Generally, I plan to keep up with the news, but there are some stories i just can't bear to follow. The current one is Alfie Evans, the terminally ill baby whose parents are desperate to keep him alive, against the considered opinion of medical professionals. It's a desperate situation for everyone, but what makes it unbearable is the hysteria of those who seek to exploit it. the Christian missionary Christine Broesamle, for instance, proudly proclaims that "Alder Hey hospital really hates me because I've worked so hard for Alfie's defence." Presumably she thinks that they haven't, that the hospital is part of the attack on Alfie, so the more anger and rage that can be generated against hospital workers, the better it is for Alfie's side. It's so blinkered, intolerant and sure of its own rectitude. I don't know what should happen. But I do know that it's complicated and good people are working hard to try to resolve it. Pretending that it's a kind of Star Wars battle between good and evil isn't any kind of answer.
Amazing how some names retain their potency for years. just those two words, and the images flood back - five stroppy youths, looking for a fight with an angry crowd. the three part TV series did a good job of tracking over the ground, and incidentally threw up a wonderful contrast in police attitudes. the hardened professional, who'd worked in the Met for over twenty years, and just knew it wasn't racist - so all that evidence, analysis, and thought just wasted. throw it down the drain. But then there was the real hero of the piece, a slightly fussy, very old-fashioned guy who didn't seem to be anything special but actually made all the difference, by a meticulous search for and analysis of the evidence that the earlier inquiry had so blatantly mishandled. some things do get better, if only a bit at a time.
Phew! three wonderful nights of football. Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Arsenal all go into their respective games with a three-goal lead. So they think it's all over? Hardly.
Man City totally dominate Liverpool, score an early goal, and then have another wrongly disallowed. You can feel the air oozing out of their ballloon. So I cleverly switch channels, in time to catch Roma conjuring the impossible escape, scoring three goals against Barcelona without reply, so that the magic away goal they scored in losing at Barcelona the previous week becomes the magic key to the semi-finals. On Wednesday it's deja vu all over again, as another cocky favourite, Real Madrid, gradually concede three goals without managing one of their own. they do eventually get a dramatic last-minute penalty, the legendary Buffon is sent off for harassing the ref, and Ronaldo preictably puts the penalty away - but it was close. So what chance Arsenal, my beloved, heart-breaking team, doing things the easy way? Not a hope. They defend disastroulsy, give the ball away, lose endless 50:50 clashes, and only escape by the skin of their teeth. Football can be an amazing game, the away goal rule does have an uncanny kind of magic, and I'm so relieved that I signed up to BT Sport. (Yes, guys. You may use that in the adverts.)
A nasty little nugget, retrieved from the acres of Skripal coverage. when Litvinenko was murdered in London, his dad Walter was in Italy, furious at the Putin regime which had ordered the killing. But years later Walter's back in Russia, sitting on a sofa in a TV studio with Lugovoi, one of the men responsible. they're chatting amiably, and shaking hands, so that the Russian viewers can clearly see that the whole thing was a nasty plot, made up by the West to smear the motherland. (Remind you of any recent coverage?). So what exactly went on to persuade Walter to change his mind? We may never know, but all the guesses are deeply unpleasant. There are no restrictions or limits to get in the way of the main objective - making Putin look good.
Well, why not? Might as well call a spade a spade. I'd had a sense of Russia getting away with stuff on the doping front, slightly reinforced by odd asides as part of the Winter Olympics coverage. But now the scales have fallen from my eyes, and the whole picture is dazzlingly clear.
And what makes the difference? Watching the Netflix documentary Icarus, that's what. It's one of those quirky autobiographical documentaries which starts as as something completely different, but then becomes rivetting as a whole new story unravels before your disbelieving eyes. Ryan Gilbey is a keen amateur cyclist and film-maker, who gets intrigued by the possibility of training himself in the illegal use of drugs to improve his performance - if he can do it, starting from scratch, then surely anyone can. First he gets an American expert to help him, who then gets second thoughts, because this might harm his professional profile, but as a parting gift he puts Ryan in touch with Grigory Rodchenko...
Who just happens to be the mastermind behind Russian Olympic doping. They develop an odd kind of jokey friendship, until things start to unravel. WADA is looking into doping, and seriously investigating what the Russians do. Rodchenko is under pressure, but also scared that he may get ditched as a scapegoat (it has happened before. He got locked up in an asylum, and was only released because Putin's mate needed him to come out and run the programmme. So maybe it's safer to go to the Us...but should he help prosecute the Russians, or try to protect himself by going to the press? It's confused, fascinating and scary, but on the way it provides absolutely total proof that this was a watertight, state-approved programme of deceit, on a massive scale. anyone who thinks that the Russians are the victims of political pressure, or have suddenly cleaned up their act with miraculous precision, is kidding themselves.
Yes, it's official. As a TV viewer I am hard to please. Starting off with a clutch of half a dozen drama series that looked promising, I've watched almost all of them come apart. This weekend I thought I'd do my duty and finish off watching Hard sun, although I had serious misgivings. It started off - promisingly - being about the end of the world. then it diverted onto much more predictable serial killer territory, and then in the final episode it did a sudden sharp turn towards assisted suicide and weird transformation of victims who seem to have been lobotomised.
Through it all our intrepid central pair of sexy pin-ups charge remorseless, apparently unfettered by any connection with the organisation for whom they work, and immune from the threatening secret services they've openly defied. And then there's their private lives. She has a psychotic son who wants to kill er, and several episodes ago was about to have sex with a reporter, but she's completely forgotten about all that. He's a loving, kind, obsessive parent - except he isn't, and has been cheating on his wife with the widow of the colleague he killed way back when.
It's a mess. entirely unconvincing, and streets behind series like Spiral or Before We Die, which aren't models of plausibility but do have some kind of integral consistency, their own heightened world we can sort of believe in. But Neil Cross, apparently, not waiting to see how the customers react, is planning to write another four series of this stuff. Isn't it time for somebody, somewhere, to "take back control"?
A few weeks back, I was raving about the dramatic increase in the quality of TV drama. Oh dear. One by one, they disappoint me, settle for the easy cops and robbers route, simplify the issues, let characters lose all consistency and the plot lose plausibility - so long as it makes a good Tv moment. Cos we're peasants, and we'll settle for anything, right?
The saddest betray of all was Kiri, which in moments was a stunning look at what social workers do and what they have to put up with. But the denouement was all over the place. (SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't watched it but plan to, look away here.)
Kiri has been illegally taken off by her biological father, from whom she then got separated, and killed by persons unknown. In the last episode, it turns out she was killed by her adopted dad, who couldn't bear that she was going off with her biological dad after all they'd done for her. Only snag is, biological dad knows nothing about this. He told the police that he and his daughter got separated, and he was looking for her all over. If they'd agreed to go off together, surely he'd be sitting outside her house, engine running, waiting for her to skip into the car.
If I pick this up on one viewing, surely they could afford to have somebody (unpaid amateur playwright like me, for instance) to go through the script looking for implausibilities, before they spend thousands on spurious political demonstrations that they don't need?
Having moaned at Christmas about the dross that was on offer from mainline TV channels, it's only fair to say that in the New Year things have picked up considerably. As I trawl through the week's offerings, planing my viewing, there's a lot more that's worth a look than there used to be. Drama - McMafia, Hard Sun, Next of Kin, Kiri, Girlfriends. Varied, not everyone's taste, and by no means perfect - but each crafted with a fair bit of care and intelligence, so that you don't feel insulted as soon as you start to watch. Documentaries - House of Saud, A House through Time, Working class White Men, Great Art. Again,very varied, but I've not given up on any of them, and I'm told that i'm hard to please. And then there's one off treats like the GBS bio, or next week's offering on James Joyce, not to mention Inside No. 9, which on the basis of two episodes is looking unmissable. Grab it while you can; it may not last.
Slim pickings on TV most nights, but that makes the exceptions even more valuable. The BBC series of Howards End, on four successive Sundays, has been a real treat. It's partly that the extra allowance of time gives room for development and subtlety. There's not the sense of pressure that you often get as a 300 page novel is rammed into 120 minutes of screen time. The acting's been terrific, especially of the Schlegel siblings, but there's also the intelligence of the script. After You Can Count on Me and Manchester by the Sea Kenneth Lonergan was already one of my favourite people in film, but here he's brilliantly self-effacing. He's quoted as saying that 75% of the script is pure Forster, but it's a very carefully selected 75%. Last time I read Howards End I found it much heavier going than watching this series. And the remaining 25% is impossible to spot - it feels smooth and seamless, but never shallow. Then there's those trademark Lonergan moments, where characters are filmed at social events talking to each other, and you can't hear what they're saying but you know exactly what is going on. Sheer magic.
Key question these days, but one I saw differently this week, through sheer accident. I was in the dining room, watching the BBC ten o'clock news. It was telling me about a deal between Myanmar and Bangladesh, who'd just agreed that Myanmar would take back refugees, that Bangladesh would return them, and everything would be fine. After what's gone on, that was hard to believe. It was also hard to believe that Bangladesh got anything out of this worth having. Were we supposed to think better of them, for washing their hands of people in trouble?
But then I needed to make a drink so I moved into the kitchen, and switched on radio 4. Same story, but with a crucial bit of background added. On the radio version, the deal was arranged by China. They bullied Bangladesh into accepting it, despite the fact that it didn't include provisos for which Bangladesh had asked. Pure muscle, making something happen because they wanted to contrive the appearance of an agreement which wasn't actually there and would make no appreciable difference to those at the sharp end. But radio listeners get to hear information which doesn't make it on to the TV screen.
I wasn't sure I could take more of Trump, but the four-part Channel f series tracing his entire career has been really good. Not outraged or emotional, just a calm tour through the key developments, through the eyes of a range of people who were there at the time - some of them very close. There's friends, colleagues and enemies, and some who moved from one category to the other. there's moments early on when he seems almost like a normal, decent guy, but then the urge to own and to buy takes over, and he loses control. He has two thriving casinos in Atlantic city, but then the Taj Mahal comes on the market. He has to have it. It's the biggest there is, so he has no choice. Except that all financial experts are confident that he's bound to make a loss, and they're right. He sells it, wriggles out of contracts, leaves local businesses unpaid. but none of that worries him a scrap, because he's on to the next big thing.
the same, apparently, applies to his women and his wives. He sets up Ivana as the manager of one of these casinos, and she's very successful. Tough and ruthless, maybe, but a hard and thorough worker. There's fascinating footage of a big night where she's the boss and he's the appendage - and he hates it. He really suffers, to be at a big occasion where he's not the centre of attention. No, it won't change my opinion of him, but it isn't half filling in the detail.
I read one of Satnam Sanghera's memoirs, and heard him speak at a conference in Durham. I think he's a really sharp, intelligent writers, and he's interestingly different in arguing for the benefit of having a day job. Unlike almost any other writer you're heard of, he actually doesn't want everything in his life to be dependent on his writing.
So I was looking forward to the TV drama based on his account of his estrangement from his Sikh background, in parallel with his belated discovery that both his father and sister were suffering from depression. That would have been quite enough, because he explores that development with tough honesty, ready to acknowledge the ways in which he's been selfish and blind.
But of course that isn't enough. We couldn't end up with grim truths and hard-won wisdom. We have to have the cute romantic finish, the phone-call from Wolverhampton station with the girlfriend who's - look! just behind him - and happy-ever-after before the credits can roll. Richard Curtis has a lot to answer for.
"All of this 'Russia' talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT!...Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign. But why aren't Crooked Hillary and the Dems the focus???? also, there is NO COLLUSION."
You guessed it. Not a teenager letting off steam, but the leader of the free world. He doesn't want to run the country, he wants to re-run the campaign - having a five star general leap on to the stage shouting "Lock her up!" is the best fun he's had in years.
But it's not funny. A sober reminder of the personal costs of this stuff in last night's Storyville documentary coming Home, about an American soldier who left his unit, was held and tortured by the Taliban for five years, and then returned to the US in a deal involving Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo. Because of Obama, and all the politics involved, Trump was on this in a flash, passionately telling rallies that six young, beautiful Americans had died trying to rescue this deserter, who in the old days would simply have been shot. and of course, they loved it, and are still yelling for this guy to be thrown into jail for the rest of his life. Army experts, used to debriefing prisoners who've been tortured, say this man's had worse treatment than anyone since Vietnam, and should not be in prison for a single day. Oh yes, and the progrramme aslo does the legwork, asks the questions, and sets the record straight: none of the six young men were actually searching for this soldier when they were killed. It made a great story, and he told it with passion. Just turns out not to be true.
So that's it. All over, just like that. A mere ten hours of compulsive watching, and we've done the Vietnam war. I remember, way back, watching the Ken Burns series on the American Civil War. A bit solemn, but so patient, and with wonderful photographs. The jazz was similarly good to look at, though a bit more controversial in terms of what he did and didn't cover, what kind of look-in contemporary music got. But Vietnam is safely distant in one sense, although - as the programme showed - in some cases the wounds still linger on. But the detail and the photos were stunning, and they've assembled an amazing array of witnesses - Americans, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, first hand accounts of what went on, from a range of angles. There is a sad, wise recognition that american exceptionalism has been a hugely expensive curse for the whole planet, let alone America, but although that wouldn't got down well in the White House for the rest of us it's long overdue. It's moving to watch people grow over the length of the war - how a loyal marine gradually becomes a vet against the war, and then witnesses John Kerry's astonishing testimony to congress about what the war has cost. Plus, of course, the astonishing soundtrack. We always said there was no time like the sixties, and here's the proof.
A real TV treat. To accompany the TV showing of Gertrude Bell's Letters from Baghdad, BBC4 have put out two one-hour episodes of Rory Stewart talking about the legacy of T.E.Lawrence. It's been gorgeous - some fabulous photography of landscape and architecture, but also a detailed, clear analysis of what was going on in Lawrence's mind, and why that might matter now. And it's all done by a guy who idolised Lawrence as a kid, and then explored vast stretches of the middle East on foot, staying in bedouin tents. But also by someone who at a ridiculously young age was a governor in Afghanistan and Iraq, and who saw the idioocy of occupation in heartbeaking detail. as his conclusion spells out, it's tragic that the American military are encouraging their officers to study Lawrence - because he's a winner at fighting in the Middle East - whereas Lawrence himself would actually be telling them "don't do it better; don't do it at all."
This series is from some time back - it shows Stewart walking thoughtfully through a Damascus souk - but I can't think how or why I missed it. Yet again, thank God for catch-up.
There's been a ton of programmes about the India/Pakistan partition of 1947, almost all of them excellent. I feel substantially wiser, and grateful to all the people who've clearly taken this as an opportunity to invest time, thought and money in public education. Lord Reith, for once, might be smiling. Gurinder Chadha's "India's Partition:The Forgotten Story" was possibly the best of the lot, coming towards the end of the sequence, but offering a stunningly clear account of how different elements combined to produce this exceptionally bloody result. There was a lot of rather silly (apparent) toing and froing, from the UK to India, back to the UK and then to a different part of India, as though Chadha,, was jumping on and off various buses around London. But the quality of the programme was the expert witnesses it gathered to explain precisely what was going on, at each stage of the process, and from them we got the sense of how impersonal forces combined with individual personalities (Nehru, Gandhi and Jinna in particular, but also the Brits involved) to produce a toxic juggernaut which by the end was unstoppable - though it could certainly have been handled more wisely - i.e. by taking time, calculating likely consequences, rather than staying out of violent clashes and getting the hell out as fast as possible. There may be parts of our colonial record we should celebrate, but this isn't one of them.
You can't please some people any of the time. Peter Kosminsky spends a lot of time researching and then making the state, a drama in four parts, one hour each, shown on four successive nights. It's about Brits going to Syria in support of Isis. I thought it was fascinating, and really well done. A bit formulaic, heavily constricted by the need to get in tons of useful information that had been gathered, but not stupid or preachy, and light years ahead of most of the thinking that we get about Isis from politicians or the TV news. you could begin to understand why people like these could initially be attracted by some of what they hear, even if that - inevitably? - leads to later disillusion as they taste the grim and complex reality of what's involved. The Daily Mail was predictably scathing. Kosminsky was a white, middle-aged Oxbridge graduate - he hadn't actually been to Raqqa to find out for himself. Stuart Jeffies in The Guadrian wasn't much better: "Isis Drama fails to offer any answers on radicalisation." Oh right. That's why we watch plays, is it? So they'll give us the answers. Some days I think that if I could speak another language I'd emigrate.
It took me a while, but I finally caught up with Gareth Thomas' TV documentary about homophobia in English football. And it is that specific - there's a prominent gay American soccer player who's happy to have come out there, but wouldn't have done so here. And Thomas' own experience in British rugby (backed up by referee Nigel Owens) indicates that that's a much more civilised world in this respect. So Thomas goes looking for answers. He trawls through trolling on line, and listens to the abuse in the stands. He sees how some clubs are much better geared than others to combat it - Cardiff, for instance, have a well-trained team who will identify, remove and then ban fans who abuse black players - but would they be as vigilant about homophobic chants? As with Thomas' own case, it needs prominent players with the nerve to come out - and once that happens, they'll get backing from sponsors (great positive story) and some of the press. But before that happens, the powers that be need to get their act together, produce and then enforce a common pattern of resistance to open homophobia. Thomas tries. He really does. He works out a possible code of practice, with a supportive lawyer. He tries, endlessly, to make an appointment with one top official. He talks to another, gets a load of platitudes and good intentions, and comes out shaking his head "I don't know whether to laugh or cry." As a record of intelligence and determination confronting stupidity and inertia this is a wonderful programme; as an indication of the state of football, it's deeply depressing.
It's all changed. Back in the day, I'd make a note of what I wanted to watch when, see in advance when commitments clashed with things I wanted to watch, and carefully set the video to record. Oh boy. those were the days.
Saturday night, I have the house - and the TV set - to myself. so I have four hours of solid viewing. an hour of Ozark, courtesy of Netflix. An hour of Top of the Lake:China Girl, which has just been launched, but launched with all six episodes available from the start, courtesy of iplayer. And then there's two episodes, back to back, of I Know Who You Are, thoughtfully transmitted on BBC 4.
Sheer luxury. and, sadly, all foreign. One American, one Australian, one Spanish. None of them perfect, but all stylish and compulsive, and streets ahead of recent Brit series I've sampled in hope and then given up on in despair - Fearless, In the Dark. Interesting ideas, promising starts, but then they collapse in a tangle of implausible situations and ramped up hysteria.
So that's it. All over. And nobody wins. But you can't complain, after three rugby matches of that intensity. I'm not a Sky subscriber, never have been, and probably never will be. But in a crisis I'm prepared to cadge, and my friendly neighbour Gary's been happy to oblige. that was for tests 1 and 2. For 3, as it happens, he's committed to a stall in Wenlock, and i'm collecting for amnesty in Newport, on the 11.00 am shift. So there's nothing for it - I'm driving to Newport at 7.30 am, so that I can be settled in the Pheasant before kick off at 8.30, can watch the whole game, and then go and rattle my tin on the streets.
What a game. Yes, the All Blacks had the chance, fluffed three tries and missed two very easy kicks. We didn't really get close to scoring - apart from an intercepted pass that nearly gave them a try - but we kicked our kicks, we made our tackles, and we held out the best team in the world. The two tries the all Blacks did score were truly clinical - they just see what needs to happen, and then do it, very fast - but the Lions didn't collapse, did hold together, and this was pure drama - all of us held together, daring to sustain the dream that we could - despite the odds, against all probability - survive. And thanks to canny Sam Warburton inviting the ref to look at the TMO, and eccentric Roman Poite reckoning that maybe it's accidental offside rather than the other kind, the Lions do scrape through. (See The Luck of the Draw in Poems from the News).