proud of you," one of her chums in girly vacuity told her, without a trace of irony, after she had sworn the house down. No doubt about it. Pride has probably been beating in sullen hearts all over the country. The Terror, too, as the aristocrats went helter-skelter to the guillotine, made the children of the Revolution proud.

Channel 4, which has a big stake in cultural mischief, has fomented this unrest. It has been fomenting it ever since Big Brother started, learning as it goes that no one ever made a buck overestimating the sense or sensibility of the British public. But in Jade Goody it has found its Héroïne de la Revolution. How long it has been sitting on the idea of returning Jade to Big Brother as a celebrity - a perfected monster of televisual incestuousness, on telly for having been on telly - is anyone's guess. But this time it made its intentions apparent immediately. Jade and her family were to be royalty - Queen Carnival and her entourage for a day - and the rest of the house were to wait on her hand and foot.

In fact, Shilpa was among those who found exemption from this indignity, which must have been a disappointment to the programme makers, since here was the dream reversal of roles, the very reason, presumably, she had been imported to play opposite Jade in the first place. But the tone had been set. This was to be an incendiary Big Brother, pitting culture against culture, class against class, and in the process flattering its viewers with the Channel 4 philosophy, that what is low is high.

The debate as to whether Jade and her super-dumb cohorts are racist is not worth having, whatever the expressions of sanctimonious outrage on all sides. (The Carphone Warehouse taking the high moral ground and pulling out of sponsoring the programme - there's a laugh after the thousands of hours of mindlessness and bilge it has lent its name to without a qualm.)

Racism - the fear and dislike of people alien to you - is slumberingly integral to all ignorance, so we shouldn't be in the slightest surprised to find it among people who are witless enough to go on such a programme in the first place. Not all racists are stupid, but all stupid people are at some level racists, cowed into resentment and mistrust by the enormity of their incomprehension. In proportion as the world and its ideas are a mystery to you, so the world and its peoples are a threat.

Jade is goaded into wild abuse by the unfamiliar appearance and manners of a woman who's name she cannot get her tongue round, whose value system she cannot comprehend, and who makes her feel cheap. The footballer's bit of fluff - the one who dresses like a toddler and eats with her mouth open - looks blankly into all she doesn't know about the dining customs of people not from Liverpool, and worries where their hands have been.

To confuse this vegetative state with full-blown racism is to dignify it. More than that, it is to confuse a lesser crime with a greater. There are worse things than racism. There is the unapologetic inanity from which the ordinary, daily, unremarkable bigotries and prejudices of the public draw their strength.

We are too soft on stupidity. I am not talking about general knowledge or vocabulary failure. Jade doesn't recognise wedlock - the word, that is, not the state. This is not a sin in itself; words can pass you by. I can never get a purchase on ontological and have to look it up whenever I encounter it. Nor do I mean not having heard of famous people or places. The footballer's fluff thinks Winston Churchill was the first black President of America, having seen a black statue of him near where she lies her empty head. And Jade suspects Rio de Janeiro might be a person. So what? For all I know to the contrary Rio Ferdinand is a region of Ecuador.

They add up, though - the words you can't pronounce, the events you haven't heard of, the ideas with which you are not and do not wish to be acquainted. At some point the accumulation of missing information and curiosity amounts to your not being in the world at all. And it is this condition - a condition that can with far more justice be described as alienation than the ennui of the intellectual - that Big Brother and its host of satellite celebrity magazines have for years been encouraging us to embrace.

There is a vindictiveness in dumbing down. It aims to dethrone not only intelligence but the means by which we rate one thing above another. Dumbing down is an assault upon the very concept of value. Thus Jade, though she wouldn't know what I am talking about, is the child of that nihilism which gave us postmodernism and the Turner prize. A celebrity for being nobody, a belcher and a farter with her own perfume, she is an ironic reference to the unmeaningness of meaning.

Racism? We have far more to worry about than that.

SPORTIN' LIFE: Talk Is Cheap, The History of Football Commentary

Radio 4 presented a nifty little hour of radio tonight on the 80th anniversary of the first live broadcast commentary on a football match. Quirky and pleasant and replete with great archival material, particularly from the Whacko-tached Raymond Glendenning, a man so bluffly upper-class he would probably have addressed even his own great-granddaughter as 'old boy', but it lacked something. To go all Garth Crooks about this, there were more questions than answers.

First up; how does John Motson get away with not only sounding like such a prig and a pedant but also linguistically limited in a job that one might imagine requires textual facility? You just knew that he'd been given medication to prevent him from opening every single sentence with the words 'and you have to shay...'

Secondly; why do the laws of physics prevent one from climbing into the radio and giving Alan Green a punch up the bracket or a Bafta for self-righteousness in a leading role or both? (He notched up twenty-plus uses of 'I' or 'me' - then I lost count, me. Catching, isn't it?).

Thirdly; why not make this a series? This all felt slightly rushed; it attempted to tackle the existential questions of the footy-commentating art and its development of linguistic tics, style, presentation etc, but extending its remit to other sports would have been instructive. There is, of course, the motormouth gibberish of tennis on the radio; the elegant brilliance of John Arlott or Richie Benaud in cricket (plus the knockabout larks of Test Match Special), the near-impossibility of conveying boxing via the voice. Radio and TV techniques were inadequately contrasted, with one surreally pot-and-kettle Motson contribution about 'using fewer words' on telly than on radio - this issuing from someone whose production of irrelevant verbal drivel on TV is as near to a monopoly as you are likely ever to get. At least Tony Blair doesn't talk that fast.

Iconic moments, oh, there were many and glorious in number and quality - Kenneth Wolstenholme in the 1966 World Cup final the centrepiece, naturally. But there were omissions - Archie McPherson' s (possibly apocryphal) audible off-mike scream of 'yeeees! we've scored!' when Rangers took the lead in the 1973 Scottish Cup Final being among them. Summarisers' roles were given too short a shrift, from the staggeringly boring (Alan Shearer) to the useful (Mark Lawrenson). Journalistic skills were marginalised - the habit of contemporary commentators like James Drury and Clive Tyldesley to talk in obviously pre-scripted headlines, for example. And why nothing of Idwal Robling, the Welsh winner of BBC Sport's 1971 Commentator Competition? Or that peculiar growly intonation of Brian Moore (and he's rrrright in there!')?

Furthermore, foreign commentaries were placed out-of-bounds; thus excising Thomas Zimmermann's legendary freak-out when Germany scored the winning goal in the 1954 World Cup Final ("Kopfball. Abgewehrt [...] Rahn schiesst... Tor! Tor! Tor! Tor!"), a moment as central to German popular culture as Wolstenholme at Wembley a dozen years later is to the English. Latinate commentators' floridity ('goooooooooooooooollllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll') - so often used as comic relief - was not even touched on. Broadening the show's remit might have also included British examples of audible emotional involvement. Of course this may have brought in Tyldesley's almost Tristanesque transfiguration at Manchester United's burglary of the 1999 European Cup, but it may also have made room for Cliff Morgan's thrilled exhilaration at That Try, scored by Gareth Edwards for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973 - simple, but so passionately engaged in unfolding genius. ('the half-way line... David, Tom David... brilliant by Quinnell... this is Gareth Edwards... a dramatic start... what a score!'). 1974 - Harry Carpenter's ecstatic 'oh my God! and... he's won the title back at 32!' as Ali's uppercut poleaxed Foreman in Kinshasa, when such oaths were simply not done on the BBC. Then there was the very underrated Jack Karnehm's sotto voce 'good luck mate' as Cliff Thorburn hunkered down for the black to conclude the first (mainstream) televised 147... Barry Davies, the excellent former soccer commentator, could also made more of his ashen-voiced contribution to the astounding scenes at the Heysel disaster in 1985; 'there are reports that some people have died'. The same Davies, by the way, who asked 'where were the Germans... but who cares?' when Britain won an Olympic hockey gold medal in 1988, one should add, a clip that didn't surface when national bias was raised...

I could go on, but that's the job of the man at the mike.

I'm being pickier than Alan Green now. There was much to criticise but more to enjoy in this well-spent hour. No Hugh Johns, for a start. Colemanballs was at least mentioned. There was a commentary, scarily real and in scarier close-up, on the fire at Bradford City's Valley Parade in 1985, a catastrophe largely and scandalously forgotten now, presumably because it did not involve a significant number of Liverpudlians. Another joy was hearing again the musical voices of Maurice Edelston and Peter Jones (no Bryan Butler though - 'and as you join us here, loive, in the rough, tough, hurrrly burly cauldron of...'). And there was Mr Big Match, Mr Sunday, the man you always associated with the taste of mint sauce and roast lamb. Brian Moore (whose head, as Half Man Half Biscuit put it, really did look like the London Planetarium). Of course you couldn't see BM's bonce on the radio. But this engaging show at least gave you a fair idea of the art of describing the unseen and the seen in the right way when one has a microphone and a headset.

More, please. And, in football parlance, more Moore too...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

MUSIC: RIP Michael Brecker

Now you see him... now you don't. Jazz's greatest loss since Dizzy.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Heeeeeeere's Wolfie!

They said it couldn't happen again - Raymond Van Barneveld's 7-6 victory over Phil Taylor in the PDC darts world championship was the Everest of the peculiar tensions of this bizarre sport. But Martin 'Wolfie' Adams and househusband Phill Nixon, 50somethings both, had a pop on Sunday's BDO world final. Adams took the 7-6 score this time in a match of monumental vitality, and darts hasn't had a month of publicity like this since the early 1980s when it almost became the new snooker. The news today that Jelle Klaassen and Michael Van Gerwen, the two gelled-up darts-punk cover boys from the Netherlands, have defected from the BDO to the PDC - in addition to ongoing talks with the IOC as to darts' inclusion in the 2016 Olympics means that now, surely, in 2007, a reunification of the two organisations is imminent, if only to capitalise on two of the greatest darts matches ever televised.

Now the question is - will the BBC outbid Sky for the reunification rights?

TV REVIEW: The Trial of Tony Blair

Here is a true story. A friend of mine stood against Tony Blair as a prospective parliamentary Labour candidate in the early 1980s. He quit in the final round, because Tony was, in his judgement 'better looking' and more 'electable'. My friend, now a mental health professional, also judged him to be 'mad as fuck'.

Here is another true story; Alistair Beaton's The Trial of Tony Blair was one of the most dizzyingly brilliant TV dramas of the last decade. Not just a story; it's fact. This was superb, as clinical and precise as Arthur Schnabel playing Beethoven or Phil Taylor throwing darts.

The tasty story lines that made up Beaton's work were purely imaginary; it's 2010 and Hillary Clinton's in the Oval Office; Gordon Brown's in No.10, and wins a hairsbreadth majority over a hastily-sketched, Footlights-Revue caricature of David Cameron (too much bikes, hip hop etc). Circumstances conspire, with the slow-march rat-tat-tat of a military funeral, to send Tony to The Hague and judgement (Blair's conversion to Catholicism plays a heavy role throughout). Brown (Peter Mullan, brilliant voicing but in terms of looks might as well be Janet rather than Gordon Brown) is maneouvred into sending Blair (Robert Lindsay) for trail concerning war crimes in Iraq. Actually, no trial proceedings are shown, merely the prisoner Blair's flight leaving Heathrow for the Hague, after which credits roll.

Improbable? No less so than the deranged cats-cradle of narratives polluting the now ex-PM's head, a helter-skelter of the spin-doctor plaititudes, moral delusion and cant that, in the end, tragically make up the man himself, something unforgivingly exposed by Beaton. 'I think you're beginning to lose touch with reality' Blair tells his wife (played with just a little too much sympathy by the glacially efficient Phoebe Nicholls). From which point on one knows Blair will self-destruct, and he duly does, in royally entertaining fashion.

From the get-go, Robert Lindsay's Blair (Lindsay is still visibly Wolfie Smith, but at least he has the voice and the tics, including the shiver-inducing psychotic's trick of smiles in all the wrong places and the suggestion of what may be bipolarity in our great teacher) is a man quite clearly bonkers even before reality surges in so lethally on mind and body. Like all self-regarding students who never grew up, Blair wanted to play Hamlet. Lindsay knows it. He plays Blair as the the guitar-shop axeman dreaming of being Hendrix or Blackmore but doomed to be umpteenth-best; a sad and lonely comedown instead of a truly tragic one, the vision and the legacy gone, a nuance Beaton captures beautifully.

But Beaton doesn't even give Blair the dignity of a Lear as his downfall inexorably unfolds. Mad, wronged Lear raged against the dying of the light on his hind legs; Blair isn't even this, he's made to skulk. There's much gorgeously-sketched bullshit spoken about 'the legacy' of which Blair's paid yea-sayers and toadies can barely conceal their contempt. Yes, there's stuff about God. Lots of it. In a scene worth viewing 50 years from now, Blair's publisher tentatively says there's too much about God, and Blair promptly nixes his multimillion pound memoir advance with a mind-bogglingly bizarre tirade against atheists and liberals. There are rather-well-handled dream sequences of dead Iraqi kids and shot-up squaddies; the soundtrack makes ironic reference back to the Britpop of 97's Cool Britannia. There are also undertones of leitmotifs yet to come; Gordon Brown's baritone paranoia is a subtext for a new TV drama that you know is just waiting to happen when he gets No 10's keys. The sequence where Blair is genetically fingerprinted upon his arrest prior to extradition is maybe one of the most excruciatingly ironic pieces of TV drama this writer has ever seen. Yeah, Mike Leigh included, since you ask.

Little, if anything is overdone or bludgeoned home; this grown-up, civilised drama doesn't shout, save for the broadbrushed silliness when TB almost runs over a comedy Arab in his 4x4. The Messianic bent in Blair is maybe slightly overstretched - although when Lindsay says 'Britain? I've done Britain' it sounds spine-chillingly authentic. There is also a moment when Blair Learishly castigates the incompetents that surround him. This seems a little too close to Hitler's table talk for comfort. Blair is not Hitler, point - but he increasingly resembles Herbert Lom's tragi-comic portrayal of Dreyfus, the boss of the surété that Inspector Clouseau drives beyond reason.

Yes, there are loose ends; that Blair would end up in a cell is implausible (as Cherie tells him, with cruel irony, he can afford good lawyers). And yes, Nicholls's Cherie and Mullan's Brown are awkward. Because both are seen to inhabit a world of reason and Cherie's friendship with Carole Caplin among others suggests that this is maybe wishful thinking. This, however, means that Blair's folly is so much more starkly repointed. Anyone who listens to any Blair speech cannot fail to doubt that now.

TV rarely does drama like this. Nothing of The Trial of Tony Blair, or very little, in terms of script or visual language, is reduced to soap opera convention, yet is nonetheless compelling. This is a feat in itself, and given its visual satisfactions, The Trial Of Tony Blair sets 2007 a serious challenge for a better slice of TV. True story - truer than WMD, anyway.

Yes, true. No word of a lie. Remember that, Tony? Hello, Tony? Tony?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Darts and more darts

A month that began with the horror of a young girl mauled to death by the underclass prat's weapon of choice (a pitbull) perked up with another underclass pleasure (darts). On New Year's Day Raymond Van Barneveld beat Phil Taylor on Sky in the Greatest Darts Match Ever (TM) and then came the BBC's own 'World Championship' which had its own delights.

For the uninitiated, this glorious game (not sport) split into two governing bodies a dozen years ago; simply, Sky got the better of the two resultant world championships (the moneyed Professional Darts Corporation as opposed to the traditionalist British Darts Organisation). But Barneveld, who won the lesser of the two a few times but who lost in the last final of that lesser tournament, has punctured Taylor's aura of invincibility (oh, do try and keep up). A reunification, long talked of, seems nigh-on inevitable.

Darts is a game that is -in various forms - ageless but was only popularised and formalised in England by brewers in the 1920s, and as such assimilated as another piece of urban mythology ingested by the urban white male's craving for 'tradition', as per the Queen Mum, Dunkirk etc. This rubbish can be found in Martin Amis's writings on the game, the roots of his rather bad 1989 novel London Fields. In it, he essays a monstrously proletarian and stupid darter, Keith Talent (Amis was still in his funny-name phase), rudely and nomenclaturally based on the blameless Keith Deller, the 1983 world champion, who, laudably, refused to diss the author.

Sky have keyed into this with surgical precision - which is why the PDC championship takes place at a tawdry roadhouse in Purfleet in (where else?) Essex, and is basically the world according to Garry Bushell. It's... well, um, flashy. And quite ridiculous. Anyone who remembers Viz's Cockney Wanker need look no further - a sov on every finger. Lavverly! This is why that after Keith Deller's world championship in 1983 the snooker route wasn't taken - to those Thatcherite upwardlies, it was all too, well, like, crap, wannit?

The BBC, for their part, do the BDO championship in the (relative) dignity of Frimley Green in Surrey and do it all a little better. No Hazel Irvine, but we can't have everything.

This year, for the first time on the Beeb, there have been multiple mentions of the breakaway PDC championship, whereas before it was airbrushed from the world with the panache of Stalin's NKVD, in spite of Taylor's supreme brilliance. Barneveld, last year's losing BDO finalist having beaten Taylor has, though, conferred on the BDO a sudden cachet. With Barneveld's conqueror, the lanky and swarthy young Dutch looker Jelle Klaassen already on his way home, the BDO and the BBC look like they have a product on their hands. And the Beeb should make it count.

It's smashing stuff. The paunchy lad Fitzmaurice, our 'Master of Ceremonies' leads the ritual chant; 'Are. You. Ready? Ladies. And. Gentlemen!!! Let's!! Play!!! Darts!!!!' Everyone knows the drill. Everyone loves it. Martin Adams can take the piss out of himself something rotten in the way that other minor Brit heroes, say, Andy Murray or Justin Rose cannot. The improbably blinged-up Bobby George, the gorblimey's gorblimey, whose jewellery makes Mr T looks like a Wee Free minister, was in top form, as ever disbelieving he was being paid for saying so much about nothing. The thoughtful Canadian ex-world champion, John Part, offered this after the referee had asked the crowd to refrain from flash photography because of reflections from the newly-built stage set; 'or maybe it's that Bobby George is still in the building'.

Was darts the first postmodern spectator sport? Discuss.

This of course is the shouty province of parade ground, public bar and music hall, of call and response, of pantomime. Darts is quintessentially ritual, much as ITV's wrestling was. And yet it is also a sie of resistance; no corporate sponsor will fund players who have laughter in their eyes when they have been beaten by an opponent. When cockney Adams howls and then bursts into laughter when he walks on to 'Hungry Like The Wolf', well, it's just not done. Martin, we've got to do something about your image, mate. This is not part of the discourse of televised sport; but it is, at least in part, a remnant of localised rivalries to be dissolved in a pint. Top darters are not necessarily monosyllabic, wifebeating hod-haulers. Deller was, and is, a charming, voluble man; ditto Bob Anderson, the 1988 world champion, self-styled 'Limestone Cowboy' but in real life, all-round ordinary bod and good egg.

Even children of the free-market satellite revolution, Klaassen and the coming mabn, the angelic 18-year-old Michael Van Gerwen, buy into this camaraderie. It is of course partly false; anyone who has been to a needle darts match in a hostile pub knows how much intimidation goes on, something Amis nails very well in London Fields.After all, take a closer look; those haircuts. The tattoos. The fake tans. Amis again, from Success 'the smell of panic and roused animals' (often pitbulls, one sombrely surmises). Klaassen, Van Gerwen and their fatter and older buddies know that too. But among the filth and struggle of working class existence lies decency and common humanity. Just watch them - you tell a darter's mood from their eyes when they're throwing, and you can tell them as a man or woman from the eyes when they have lost. The demeanour has been learned from soap - from Grant and Phil Mitchell.

But darts is also great, relentless, rat-tat-tat drama - cheap and cheerful TV at its absolute best. It may not quite equate to Schnabel playing Beethoven or AJP Taylor talking about, er, anything, but it sure as hell beats the shit out of most live football matches.

The BBC finally raided its darts archive (was everything really that dark as recenrly as 1981?) and female darts players are within two years of matching the men and commendably the Beeb made much of it. Trina Gulliver, who has singlehandedly held off a Dutch onslaught on the women's game to remain the undefeated world champion, was given at least a fraction of a due. Almost as commendably, given the prevalence of large and lecherous men at the event, the cameras didn't drool over Anastasia Dobromyslova, a promising young Russian. Darts, by its very prole nature, has always attracted the discourse of holiday camp kitsch, and the another sign of progress was the fact that her name wasn't prefixed by the dread words 'the lovely', not even from TV Sport's loveable Paul Shane-a-like, Tony Green.

That's a good thing; Dobromyslova is no new-Russian doll. She would whip most British pub players but, admittedly, has a truly beautiful smile that can't be coached (it's the eyes, stupid) but if collagen were on WADA's list her lips would be facing a life ban. Gulliver, on the other hand, has the worn countenance of a Grimsby fishwife but speaks lucidly and articulately in a North Midlands accent as savoury as freshly-cooked faggots. Sensibly, she talks - in properly-parsed sentences - of how hot it is on the oche under the TV lights, something no male player would ever be so noofterish as to do. Gulliver should be the mouthpiece of darts, the straight foil to Bobby George's no-less-valuable turn.

Whether she will be able to assume that mantle under a BBC aegis remains to be seen. You know the Birtite thinking; there simply aren't enough minorities being catered for by darts. So, to adopt the unspoken yet all-too-real m.o. of neo-liberal capitalism, if not everyone wants it (and we define everyone), nobody gets it. Darts? Oh no. Leave it to Sky. Too nasty. Never mind that it doesn't have to be the province of sink estates and van drivers any more than boules has to be played only by the French. This year, both the PDC and BDO championships have proved that; it only remains for the BBC to screw things up by surrendering all rights to whatever comes next.

The script's been written already, Let's do what Greg Dyke did with the wrestling in '88 (never mind that darts is for real). Let's pretend to take the moral and artistic high ground. And pay Jonathan Ross a few million more.

Set the dogs on them, say I.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Guardian Interview with Raymond Van Barneveld

Donald McRae Tuesday January 9, 2007 The Guardian

Last Friday night, as the red wine flowed at the end of a long and emotional week in which he had become world champion after winning the greatest match in the history of darts, Raymond van Barneveld contemplated the madness of his new life. "I can't believe there are people out there who actually want to be Ray van Barneveld," the meaty 39-year-old former postman from The Hague murmured. His defeat of Phil Taylor on New Year's Day, in an epic encounter which gripped even darts sceptics flicking through the channels, unfolded in the tumult of the Circus Tavern in Purfleet. Four nights later, in a much quieter corner of a pub in Tynemouth, Van Barneveld suggested that "people want to have heroes, whether they're footballers or singers or darts players. But it still feels strange that a lot of people want my success, my lifestyle, everything. Then I remember that when I was growing up I wanted to be Eric Bristow, the Crafty Cockney. He was world champion so many times, an entertainer who people loved. I wanted that myself." He took another swig and rolled the Cabernet Sauvignon round his mouth as he remembered the match which sealed his own transformation from postman to millionaire. "It was the best I ever played. It had to be because Phil Taylor is the complete player with such dedication. Last year, the morning after he became world champion again, he rang [fellow English darts professional] Adrian Lewis and said 'You're five minutes late for practice.' I had to go into solid training myself for three months - all day, every day. I was on the treadmill each morning and I went track running too, an hour a day. You need that fitness because you have to play Phil on stage for three hours, sweating, staying concentrated." Three years ago Andy "The Viking" Fordham faced Taylor in a hugely anticipated television extravaganza. In the end, roared on by the sumptuous commentary of Sid Waddell, Fordham's massive girth did little more than fulfil the usual quips about darts being an overblown joke of a sport. According to Waddell, Fordham was "sweating under the lights like a hippo in a power shower" when he suffered an asthma attack and had to retire while trailing 5-2. The battle between Taylor and Van Barneveld was, in contrast, a genuine test of will which saw the Dutchman produce a remarkable comeback to defeat the 13-times world champion in a sudden-death 7-6 finish. "To do this I even had to take up meditation to prepare myself for this championship. And that kept me calm even when he played unbelievable and I was 3-0 down. I stayed cool because I just felt that it could still be my night. "Several players came to me afterwards and said 'Thank you, Ray, you've given us hope that Phil is beatable'. I said 'Yeah, but to beat him you need 21 180s'. You also need an angel on your shoulder. On the morning of the final I was sitting alone on my bed and had a vision. It came to me and a voice said 'Ray, you are going to get three darts for tops and you will hit double top because you are turning 40 this year'. That's what happened." Van Barneveld shuddered at his darting spirituality, before he turned to the more human form of his gracious opponent. "In the middle of the night Phil sent me a text. I've still got it: 'Ray, that was marvellous. What a great final. All the best and hope you have a wonderful reception in Holland.' I texted him back: 'Phil, you're such a true sportsman and I love you for that. If you ever stop playing darts you deserve a statue in your honour. I will kneel for my king'." I laughed but he immediately said: "No! I'm serious! That's what beating Phil meant to me in the PDC [Professional Darts Corporation]. I had won four world championships in the BDO [the rival and less exalted British Darts Organisation] but every time people said 'Yeah, but you didn't beat the best player of all time - Phil Taylor'. That was the main reason I switched to the PDC last year - and this makes it the biggest ever moment for Raymond van Barneveld." A tendency to refer to himself in the third person, illustrating his fully-fledged celebrity status, emerged in 1998 when the man inevitably dubbed Barney won his first BDO title in a final watched by 5m Dutch TV viewers - a third of Holland's population. He was still a working postman but, on his return, 10,000 fans greeted him at Schiphol airport. "It was incredible. As a postman I earned €1,250 a month [£840] and always struggled to look after my wife and three kids. Then suddenly I won a world title and £40,000 and everyone in Holland said 'He deserves it because he's such a nice fellow'. But once I turned pro, and the money rolled in, people said 'Oh, he's so arrogant!' "They're all cheering me again, saying 'Barney is the greatest'. But I was so hurt when it felt like people no longer respected me in Holland. After I lost the Lakeside final last year [when his hopes of matching Bristow's record five BDO titles were ended by his 21-year-old countryman Jelle Klaasen] I was treated like a complete loser. Everyone said 'Jelle is our king'. "Now it's starting again. I had a couple of old critics calling this week to say 'Hey Ray, how you doing?'. I said 'How come you're phoning after slagging me off so long?'. They said 'Oh, forget that Ray, we're friends!'. That's how it is. So if you went with me to a pub in Holland tonight you'd be surprised. Everybody now wants to buy me a drink, shake my hand or demand a photo on their mobiles. I say 'How about asking me politely?'. But they're crazy about darts - especially the women. Dutch women love darts. 'Of course that makes it hard for [his wife] Sylvia. Even if we go out for dinner you feel [women] watching you. I have this rule for myself. You can ask me everything, but the answer is not always yes. I'm on my guard all the time because someone can take a picture of you in the toilet and not long after that it can be downloaded and seen by millions around the world. It's never private anymore." Van Barneveld loves technology so much that he describes himself as "an Inspector Gadget - a guy who can't go into Dixons without buying the latest device". Yet he sighed sadly at this downside of modern fame. "I had something going on in November with a girl I know. She was the ex of [darts player] Darryl Fitton. "She gave me an exhibition in Holland and they made pictures of me and her and the next day it was in the tabloids: Ray Has A New Girlfriend - Sylvia Is Out!" The life of a Dutch darts celebrity sounds racier than anything Fordham ever experienced, even in a power shower. "No," Van Barneveld protested. "She just rang and said she'd organise a darts exhibition for me in Holland and that was it. But people think 'Oh yeah, no smoke without fire'. There's a lot of crap." Having met in 1992, when the postal trudge was lonely and unromantic, Barney and Sylvia have had to adjust to a complex social life. "You can never know how your wife will react. I talk to her a lot and say 'Sylvia, sometimes people want to be near me - not only men but women too'. And if I go to a dance club I might sit next to a woman and someone takes a picture and you get the whole story again of whether I say yes or no [to having his photo taken]. It's not always nice to say no. That side is not great but I love the way my celebrity opens doors to big events like football matches and concerts." Van Barneveld has an endearing habit of name-dropping as if in thrall to stardom itself. After reiterating that he and Chelsea's Arjen Robben are texting buddies, he added: "Even Robin van Persie! He backed me up in the newspaper. Robin said he thinks Phil is the better player but he wanted me to win. That's OK. Just the fact that he's watching makes me proud." Has he met Van Persie? "No, but that will come. They've just taken photos of me holding the Carling Cup. How often do you get that chance? I've never met my three big football heroes - Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp - but I think now it will be no problem. And when Arjen invited me to watch Chelsea against Barcelona last season we met Roman Abramovich." Did the Russian mogul invite Van Barneveld aboard his yacht? "No, but I said he can have a free dart exhibition." Had Abramovich even heard of the Dutch darts master? "I don't know," Barney admitted more sheepishly. "I didn't shake his hand. But I was in the same room as him." Van Barneveld might occasionally depict his life among the rich and famous with the broadest of brush strokes - but he conceded candidly that "my wife and I have had some tough times these last three months. That's why we got emotional after the final. It was a great win for us both - because we were kissing on the front page of every Dutch newspaper the next morning. Everyone said 'Well, they're not separate after all'. Life changes all the time and that's why I like Supertramp, REO Speedwagon, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Duran Duran and Toto. That 80s stuff is on my iPod wherever I go." The king of the oche seemed oblivious to his eye-wateringly bad taste in music as he considered the bitter-sweet life of a darts-playing celebrity. "Yeah," he said mistily as he drained his glass, "that's my feeling when I play those songs. I get emotional and the tears come. But sometimes, even if you're on top of the world, you just need that to happen."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Viz used to run a feature called "The Man In the Pub - Britain's Most Ill-informed Columnist". This consisted of ludicrous public-bar bullshitting; 'see my mate Billy? Got Arthur Askey's legs in his garage, he has. Straight up!' and 'You know that blonde bird out of Abba? Sex maniac, she was. Honest!' That sport can actualise the improbable surely its most humanly enduring fascination. And never mind losers like Eddie the Eagle or Eric the Eel - think winners like Glenn McGrath, the boar-shooting outback boy who lived in a caravan to prove himself as a fast bowler. Think Don Thompson, the Legionnaire-hatted walker who trained for the heat of a Rome Olympiad with a dozen electric fires in the bathroom of his South London semi. Think Garrincha, who overcame physical handicap to become of football's greatest wingers.

Shelley Rudman, who competes in the world skeleton-bobsleigh championship in St Moritz this week, is one of the more extraordinary phenomena of recent years. She hails from Pewsey, a tiny market town of a few thousand souls on the London-Exeter main line. Its main claim to fame is that - actually, until Shelley, there wasn't one, apart from the fact that it's not all that far from Hungerford. Or Devizes.

Because Shelley's silver medal in last year's Winter Olympics was about as improbable as Steeple Bumpstead turning up a sumo yokozuna or Blandford Forum producing a NFL-class running back. For winter sports tend to be dominated by those from regions either with exposure to low temperatures or that are, well, mountainous, as opposed to rural Wiltshire. Geographically, the nearest bobsleigh run to Pewsey is possibly St Moritz itself, a small matter of 1000-odd kilometres. Now that's what I call a commute.

This might help explain Rudman's relative and undeserved anonymity despite what by anyone's standards is an astonishing success - after all, winter sports simply aren't that British (although this doesn't quite account for the coverage given to the women's curling team of the Salt Lake City Olympics of 2002, and a few sundry ice skaters). Intriguingly, though, there is another angle. Rudman is - how to put it? - more than a little easy on the eye. She has a centrefold's face and figure to sell magazines by the shedload, and (as noted on this blog a few months back) with the post-Kournikova sexualisation of women's sport in the media, one might wonder why we haven't seen more of her. This writer would complain not at all if this were so (research purposes and all that) but must reluctantly speculate that it's possible that Rudman has simply preferred practising to pouting for the camera.

Skeleton bobbers - any bobbers - run such enormous risks of multiple injury one can only surmise that pure luck has kept Shelley looking like a shortlister for Elite Models. Head first or feet first, clattering down a half-pipe of ice at 150kmh on a tin tray must rival playing blindfold pogo-stick chicken on the M25 in rush hour for maiming potential. Possibly the greatest luger of all time, the cheerful Berchtesgadener Georg Hackl, for example, has a face and body that one might best term as just on the 'lived in' side of 'battered to buggery'.

Shelley will be up against it in St Moritz, and the smart money suggests she may not repeat her success of Turin. But anyone non-partisan who is interested in sport's romance and humanity will surely wish her well - and if she gets on a few more magazine covers, so much the better.

I can hear it now. 'You know that tasty bit that gets in here, her with the brown hair? World champion bobsleigher she is. No, straights! This mate of mine told me.' As daft as anything by The Man In The Pub. But it's true. Straight up.

Go Shelley!

SPORTIN' LIFE: More Gideon Haigh

Here he goes again. Hats off.

Game over but Aussies aren't done
Guardian, 8.1.07

As journalists deliberated over their summaries of the last day at the Sydney Cricket Ground aloft in the media centre, far below them on the outfield a telling pageant was unfolding. As the players finally left the field about 2.30pm, three fathers and their boys began a game of cricket involving two metal rubbish bins, plastic bats and a tennis ball.

The game continued, improbably, for the rest of the day, taken up by ground staff, bar staff, caterers and a few straggling supporters. Over the course of the afternoon, as the SCG resounded to cries of triumph, clangs of failure and the kerplunk of tennis ball on plastic, as many as a hundred people passed through the game, as young as six, as old as 60, and including a score of young women. Adam Gilchrist, still in his whites and baggy green, even came out to watch for a while.

As time passed, in fact, the game seemed every bit as significant as that which had gone before, lasting long after any imaginable equivalent English game, which would have dissolved for the sake of taking the piss out of one another at the pub. Australians are a much-foibled, many-follied people, but the fact that they find it hard to walk past a game of cricket without wanting to get involved is not showing any signs of changing.

Despite four barren days, almost 800,000 tickets were sold to this summer's Ashes series, and television audiences even for the dead Test in Melbourne reached two million. This was not simply because Australia were winning. Much of it derived from having lost in 2005, the fillip that provided for the game's popularity, and the brooding desire to set the world to rights.

Success, of course, tends to legitimate the forces perceived to be behind it, but Australia were shown in such consistently flattering light that there must be something instructive about the contrast of the teams. After 2005, where the rivals' cricket cultures seemed to have converged, with England the attacker and Australia their quarry, the two countries this summer reverted to more familiar archetypes.

The Australians prepared exhaustively for this series, Cricket Australia effectively providing an open chequebook and an undisclosed sum for the campaign; the England and Wales Cricket Board, in contrast, let the bowling coach Troy Cooley slip between their fingers for the sake of a few bob.

Importantly, the players led the effort. At their training camp in October 2005 at the Australian Cricket Centre of Excellence near Brisbane's Allan Border Field, it was players who spoke first, with the sports psychologist Phil Jauncey as facilitator, about how they wanted their training regime to run. Consider, by contrast, Steve Harmison. Asked in Sydney how he would approach preparation over the next four months, leading up to the first Test of the English summer, he replied that Duncan Fletcher had not told him yet.

The Australians, too, have no hang-ups where the turnover of players is concerned, as they illustrated again when the taciturn Damien Martyn stalked out silently after the Adelaide Test. The lack of sentimentality is because Australian players know they are promoted and demoted on performance, where England seem to have selected this summer on the basis of the theory du jour, whether general (eg multidimensionality) or geographical (eg the choice of James Anderson in Adelaide because he was "skiddy").

This is partly because there is so little form to judge players by; it also smacks of making cricket complicated to the point of self-mystification. If Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath shared one characteristic it was that they kept cricket simple and fun. Fletcher's attitude to Monty Panesar recalls Lord Home's description of the critics of Ted Heath: impatient gardeners, apt to gauge a tree's progress by digging it up to examine the roots.

Few events in Australia, meanwhile, restore national self-regard so reliably as beating England, or provide such opportunities for reflected glory, the basking therein. The Sydney Test was attended not only by the prime minister, John Howard, revelling in his abiding role as national tragic-in-chief, but also by the new leader of the Labor opposition, Kevin Rudd, revealing his hitherto unknown prior career as a wicketkeeper while working as a diplomat in Beijing - the inference, presumably, being that he owns a safe pair of hands. In some countries the aspiring leader must point to a career of civic accomplishment; only in Australia, perhaps, must they furnish a highest score (Rudd's was 15 not out).

Australia is much more like England than its people will sometimes admit, but it is an older England, because white settlement and spread here coincided in the mother country with the rise of organised games. Australia might be a more plural and cosmopolitan nation than of yore, but it pursues sport with an earnest avidity. Neville Cardus's lines are still apt: "The Australian temper is at bottom grim; it is as though hot sun has dried up nature."

Ironically, that sun and its nature-drying tendencies may be Australian cricket's chief enemy at the moment. English supporters who traversed the terrain praying for rain were not the only ones. Participation rates in club cricket surged up to 30% in some areas after the Ashes of 2005; draconian water restrictions, introduced in response to Australia's five-year drought, now threaten an already overburdened infrastructure. The big grounds have had to get smarter - the new MCG pipes all the run-off from its roofs into underground tanks. But many local competitions have been scaled back, and some have been abandoned, threatening clubs with extinction and damaging the continuity of junior development.

Fortunately, the sensations of this summer suggest that the love for cricket in Australia is abiding. I cannot say how long the garbage-bin game at the SCG went on because it was still in progress, after four hours, when I left. English fans have long fantasised about what Ashes contests might look like after the retirements of Warne and McGrath. The differences may not be so pronounced as they imagine. In the words of the retired baseballer Dan Quisenberry: "I've seen the future and it's much like the present, only longer."

SPORTIN' LIFE: Ladies. And. Gentlemen!

It's back. The BDO World Darts Championship is back on telly.

Yes yes I know. The best player ever (this sobriquet may still apply in the year 175,952), Phil Taylor, has been winning serially at the rival PDC championship - which this writer won't watch because of Murdochitis.


This year The Power (Taylor) was beaten by Barney (Raymond van Barneveld - do try and keep up), the multiple BDO winner, in a seven-set thriller most have down as the best darts match ever played. Barney, though, having defected from the BDO last year, was not even their reigning champion, his lanky compatriot Jelle Klaassen, a swarthy, gelled and disarmingly articulate 22-year-old, having defeated him last January.

But. Yep, there's another but (and darts is nothing if not sensationalist) Klaassen's been dumped from this year's BDO championship in the first round.

If this sounds as confusing as checking out from 143, reunification is the only answer. If the BBC truly care about anything beyond the M25, they will make a serious bid for a reunified World Darts championship, pitching youngsters like Klaassen and his 18-year-old countryman Michael Van Gerwen against chunky gorblimeys like the evergreen Martin 'Wolfie' Adams and the ageless butterball Taylor.

It's kitsch. It's retro. It will never die, but its time is now. Ladies and gentlemen. Are you ready? Let's ALL play darts again.



In the balmy late spring of 1999 one of the most worrying episodes in postwar British social history played itself out on London's streets. A (presumably) lone-nut neo-Nazi, David Copland (now a self-styled 'political prisoner') targeted blacks, Asians and gays in a singularly vicious no-warning, no-prisoners nailbomb campaign. Was this the beginning of a suedehead apocalypse? It wasn't, although you wouldn't guess it from this quite hopelessly shabby and inadequate programme. In fact you wouldn't have guessed much full stop.

I shouldn't get angry at dramadoc. I know it's (vomit) here to stay. But by the end of this especially annoying example of the subgenre I was almost as angry at the TV as at Copland. Here was a diamond of a story just waiting to be plucked from its neglected rough and shone to perfection, in the honourable tradition of , say, Storyville and which could at a stroke have restored, inexpensively, terrestrial BBC's reputation for responsible and compelling reportage in the van of Pettifer or Pilger, or Watson's docs.

Instead we got a gallery of irrelevant style-over-substance cliches, as superfluous to the sum of human knowledge as a sixth-form girl dotting i's with heart-shapes when writing on the Council of Trent. Bully for the actors playing the main parts (including Copland, whose bedsit was festooned with swastikas but which looked suspiciously spiffy and intriguingly well-lit), but much of this was almost insulting to the memory of those who died/injured/took part in the rescue operations. A scene in the Admiral Duncan pub, Copland's last target (a direct gay hit), had a shorn-skulled queen chatting up our anti-hero, shot with one eye on This Life and one on EastEnders; everyone, actors, directors, best boys, weren't making this to reflect a fascinating moment in modern British history, merely to add to their CV. To paraphrase Julie Burchill, everything on screen now looks increasingly like an audition for something else. The final scene transcribed Copland's interview-room fessing-up; but nobody, in the words of Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, talks like that. The lines, from copper and con alike, are uttered not in the flat banality of such situations but in true soap stylee, every last syllable and emphasis milked. How do you think that sounded, darling?

One of the 21st century's great unanswered questions is; how much does the flogged horse of dramadoc cost license-fee payers? Actors, rightly, don't come cheap; they certainly have costlier demands than academics or bystanders. But because the programme makers have stumped up for them we learned little as to what motivated Copland, the mechanics of British neo-Nazism and, despite the presence of Searchlight anti-fascist stalwart Gerry Gable, just how many more nearly-nailbombers there might be out there. Copland was presented as a lone nut - but was he really?

In the same way that media discourse, and by extension our everyday language is influenced by the creep of Hollywood populism - i.e. everything related to espionage has to have a Bond connection - British TV increasingly rationalises experience, even grave issues like a fanatical right-wing spacecase blowing people up in pubs, through the lowest-common-denominator lens of the media itself. For example, people having rows in pubs are actually starting to act like soap characters - ('I don't believe I'm hearing this') - have you seen them? I have. They didn't do it fifteen years ago, but they do now.

But when this tendency, possibly harmless in itself, starts to irradiate factual television, as seems to be the mission of dramadoc,then something's amiss.

Copland's worldview was dangerously and lethally fractured by exogamous fantasy, a fundamental discontinuity in seeing the world as it is. Programmes like this encourage us likewise - to view the world as seen on mainstream TV, and act accordingly. Worrying. Very worrying indeed.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


BBC4, 6.1.07

'Rather like watching a train wreck.' Thus London's former man in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer on US-UK Iraqi policy in BBC4's Mortgaged to the Yanks, a promising history of Whitehall's post-WW2 financial hock to Washington. Quite apart from the fact that Sir Christopher did precisely, er, nothing to diminish casualties in that ongoing wreck - even resigning might have signalled some antipathetic interest in the matter - Meyer's TV debut was a calamity. Except on this occasion, you weren't a witness to the train wreck - you were in it.

American cultural critic Paul Fussell has said of diplomats - the present writer's experiences echo this - that far from being the suave, educated, string-quartet-playing, worldly people of urban myth and their own vain imaginations, ambassadors and their flunkeys are in fact the shallowest of snobs, old-school-tied into sinecures, monstrously overrewarded, mouthy and bourgeois careerists. Meyer didn't actually shout to camera, over and over again; 'I used to be the UK envoy to America, me' but there was scarcely any need. The fact he'd been given this show (and presumably lots of money) said it all.

With this ghastly missed opportunity of a show the near-insufferable Sir Christopher (as he'd doubtless wish to be known) left none of Fussell's imaginary boxes unticked. The unironic use of a vintage circa-1957 Rolls saloon as his carriage through the show; the pretentious, come-on affectation of chalk-stripe and red socks which made even Denis Healey's unmade-bed chic look stylish; 16 superfluous uses of the first personal pronoun in the opening 30 minutes. Jonathan Meades can bring off hauteur and appearing in every shot; Meyer simply cannot, because he rarely has anything particularly gripping to say, or an interesting way of saying it (think David Dickinson and David Frost on a bad day). Quite a feat when discussing an integral, and unjustly neglected part of postwar British history.

Even GCSE history students will have found it incredible that it took this programme 40 minutes to mention Bretton Woods, the 1944 blueprinting in upstate Massachussetts of the West's postwar rebuilding, perhaps the pivotal moment of postwar geopolitics - and then another five to mention the Marshall Plan, glossed in a trice. You could almost hear history teachers nationwide tearing their hair.

Because we were also treated to digressions of such fantastic fatuity that they must have been included solely to lacquer Meyer's already overshined patina of self-importance.

Consider a dissertation. You want to gauge American reaction to JM Keynes's approach to Washington on behalf of the Attlee government for a postwar loan. Who to approach? A respected historian like Fussell or Studs Terkel? A representative of, or descendent of a representative of the then-incumbent Democratic administration? Or two nutcase muckers from your tenure in Washington who you still want to suck up to?

Obvious, innit? Which must be why Meyer quizzed a brace of hawkish 21st-century Republican top brass (Richard Armitage and Karl Rove) to reflect on an entirely different America 60 years ago, somewhat akin to asking David Blunkett if he prefers Forum or Escort. Worse, it was an excuse for lots of buddy-buddy, 'hey Rich' and 'hey Karl', and the puppyishly uncritical awe with which Meyer hung on the words of these two locker-room dullards (with the oleaginous drool that only the truly professional toady can summon, Meyer described the now-discredited Rove as 'the world's master of political spin') is instructive when reading the PM's attitude towards Washington. Not only lazy and intellectually dishonest, but deeply unsavoury television, which bodes ill for documentary makers everywhere.

Even as television, this was frustratingly thin gruel, as though the embassy was cutting back on the catering at parties with not a Ferrero Rocher in sight; aside of some rarely-seen colour footage of postwar US railways and their beautiful diesel streamliners, the archive stock was pure cliché; maybe the last three people in Britain who haven't seen that Blitz footage can be sent a video. And that footage of busy stevedores and shiny car swellness Stateside; Copland's Fanfare tor the Common Man or that other ELP favourite, Hoedown from Billy The Kid ? The latter won.

Of actual, qualified historians in Mortgaged to the Yanks there was nothing (might have missed a shot of the Rolls, or the suit, or the socks, or Beltway homies). And God save us from mentioning the financial situations of France, Holland, Germany. At least the less we saw (and heard) of Meyer, the better Mortgaged became (for a bit), to remind us of how absorbing and compelling this sort of TV can be. Contributions from Tony Benn, the now extravangantly-toupéed Kenneth Clarke and Healey (still spry at 89 but with wattles like a ploughed beetfiield) offered a flavour as thoroughbred as ripe Stilton.

It didn't last. A terrible passage at the very end led Meyer to a book of remembrance in St Paul's Cathedral in which his own father, a brave missing-in-action USAF pilot, was listed. For openers, this would have been a moving and telling clincher. Instead, it was the uncomfortably-fitting tin lid on a farrago of self-advertisement memorable for its host's emotionally grandstanding conceit rather than the salient geopolitical document it could have been.

If you can't look away from a train wreck, better pretend it never happened. Let us hope British TV producers heed this advice when Sir Christopher comes up with his next proposal.

Right Git Of 2007 - The Nominations Start Here

Right Git of 2007: The Nominations Start Here

First up, apart from the present writer (I know you've filled in your forms already, you bastards) is Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian's permanently whinging film critic who always reads as though he's watched every movie with a milk bottle stuck up his sphincter, for this lulu about Miss Potter; 'when [Renée] Zellweger does her weird tight little simper, bottom lip pushed out, eyes crinkling down to slits, cheek muscles tenser than steel cables, she really does look clinically insane'. Worra charmer, eh? The playground abuse angle aside ('you know, like, that Miss Zellweger, right, she looks, like, really mad, tee hee hee) and apart from the fact that Zellweger's face is one of the most enjoyably distinctive, expressive and, frankly, attractive, in Hollywood, this nonsense takes up about a quarter of the review. I preferred one of Bradshaw's colleagues, who observed, not inaccurately, that Zellweger reminded her of Mrs Tiggywinkle.

SPORTIN' LIFE; Goodbye Mr Warne

Chuck D didn't often get it wrong, but there are causes to scorn the sage words of Public Enemy's sage and go ahead and damn well Believe the Hype. Every word of it. Working in an industry increasingly geared to producing reams of hype, the magic of Shane Warne has been, for any cricketing - or in my case - cricket-loving -journalist, live up to the sort of snake-oil schtick we as a profession churn out. We rarely believe it -music journalism, my natural home, is, if anything, even more devoted to profit-generating hagiography than sport - and then the likes of Warne (in cricket) or Sviatoslav Richter (in music) or Eric Morecambe (i n showbusiness) come along and make us actually believe it. Not once, but over and over again. For the red-top boys, Warney's been box-office gold, and for the rest of us, he sets us the challenge of avoiding a route straight to Pseud's Corner without passing Go. We are so used to being a publicity, rather than a news, industry, that when someone like Warne comes along, it's fun to actually talk about such fables and know they're true.

Thus an awful lot of wallaby shit has, and will be, written about Warne and I have no great desire to add to the sum of marsupial droppings; and the greater the performer, the feebler become the tributes the longer they last. Relativists will sneer but, notwithstanding the uncountable hours devoted by Warne to his craft, chucking a ball around and doing the Grieg sketch are both, I fear, less arduous an endeavour as playing Liszt's B minor Sonata; nonetheless Warne, Morecambe and Richter inspire the same feelings. I want to do that - but doing it that well would be spooky. Just be thankful to be alive when it happened. Reinventing leg-spin, comedic epiphany and playing technically and emotionally-immeasurable piano works at phenomenal speeds are, in the grand scheme of things, all pretty meaningless - but these are the geniuses who most effortlessly remind one why we enjoy them nonetheless - why they matter.

Thanks for the memories, Mr Warne. Beauty.

TV REVIEW: It All Began With Swap Shop

BBC2, 27.12.2006

What all began with Swap Shop? TV? The modern world? The universe? We never found out. But Noel Edmonds, whose brainchild this 130 minutes of surreally bad TV surely was, had no doubt. Even God began with Swap Shop.

The word was made flesh and it had therefore no room for anything else in its worldview, least of all the antiChrist Tiswas. Nor Saturday precursors like HTV's In Orbit, or Zocko. Given that Edmonds' script enabled him to say at least three times the amount anyone else did. Chegwin tried manfully to impose himself, the volume of his delivery like that of a swimmer who'd got into difficulties off Birkenhead and was signalling to a coastguard. At Copacabana Beach.

Cheggers' aggressive shoutiness begged the question; kapo or yellowcoat? You decide (I couldn't). 30 years on, Chegwin - a man who got his kecks off for national TV and for whom, therefore, the hiding of lights under bushels doesn't come naturally - still doesn't seem even to know when to stop. One class difference in Britain is between those who find Chegwin 'a lovely young man' and those who simply want to see him run over by a train. Which then backs over him just to make absolutely sure.

Maggie Philbin was emphatically not , as Edmonds bizarrely suggested, 'everybody's big sister' - I'd hazard that most adoescent boys then thought similarly impure thoughts. No, she was that rather coy and sweet girl with great legs who whose dad drove a Daimler. Her and Chegwin? It was - it was as indecent as Héloise shagging Rigsby. On this occasion, she looked, as previously suggested in various leaks, less than overjoyed to be even sharing the same hemisphere as her former husband.

In the late 80s when it seemed all you needed on British kids' TV was the name Peter, Trevor, Simon or Phillip (Peter Simon, of course, was doubly blessed) came Trevor and Simon, a double-act seemingly formed for the sole purpose of recycling Bob Block's rejected lines, then unknown in comedy circles and since rarely sighted. On the evidence of a 'new' sketch featuring Andi Peters and Emma Forbes, this absence from the top of theatrical or televisual bills is unsurprising. Witnesses may want to swap anything they own - house, children, life savings - for a bottle of brandy and a service revolver if only to forget it. The Chuckle Brothers, where art thou, we hath need of thee etc. Yeah. That bad.

In 1991 students actually went to see Trevor and Simon; but then again, Punt and Dennis did good business then too, and that, tellingly, was also the year that Viz's Student Grant character was born.

At least we were spared BA Robertson, who briefly in 1979-80 became a kind of Swap Shop laureate. A 'humorous' singer-songwriter (actually a poor cross between Lehrer and Cliff Richard) Robertson penned 'I Wanna Be A Winner' for a 'band' called 'Brown Sauce', ostensibly featuring the cast. It was tiresome; possibly the endless plugging of this tat drove the last of SS's viewers to Tiswas.

Astonishingly - and maybe inadvertantly- this bla-flum actually managed to emulate the fixed rictus of the original, with as much spontaneity as messily-divorced parents trying to please the tinies at Christmas. Not even period charm was left, merely period charmlessness. John Craven awkwardly demeaned himself all over again after all that good work on Country File; the pointless affectation Posh Paws, TV's equivalent of an aunt-knitted sweater, was in attendance; even the innuendoes were ersatz and bloodless. The question came back like a siren; How on earth did they ever get away with it?

How did they get away with it in 2006? In the end, it wasn't even worth staying with to see if Mags would actually knee Cheggers in the knackers (she didn't, I'm told).

It didn't all begin with Swap Shop. For anyone watching such a juddering calamity, it all ended -faith in human nature, the will to live, the lot.

Bad. Very, very bad. Tell-it-to-the-grandkids bad. I had gastric flu this Christmas, and It All Began With Swap Shop was infinitely less pleasant.


BBC2 27.12.2006

I've a journalist friend who was born in 1976 and who displays the kind of interest in 1970s filmic hardmen with a zealousness only attributable to the latterly converted. Put it this way - over his first pint he won't shut up about how hard Daniel Craig is as James Bond. Pint two means reminiscences of The Sweeney, The Professionals etc, and how hard Daniel Craig is as the new James Bond. Third pint in cues how women don't understand masculinity and how... you get the picture. He's got a mate in the army... recognise him now? He hails from the eastern side of the Pennines and doesn't look like a cross of Byron and David Essex, unlike Burnleyite Tony Livesey, the presenter of the risible Beefcake. He also may be a better journalist.

This isn't to diminish Livesey's entertaining and very good Crumpet (2005); a bracing but chaste homage to Ekland, Ege et al took on sexual stereotypes to reinforce and titillate but also challenge; none of the interviewees demeaned themselves onscreen. Unlike Beefcake where almost everyone did -amost all charlied-to-the-gills lifestyle mag editorial chums of the presenter. The only redemption of this sorry show was that convicted murderer Frankie Fraser or any of the seemingly endless procession of professional thugs employed by John Blake didn't appear.

Crumpet began with the question; 'who is so lucky as to get this commissioned, and present it? but developed into 'we need a sequel, guys'. '. Beefcake began with 'who will sack the poor sap that took this on?' and developed into 'we need a hitman, guys'.

The whole charade, a routine clip-show puffed beyond proportion by tbe Beeb was built on one of the ills of the modern age; i.e. that otherwise intelligent adults regard Get Carter as a 'classic' film. It's actually a shabbily efficient little piece of tossed-off social realism - it means as much to intelligent people in France as, say, the humour of Coluche does to us. Yet London nurtures an entire generation of men (always men) who wear their shirts out and drink rubbish beer out of bottles who swear it is 'seminal'. Funny, because a decade before, everyone said that Dirty Harry was just as seminal. And they were right, because it was, and is, infinitely better.

And so all this, I fear, does not quite make the likes of Tim Southwell adequately equipped to tell us why so much of the garbage shown on Beefcake - in between quite shockingly blatant plugs for Casino Royale, probably the 764,562nd since the movie's release - was garbage. I'd like to have seen the lad Southwell explain this status as cultural commentator to his school's Gripper Stebson when having his dinner money extorted from him (lad mag culture devotees were always victims and weakies at school). 'You can have it after I've founded Loaded, honest.'

Neither does it explain the almost Stalinist non-personing of Bruce Lee and John Saxon - among the ultimate heroes of wannabe 70s bootboys - not to mention Starsky and Hutch and Jim Rockford for their kid bros.

There was a dark tone to all this - not that the inestimable Kim Newman looks year on year ever more like Lucifer, but his Devil's advocation of The Professionals jarred. It was parodied so much, Kim, because it was so bad, so very, very bad. Because it was hideously reactionary, unoriginal shite. The scenes from Who Dares Wins still annoy when they don't outrage - as Dylan Jones says, this was 'one of the worst British films ever made'. If the Germans had won the last war, this is the cinema they would have produced (despite the fact this was fodder for those who considered themselves military minded and would no doubt have fought them on the beaches etc etc). Mindless, vicious - but, from a filmic/TV point of view, also utterly worthless.

Compare anything that Lewis Collins has ever appeared in, watched, bought a ticket for, auditioned for, heard about, to one scene from The Sweeney where a bleary Regan, in Carter's flat asks, 'ain't you got any clean glasses here?' The Professionals couldn't even ape that humdrum buddy-buddy writing, unless by the shoddiest of imitation. It's possible the Jack Regan yelled 'shut it' as loudly as he did because he knew how it would resound down the years and make successors into the pygmies they were. As one observer put it: 'on The Sweeney sometimes the bad guys got away'. Pace rare exceptions such as Spooks, the Americanisation of British popular culture has ensured that this is no longer a viable script option

Collins turned up for a special showing of Who Dares Wins at SAS HQ in Hereford (you can see it from the train, by the way, so secret is its location, just watch for the rugby posts, on the right as you head towards Newport). Oh, how they laughed. But, as Andy McNab pointed out, nobody booed. Beefcake was on the side of the gods, who are, of course, British. And while we can laugh at Patrick Mower's clothes in Target, you don't laugh at being a man or being British. Irony only goes so far, after all.

No, it's true. You can't laugh. You can only weep at such a tragedy of a show, and its target audience, the Clarksonites, the morons who sent Richard Hammond get-well cards, the 30somethings with Mitchell haircuts and England tops mindlessly chanting at Melbourne - while our cricketers got a good hiding and while my mate's mate is getting shot at in Basra. Never mind. Let's wave the flag, have a laugh.

No cause for celebration in any of that, really, chaps. And neither was there in this very, very detumuscent show.