European Drama

A week ago, I did a post about the glories of BT sport. How little I knew. whatever we saw last week was just the hors ‘d’oeuvres, a preamble to this week’s main course, although sadly I almost missed it all. Teusday I went to a poetry reading, organised by a friend, support a good cause…As I sadi to a fellow fan, if Liverpool had lost 1-0 last week, it woul’ld have been a harder decision. I thought they might score a few goals. I never dreamed they’d keep a cl;ean sheet. Messi? Suarez?

Wednesday night I was at home, so I could watch tottenham try to overtake Ajax. after 45 minutes it was embarrassing. Ajax held on to the ball, passed their way out of trouble, Spurs huffed and puffed, but couldn’t put anything together and never looked like threatening to reduce the lead. So I closed down the upstairs computer, and went down to be sociable, and watch a documentary about Brexit. (which was, as it happens, less than ordinary). Then I watch the ten o’clock news, and find out that Lucas Moura has scored a second half hat-trick. The European Cup final will be Liverpool v. Spurs.

Luckily, in these days of catch up, you never actually miss anything, and it’s easy to relive it, even if not the same as seeing it live - see last week. Two totally different games, different kiinds of triumph, and in both cases it was really close - Barcelon and Ajax both had chances to make the pressure even worse. But you have to hand it to them - for keeping going, for believing, for giving everything for the fans…Just amazing. and it’s quite possible to celebrate that without turning it into some kind of jingoistic faith that England rules the waves.

Line of Duty

Oh, the hype, the excitement, the viewing figures…Is Hastings H? Or is it one of the other five characters whose name also starts with H. Actually, I care very little. I’ve been a Jed Mercurio fan since Cardiac Arrest, and earlier episodes of this (remember Keeley Hawes?) have been rivetting. But I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for the current series, and I’m surprised by those who can. Lucy Mangan, airing some doubts in The Giuardian this week, actually started this series with a five star review, and I never thought it was that good.

What’s wrong? It’s partl;y that they’ve got obsessed with the whodunnit streak, the need to produce rabbits out of the hat at regular intervals. so the wonderful Anna Maxwell Martin is given a cardboardy kind of pushy promted officer, with two staff - one of whom shesack for incompetence, the other of whom turns out to be a hired killer working for the crooks. Yeah, police routine as usual.

But the real problem is the key player, and the perfunctory treatment of their personal lives. The possible tension between Kate and Steve (she got promoted. he didn’t - why?) isn’t explored, but we get very skimpy glances at their private lives. She’s having trouble in her marriage, he’s finding ti hard to have sex..but hey, let’s move back tot hew whodunnit and the latest twist. Back in the days of Keeley Hawes we explored this stuff properly. and then there’s Hastings. He’s made to lurk around in his office, looking sinister, to fuel the “is he H?” suspicion. But when he’s arrested he’s blustering like a fool. A senior officer would surely have more clue how this process works, and would be thinking hard about what’s actually going on. Yeah, it was great while it lasted, but maybe it’s gone on long enough.

BT Sport

God knows there have been times when I could happily have consigned the entire BT operation into a deep volcano - but not this week. This week I’ve watched, in full, Tottenham v. Ajax, Barcelona v. Liverpool, and Arsenal v. Valencia - and it’s been sheer joy. in the old days it would have been very condensed highlights on BBC or ITV, but now, in retirement leisure, I can squander the whole evening to watch the drama unfold in real time, and over these three particular matches that’s been a delight. That way, you can watch the drama of how teams and managers change what they’re doing - how Tottenham start as total no-hopers, utterly outclassed, and then - by tactical changes and sheer effort - make themselves competitive again. Arsenal, very similar, give away a crumby early goal and seem about to throw it all away, again, until somehow they don’t, and produce fast, stylish attacks which lead to goals and - eventually - an almost healthy result. And then there’s Barcelona. the electric surprise of that opening goal, a breakaway in a tough, tense opening which suddenly changes the whole picture. and massive effort from Liverpool;, fighting their way back into contention, before lucky bounces and ricochets give Barcelona a second, and then - the magic of Messi - an unbelievable third. there is no justice. 3-0 as a scoreline for this game is scandalous. But you have to watch it in full to really grasp that truth. so, despite the adverts and the endless self-congratulatory promotion, thank you, BT sport.

Ukraine Comic tops the poll

Ok, so the US has a game show ghost; why shouldn’t Ukraine have a comedian? It’s really hard to know how to take this news, and it’s not made more hopeful by the fact that this young guy, superficially entertaining and ttractive, is dependent on the backing of a serious oligarch. “I promise I won’t mess it up” he says, as though good intentions were all that’s required. does he have any notion of what he’s taking on, and of how much is currently threatening Ukraine?

But it could be worse. He’s not a Putin puppet, that’s for sure. Putin didn’t congratulate him on his election, and he did go out of his way to stress that his victory showed other ex-Russian federation states that anything was possible. I don’t suppose that went down well in Moscow. And however much you disapprove of the razz-ma-tazz and jokey superficiality of the atmosphere, at least there’s an unpredictable spontaneity about proceedings which will look very strange - and maybe quite appealing - to any Russians who get to follow what’s happening. No, it’s not a happy ending, and yes, he could well get pushed around, but it’s not just Russian business as usual, and the Ukrainians deserve something chirpy to boost their spirits. It’s not as though the West have given them much to cheer about over the last five years.

In Praise of Referees

Ever since my knees got worse and I stopped venturing out of the house to go for a walk, I’ve watched a lot more sport. Soon after my double knee replacement I signed up to BT sport, and have never regretted it. I get the European football, regular premiership rugby, and this weekend the quarter-finals of the rugby European Cup. and look, the nice kind people at BT sport arrange the matches so that they don’t clash - if I want to, and this weekend I do, I can sit and watch all four. They’ve been rivetting, but with true dramatic skill they made sure that they saved the best for last. Toulouse had their fly-half sent off for a high tackle after twenty minutes, but still hung on to beat Racing 92 by a single point, after some breathtaking rugby and thousands of twists and turns which might easily have gone the other way.

and at the heart of all this was Luke Pearce, who likes like a well-behaved sixth former, but is consistently clear, appolite and apparently lacking in ego - he just wants to get the decisions right. and he does. He makes good use of the TMO, he isn’t stampeded into rash decisions which might please a volatile and partisan crowd, and in the opinion of people who know (Brian O’Driscoll, Lawrence Dallaglio) he gets them all right. He talks to his touch judges in English, but to the French plays in French, and all in all is just a brilliant example of how to be English abroad. Politicians please note.

The Cleaners

Not sure if there’s anything on TV? Just go to BBC iplayer, look up Storyville, and then watch anything they’ve got. I’ve seen some wonderful stuff on there over the last year, and really can’t remember watching anything of theirs that I regretted. This was deeply topical - a look at The Cleaners, the people who police social media, to decide which posts and images should stay up, and which should be taken down. Not exactly ideal working conditions. They sit in a booth, flicking through images, saying “ignore…ignore…delete….ignore…delete…” with a target of 25,000 images a day. some of them have high ideals, about the need for the work they do and the social service they’re performing, but over the course of the documentary it’s very clear that there’s a huge cost - just watching this stuff - the pornography, the violent images of terrorism - is really depressing, quite apart from the pressure of having to make thousands of decisions against the clock. and these are not relaxed intellectuals sitting in California laying down the rules. They’re shift workers in Manila; if they weren’t doing this they’d be sifting rubbish from the piles of garbage that litter the outskirts of town, and the documentary makes clear that these alternative occupations are nothing like as different as we might like to think. not pleasant, not simple, but necessary viewing.

Six Nations climax

Oh, biy. ever since going out for a walk has stopped being an option, I’ve settled for watching most of the Six Nations matches - while they’re still available to mainstream TV. Saturday, March 16 was the best day’s rugby-watching I can rmember for a while. Plucky dogged Italy, with thwe wonderful Parisse playing his heart out as ever, deserving a win at last but not getting it - with a bright young three quarter grinning widely as he dioves over for the winning try - but fails to touch it down. Wales grinding out their fourth win, rarely entertaining but incredibly difficult to beat, and in the process deflating an Irish side which last year looked invincible. Is that really Johnny Sexton looking hopelessly outclassed?

And then there’s England. for forty minutes they look far and away the best side in Europe, with Sotland embarrasing also-rans. Half time. Switch round. Both switch round. Scotland are fast, brave, incisive. England are lumbering, blundering, incompetent. 31 - 00 to 31-31, to 31-38 to Scotland. Finally, jones realises that Farrell is not the answer but the problem, and George Ford comes on to rescue us, but it’s mighty close. and the imperious Elliott Daly, irresistible in attack,is almost useful in defence. so many fascinating little cmaeos, and future decisions to be made, because beyond this introcate, complex drama lies the fascination of the World Cup…Bring it on. I can hardly wait.

Leaving Neverland

Four hours of documentary about a celebrity paedophile - what’s not to like? Actually, it’s brilliant. the two central guys (both victims of Michael Jackson as young boys) are rivetting - thoughtful, honest, fair. They pay tribute to Jackson’s talent, enthusiasm encouragement of their talent, and to the good sides of what in some ways they still see as an intimate, loving relationship. But as the documentary unfolds we also got the views of their mothers, partners and relatives, and the devious way in which Jackson seduced whole families, and then used that as a lever to bully his victimes into isolation and submission. Even after the boys have become young men, and Jackson’s moved on to younger boys, he exploits the link - there’s a court case, he’s being accused, they need to testify that yhis relationship with them was innocent…And then there’s the toll on their mental health, of living with a lie, of repeatedly telling thier families that nothing happened (because if they don’t, Jackson has warned them, they’ll all go to prison for the rest of their lives).

Predictably, the Jackson machine has moved in to slander these two, to suggest that they lied before, and they’re lying now, because they want to make a bit of extra cash…I defy anyone to watch this balanced, thoughtul, detailed film and say “Yeah, they’re making it all up.”

Man U Miracle

I’m not a fan of Manchester United. Their slogan “We’re not arrogant. Just better” is a neat summary of why they’re hard to love, but just now and again they blow your mind. I remember performing a poem about their last-minute European cup win back in the late nineties, and then last night they did it again.

They’re playing PSG, who deservedly beat them 2-0 at home in the first leg. Journalists handily provide the evidence that this has happened on 106 occasions, without the losing team ever overcoming that disadvantage. So Man U, of course, go and do it. They don’t have much possession, they don’t play good football or produce creative moves, but they do win.

and you can see the solskjaer brain, actually at work. Start off with two strikers, pressing defenders, pressuring them into mistakes - and getting two goals as a result. Then sit back and defend that, 5-4-1 with very little positive going on. Last ten minutes, all out attack, throw on a third striker, and some squeak a highly dubious penalty out of VAR. It’s genius.

Shamima Begum

When Shamima Begum and her friends left the country to join Isis I wrote a sonnet about her, focussing on the press conference where her family appeared holding her teddy bear, saying “she’s our baby, and we want her back.” It seemed like a bad idea at the time, when whatever else she was she clearly wasn’t a baby, and was planning on doing some pretty drastic growing up.

And she has. she’s lost her husband and her children, and wants to come back home with her new baby. enter Sajid Javid, high class chancer, very skilled at watching the tabloids to see which way he ought to jump. Maybe sound hawkish, and say she can’t come back? Threaten to cancel her citizenship - “just like that”? But he’s not an incompetent TV magician. He’s a government minister and he’s supposed to apply the law. where does it say he can rub out someone’s nationality, just because he doesn’t like their political choices? She may be a contradiction, and she may have committed crimes - though she’s innocent until proved guilty. But she is British, and she’s allowed to come back home.

Universal Credit

Universal Credit, you will not be surprised to hear, is a disaster. It’s been looking that way since at least 2014, and as it’s “rolled out” (wonderful phrase) so the faults keep appearing in brighter, bolder colours. You’ve got to communicate with the office, but not by going in - by ringing up. Often, the lines are jammed. If they are, you’ll get stultifying music, for hours on end - so much kinder just to have total silence. You’ve got to go online, even if you don’t have a computer. You’ve got to look for jobs, even if there aren’t any (and in this particular part of Hartlepool, that’s largely true. And if you’re totally illiterate some fool at the DWP is likely to suggest that you become an IT consultant. Presenting the most vulnerable people on TV is a tough, elusive art, but this programme - Skint Britain - managed it better than most, with warmth and a sense of humour (like The Mighty Recar) but also a gathering rage about the clumsiness of the plans that have been devised to support these people - though ‘support’ is’t the right word. “Make them realise how worthless they are” perhaps? and all in the service of Ian Duncan smith’s nineteenth century view of “Work good, benefits bad.”

Surely we can do better than this?

Marie Colvin

Wonderful Storyville documentary about Marie Colvin - “Under the Wire”, on BBC4. Most of its about colvin in Homs, particualrly in the days leading up to her killing, and her sidekick/buddy/cameraman Paul Conroy is compulsive viewing. She wasn’t, often, particularly nice - there’s a vivd scene when new reporters arrive on her patch, and she’s rude to and about them (Eurotrash!). Her friend Lindsey Hilsum is cleaerly different - rational, tough, determined, but also aware of the risks - “I asked about her exit strategy. She didn’t have one.” There’s absolutely no doubting Colvin’s commimtent to the civilians of Homs, and her determined spelling out of the aggression of the Assad forces towards their own population - which is probably what got her killed. So she’s a fascinating character rather than a role model, but documentaries like this are as close as you can get to giving us cushy spectators the feel of what it must be like to be in a war zone without putting ourselves at risk in any way. So, thanks, guys.

Sorting Venezuela

there’s absolutely no doubt that Venezuela’s in a mess. It goes back a while, and the are complex reasons, and some excellent TV documentaries have spelt out why that’s horrendous for huge numbers of people who live there. But none of that’s an excuse for the crude intervention proposed by Trump - and echoed by large parts of Europe. you’d have thought we might have learnt - vietname, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. Intervening ion other countries isn’t a simple matter of saying they got it wrong so the boss man has to go. You need something a lot more sustained, intelligent and long-term if what follows is going to be any better than what went before. But because nobody wants to tell Trump that there are things he doesn’t understand, they troop obediently along, likely to make things worse rather than better.

On Second Thoughts...

This is in praise of having second thoughts…but also in praise of catch-up TV. I was extremely rude about Christmas TV, and mainly I think that criticism still applie4s. But not entirely. I make a couple of exceptions for programmes i didn’t plan to watch, but then went back to because reviews suggested they might be worth a look. And they were.

As I kid there was a brief period when I read Agatha Christie - until I saw the light and discovered Raymond Chandler. I don’t fancy watching David Suchet stroking his chin because he smugly knows he’s so much brighter than the rest of us - so I didn’#t bother with the ABC Murders. But it wasn’t suchet, it was Malkovich - a much more interesting and human proposition, and yes, it really was very well done and worth catching up.

But the real revelation was Torvill and Dean. ITV spending two hours on a couple of ice-dancers? Bound to be tedious, p[added out with familiar footage, endless music and cooing commentators. Actually, no. A thoughtful, painfully honest drama about two young people and their relationship - that’s interaction as people, differences as human beings, crises, tensions - the stuff of drama. done with the couple’s co-operation, apparently, and they don’t seem to have held anything back. A serious, intelligent piece of work, well worth watching.

Brexit: the Uncivil War

A two-hour drama on Channel 4 by James Graham about Brexit; what’s not to like? Plenty, apparently, judging by the storm of adverse reactions with which the papers are heaving. Anne Perkinds thinks it glorifies an oddball when what was happening was deceit, Shahmir Sanni thinks it simplifies the nature of the crooked deals and social media shanigins. Carole Cadwallader thinks it’s too soon…When would be a good time? What this play does do is convey the huge complexity of this chaotic process - the personalities and the politics, the social media and the social pressures, the sheer lack of control or direction which gave us our current mess in all its glory. No, it doesn’t neatly confirm the prejudices of those watching it, and it would be useless as drama if it did. What it does do is offer a lively, entertaining overview, a way of making sense out of what’s volatile and complicated. I’ve read the books Graham has read- Shipman, Oliver, Banks - and I’m astonished by how much real detail he’s been able to weave into this fast-moving and thought-provoking piece. Well worth watching, and well worth watching again.

The Nightmare of Waco

If a documentary is on BBC4, and it’s part of the Storyville strand, then it’s probably going to be worthwhile. This one, a huge two-part analysis of David Koresh and Waco, was stunning. It’s partly that they’ve got the time to tack down a lot of people who were part of this story, and a significant number of veterans of Koresh’s community who retain the faith that there was something very special about him. there were also a wise old local journalist, and an FBi man who sat impatients on the sidelines, just itching to crash in and start shooting people. and he got his way. A whole lot of stuiff I’d never heard before. some very canny Bible scholars who knew Revelation as well as Koresh did hatched this plan to publicise his writings about it, and he was in the process of doing this when the raid started. (they thought it might have been the deal that made the peace; the FBI were sure it was all a con). there were video’s made of the negotiators and of the community members, so that they could swap them ina kind of mutual introduction - but those of the Koresh followers weren’s show, because it might have made them look too human and appeakling. When the FBI were trying to pressure Janet Reno into authorising a raid on the community, they told her that Koresh was likely to abuse the children (not true) but they didn’t tell her about the deal with the bible schol;ars. So in they go…and one of the community members testifies that when the assault started, with teargas, it was members of the community who set the building alight, and ensured the death of themselves and many members. Gruesome stuff, but necessary and informative.

Coming up to Eighty

Having clocked up my seventy fourth birthday, there are odd moments when I try to think ahead, and now the Christmas sillliness is over I actually get some help from the TV. Two portraits of eighty-year olds in action, and they couldn’t be more different. Raymond Briggs is a bit doddery, eccentric and slow, lovable but very much imprisoned in memories of his own childhood. but it’s good to be reminded, in sequence, of his varied creations - Father Christmas, Fungus, Snowman, Falklands, When the Wind blows - and he’s got a chorus of approving fans to die for - Steve Bell, Nick Park, Posy Simmonds.

And then there’s Andrew Davies. Totally irrepressible, confident and - having polished off Les Miserables (with some cheeky irreverence about the musical - which I also hate) he now can’t wait to get his teeth into A suitable boy - just a thousand pages or so of intricate Indian novel. He’s clever and sharp rather than profound, and he too has a chorus of praise, but for him as an adaptor rather than an original creator - he’s quick, ruthless, gets rids of the stuff you don’t need. But still an impressive work ethic, which it’s tiring to watch, let alone emulate.

Diplomacy in Action

Wonderful little nugget within the BBC documentary about the workings of the Foreign Office. Boris Johnson is being briefed by his expert advisor, before he gives a speech in Paris. He’s rather inclined to do the speech in French. She’s not sure about this, and if he plans to do it she wants to see the script. she’s worried that there are nuances he may miss, things he’ll simplify. He burbles a bit in French, as if to demonstrate just how fluent he is. she stays quiet and tight-lipped. Her French is streets ahead of his, but she’s focussing on the job that needs to be done. He’s busy preening, and the whole trip is regularly interrupted by the need for Boris to pose and record a little snatch for his Twitter feed, which he keeps having to reshoot because he gets things wrong. We were paying for all of this, just like Londoners were lashing out thousands for the various vanity projects that marked his time as Mayor. Dangerous to be too confident, but it does finally look as though we’ve seen the end of the illusion that this vain charlatan might be a possible candidate to be in charge of the country.

So Near and Yet So Far

Phew! We got within a point of beating the world champions. Closer than that, we scored a brilliant try which was disallowed after the TMO overruled the ref, but the TMO’s not supposed to do that unless there’s a clear…blah blah blah. On the other hand, if you have a 15-0 lead against the All Blacks and you let it slip, maybe you don’t deserve to win. and we did get a one-point win against the Springboks, on the basis of a very flukey TMO decision, so maybe that’s quits. We had chances, we made mistakes, the line-out was a shambles, and the All Blacks are very resilient. and maybe if the weather had been dry and more conducive to really good rugby, they’d have thrashed us. but it was exciting, and much more cheering than the slough into which the vaunted England team has slipped over the last year. so maybe a bit of the Eddie Jones magic still survives. It was certainly worth watching.

Better than Bodyguard?

People keep referring back to Bodyguuard as the revival of watercooler Tv, the moment when we were all spellbound by great television. As I’vve explained in a previous post, I don’t share this enthusiasm (though I’m a massive Jed Mercurio fan), but catching up with other stuff makes me even more mystified by this chorus of praise. Informer, for instance, seems to me much better. As it happens, there are a number of close points of comparison. Paddy Considine also acts the part of a troubled male with a grim past, but he does it with more conviction and variety, and the impact on his partner is much more carefully traced. The working context of the two main detectives is depicted in much more plausible detail than the endlessly complex netwioorks hinted at in The Bodyguard. And as for the depiction of Asian characters - Informer wins hands down. One of its triumphs has been the close, heartbreaking depiction of a very particular family with Pakistani roots - light years ahead of the extreme cartoon of the woman in Bodyguard - look, she’s a passive female stereo type - oh no, she isn’t, she’s a calculating killer! So if I end up buying the box set of one of these, it won’t be The Bodyguard.