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.

Television Riches

I’ve said it before, but we really are being spoilt with the drama. some diappointments, admittedly. I wrote about Bodyguard on 26.9.18. I had high hopes of Black Earth Rising (spending time and effort exploring the complex morality of Rwanda’s emergence from mass killings, but it’s drifted into self-important solemnity, with Hugo Blick’s vanity being fed right over the top:look, he doesn’t just write, produce and direct - he’s also an actor!

But don’t despair. there’s also Killing Eve, Vanity Fair, The Cry and probably other good stuff I’ve missed. Certainly Informer was far better - tougher, livelier, more complex - than I’d feared it might be, and thanks to reviews I’ve been able to catch up on Butterly. No, a three part drama about a transgender boy/girl on ITV wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it is by Tony Marchant, and it’s definitely worth a look. So, blessings to the gods of television drama, who are keeping us generously supplied. And there’s still Little Drummer Girl to come.

House of Assad

A series of three documentaries, about the recent history of Syria. But with a strong emphasios, and for good reason, on Basher’s family. He’s not meant to be running the country; older brother is being groomed for that, but older brother dies in a car crach. Basher, the shy eye surgeon with the liberated, modern wife, suddenly has to fit in the mould that’s waiting for him - heir to the hawkish, defiant Dad. Ruthless suppressor of criticism or dissent, which actually means he will end up opposed to all the things that he and his wife originally intended to support. Through a series of crises and accidents he blunders his way into destroying large parts of his country, killing his subjects, driving them out of their homes - and all thetime he sounds like an amateur actor who hasn’t learnt the script. There were moments when it could have been different, when advisors with more vision offered him alternatives, but no. He chose to keep his mum happy, to fit into the mould, to make the lying speeches claiming he was defending the country from terrorism, while driving it relentlessly towards oblivion. Heartbreaking, but also fascinating in a morbid kind of way.

Arsenal Poetry

We have, it must be said, paid our dues. Arsenal fans have put up with a load of rubbish and heartbreak over the past few years, so it’s good to have something to warm the cockles of our hearts. Our third goal (from a 5-`1 demolition of Fulham, admittedly) was a thing of beauty - the ball caressed from one player to the next with a series of deft, outrageous touches which somehow transported it from one end of the pitch to the other, enabling Ramsey to guide it into the net with a sublime conjuror’s flick. OK, we haven’t beaten anyone good yet, and the defence very much remains a work in progress, but emery works and he cares, and he’s got the team looking a lot more lively than they have for years. We’ll settle for what we can get, and count ourselves lucky.

The Mighty Redcar

More documentary gold, more pleasure available on catch-up. Didn’t fancy it from the title - “who do these northerners think they are, calling themselves mighty” - but was totally wrong and am delighted to have the chance to change my mind. There’s incidental stuff which isn’t incidental at all - like a brilliant overall commentary, some fabulous photography and really classy contemporary music, all of which add to the pleasure. But the real joy of it is the sympathy with which people are dealt, sometimes even dozy, loser-type people who delude themselves entirely. The stories centre on young people at a very tough time, some of them ludicrously talented, others not so much. but they’re all treated sympathetically, and we get to know and care about them. There’s also a powerful strand running through it, of older mentors, relatives, friends who are looking out for these kids, and trying to help them succeed against the odds. it’s on catch-up. It’s not too late. Go and have a look.

Passage to Britain

There’s a ton of stuff to watch at the moment, lots of it drama, so I tend to skim over the documentaries. But Linda’s much keener on them, and sometimes as I clock in at 10.00pm to pick up some news I catch the end of something she’s been watching. This is how i latched on to “Passage to Britain” and I’m so glad I did. Kid simple idea. Pick three passenger liners, coming from India to Britain, in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s. Pick out some interesting characters, and tell their stories. Except there’s a lot more to it than that, hours of work and research, and presumably an endless budget. Yasmin Khan is talking to a woman in England about her childhood in India, when hey - she takes her back to Calcutta. All right for some. and Yasmin’s a bit special. she looks like an eager sixth-former, all round faced and enthusiastic, but she’s very clear about the bad stuff - the racism experienced by these people who came here to better their lives, often with our encouragement or at our invitation. It’s a really good, detailed, informative story, and i thank the telly gods yet again who have given us catch-up.

Mother's Day

Lots of hysteria about Bodyguard, which is fine. I'm a big Mercurio fan, and will happily watch anything he's created. But won't someone say just how clear, careful and intelligent Mother's Day was? the story of the Warrington bombings, and what followed from them. Irt actually suggested a closer link between the parents of the teenager who died and the Irish mother who campaigned as a result, but that's OK. There was nothing articicial or contrived about this, just a measured, slow look at what was happening to the people involved.

for which you need really good actors. Anna Maxwell Martin, Vicky McClure and Daniel Mays is a good start, but the whole thing oozed class and care, avoiding all the plentiful booby traps into which a quicker, louder, shallower production might have fallen. We didn't have to watch people endlessly sobbing to the sound of violins. But they did turn away, restrain themselves, disagree, and have moments of utter helplessness - just like real people. Nobody else is making much fuss about this, but I will - catch it while you can.