The Best Sports Documentaries for Lockdown

Yes: sport is back. Well, some sport. For football fans in Europe that means tinny sounds of piped fake “crowd” noise and watching Bayern Munich sleep walk to another title like a schoolboy bully crowd surfing over cowed spectators.

At least in New Zealand they had full crowds for the rugby. Scant consolation to former Wales coach Warren Gatland who had the full backyard horror of being beaten by his son played out in the full glare of the media. Gatland Senior’s Chiefs were playing the Highlanders in Super Rugby and leading by two points as the clock wound down. However, baby Bryn – who hadn’t originally even been in the squad and was a late injury call up – popped over a drop goal with 90 seconds left to leave Daddy in disarray.

Basketball:

The Last Dance. I wrote about it here last week. The 97 Chicago Bulls; Michael Jordan – a sneaker-selling monster; Scottie Pippen the unsung hero with the best voice since James Earl Jones; Dennis Rodman the lunatic dating Carmen Electra and swanning off to Vegas to die his hair a luminous green patchwork and turning up to practice in a wedding dress. A 10-part tour de force, which teaches us about what it takes to win and how lonely it is at the top. Netflix

In this promotional poster for the 'The Last Dance', Jordan (centre), Pippen (left) and Rodman are seen walking  in their kits with Steve Kerr (far left) and a suited Phil Jackson (far right)
Jordan (centre), Pippen (left) and Rodman lead the charge in Netflix’s The Last Dance

Hoop Dreams – Before the winning comes the work. This 1994 movie follows two African American high school students from Chicago at the same time as the city’s Bulls are tearing up the professional game. This epic movie shows what you have to do to move from an underfunded public school system to the professional game and the institutional barriers put in the way of young people. Moving, inspirational and frustrating all at the same time.

The DVD cover of 'Hoop Dreams' is shown with a basketball player in a yellow top raises his arms aloft in celebration and ecstasy.
Hoop Dreams – a moving documentary examining what it takes to get on in basketball

Rugby:

Living with the Lions 97 – The first rugby documentary: Rugby Union had only been professional for two years. A British and Irish Lions team headed to South Africa, then world champions and at their peak. But the Lions had a returning set of players from Rugby League looking to show what full time rugby looks like, pace and guile in a young Brian O’Driscoll, a leader etched from stone and broken bones in Martin Johnson and a coaching pair in Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer who knew what it took to make a Lions squad gel. Living with the Lions is by turns jaw dropping, hilarious, thought provoking and gloriously uncensored. Amazon Prime

A young Brian O'Driscoll offloads while playing for the British and Irish Lions
A young Brian O’Driscoll offloads while playing for the British and Irish Lions

All or Nothing – The All Blacks – A modern day Living with the Lions, this series got exclusive access to the dressing room of the mighty All Blacks for the first time in their history. The footage and the match play are second to none – every bone snapping tackle is seen and heard in high def – and the characters within the team are fascinating. It’s well worth watching, highly polished series, if a little sanitised and “official” in what is actually shown. Amazon Prime

Football:

An Impossible Job – Fancy watching an England manager screw up qualification for a World Cup, get compared to a root vegetable and upset that nice bloke off Match of the Day by substituting him for a doughy poor imitation called Smudger? Of course you do. Channel 4’s 1994 Cutting Edge documentary saw Graham Taylor’ career go the way of all things and is why so many documentaries now control access so tightly. YouTube

England manager Graham Taylor is seen open mouthed and pointing towards the camera with two fingers alongside an England football "Three Lions" crest.
England manager Graham Taylor who’s reputation was not enhanced by a documentary

All or Nothing – Manchester City – In the same series as the All Blacks documentary, Amazon Prime were welcomed into the whole world of Manchester City’s locker room, their match day experience and behind the scenes of the Pep Guardiola briefings as the team steamroller their way through the Premier League in 2071/18. A bit soulless and corporate, but hugely enlivened by Benjamin Mendy who is a “lively” member of the team, some brilliant match day footage and Guardiola’s chicken dance dressing room motivational speech. Amazon Prime

A poster advertising the Prime Original show 'All or Nothing Manchester City' shows Pep Guardiola looking towards the heavens with the quote from one of his half time team talks "Sit down... Nobody Talk!" is written out in block capitals.
Pep Guardiola who’s every movement is followed in the All or Nothing series from Amazon

Sunderland Till I Die – What does it do to a person to support a club like Sunderland? According to this, some sort of mental disorder. A town based on football where bishops pray for the club and people name their kids after the last time the team weren’t dross. Honestly has to be seen to be believed. Characterful. Netflix

An advert for the second season of 'Sunderland Till I Die' shows a group of Sunderland players celebrating the scoring of a goal as the crowd celebrate in the background
Sunderland players celebrate

Cricket:

The Test – I know cricket makes a lot of people roll their eyes. But Australia were at their lowest ebb – a coach, a captain and a vice-captain (who happened to be tow of their only world class players) are banned for heinous cheating. The Australian Prime Minister weighs in and suddenly, squeaky clean batting legend Justin Langer is thrown into the job needing to create a squad who can win matches and restore civic pride during a year featuring a one-day World Cup and an Ashes series. This is another Amazon behind the scenes, unprecedented access series but here the focus on institutional culture and what it takes to make a team tick transcends sport. Come for the bouncers and the blazing batting, stay for the quiet dignity of captain Tim Payne and the bromance between the coffee boys which would not have been allowed in previous cricketing eras. Amazon Prime

This poster from Amazon Prime Video shows new Australian skipper Tim Payne with a batting helmet on. He must help his side restore their reputation after a cheating scandal decimated the national side.
New skipper Tim Payne must help his side restore their reputation after a cheating scandal

Fire in Babylon – Before The Test, before Black Lives Matters, before the Windrush scandal there was “Grovel”. 2010’s Fire in Babylon is the story of the most successful team in cricket and, arguably, all sport. If you have ever seen the West Indies pace attack of Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft and, later, Malcolm Marshall then you know what a cricket ball can do to a human body when propelled at speed. What many people may be less aware of is the racism and barriers encountered by this team under the leadership of legend Clive Lloyd and gum chewing Black Consciousness figurehead Viv Richards. Fire in Babylon is the real deal. DVD

The poster for 'Fire in Babylon' shows five cricketers in shadows walking together as a golden light shines from behind them

Boxing:

When We Were Kings – Lots of people know the story of the Rumble in the Jungle; or at least think they do. 1996’s Oscar winning When We Were Kings explains the politics behind the sport, the brutality of Zaire’s dictator President Mobutu contrasting with the brutality within the ring. George Foreman is all at sea; Muhammad Ali connecting with the people in a spiritual way. A towering achievement of a documentary which explains the boxing in as captivating a way as the politics behind the sporting spectacle. DVD

The DVD cover of Oscar winning documentary 'When We Were Kings' shows Muhammad Ali drenched in sweat and looking very serious

Without Hindsight – Reconsidering The Hundred

God, I hate The Hundred. I hate the concept; I hate the ridiculous names of the artificially concocted teams; I hate the faux-Americanism of the “franchise” model; I hate the sponsors; I hate the way these corporate sponsors have dressed top class international cricketers in shiny, polyester kits shilling for crisps and junk food during an obesity epidemic; I even hate the ridiculous drawn-by-a-ham-fisted-three-year-old font for god sake: I hate the fact it’s like a metaphor for modern Britain, a shiny surfaced death trap designed to rip money away from idiots.

The search for WMDs of sporting events.

And yet…

It isn’t for me. I mean, “it isn’t for me” in the sense of “I hate it” (did I get that across before?), but it also “isn’t for me” in terms of design or execution.

I don’t live near a large population centre. I don’t have a lifestyle where I could finish work and pop to an evening game.

I like Test cricket, with its lulls, its skill, its tests of character and concentration. The nine course tasting menu of a la carte excellence.

One-day cricket is fast food.

The Hundred a bottle of Happy Shopper panda pop and a bag of 25p crisps rammed in your face on the way home from defacing a bus shelter.

And yet… People do drink pop and eat crisps. Even snobs like me.

And yet… I read a piece on twitter from Katie Levick, (@katie_lev) pointing out that not a lot of voices have been speaking out about the hit that the women’s game. Not having the money from The Hundred means these players are going to be out of pocket. It’s not just hit-and-giggle-all-the-way-to-the-bank merchants like Steve Smith, Aaron Finch, Alex Hales et al that are affected.

And yet… it is bringing cricket back to TV. Of all the tragedies I’ve seen and the travesties carried out by sporting bodies in the UK, the worst was the removal of cricket from terrestrial TV. I was there in Edgbaston in 2005 (and not in the way 150,000 people claim to have been – I have tickets and proof!), I was fielding calls from my mother’s church congregation to hear score updates and I was in a park in Birmingham when the win was sealed watching families playing as far as the eye could see and even then we were saying what an idiot thing it was that it was going to Sky from the next series.

Incidentally, I’ve seen more days of Test cricket in person in the intervening 15 years than I have on TV. So… nice one ECB.

And yet… Cricket changes. Bat width, materials, timeless tests, pyjama cricket, Twenty20 (another nauseating brand by the way) have all arrived or vanished and yet, the game endures.

Yes, developing a new format few if any existing fans like just after winning a World Cup in a format you’re about to downgrade to a second XI jamboree filled with lanky fast bowlers too young to shave and old pros too tubby to secure a contract with one of the sleazy new franchises, is almost as stupid as… Well, as stupid as finally winning a premier sporting contest for the first time in 18 years, inspiring a nation and ensuring the rights went to a broadcaster that would allow less people to watch the final test than the Columbo repeat on the BBC (that happened)

Still, if it brings new people to the game, if it’s free to see it on TV, if it inspires even one girl or boy to spot a new hero and pursue the game – although good luck with no playing fields – then perhaps it will be worth it. And if it offers gainful employment while the women claw their way to financial parity then, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to hold my nose and chow down.

Author Simon Conway set to triumph with ‘The Stranger’

Scottish author Simon Conway’s fifth novel looks poised to position him as one of the best authors working in the thriller genre today c

Full confession: I’d heard of Simon Conway but this is the first novel of his that I have read. Frankly, after this, my ignorance shames me and, I mean this sincerely, this piece should propel Conway into the very first rank of thriller writer’s working today. 

A world of smoke and mirrors

The Stranger centres on Jude Lyon, an SIS officer, dispatched by his duplicitous Head of Service, Queen Bee, to track down a legendary terrorist who was taken to Syria back when we didn’t do that sort of thing. Honest. 

But this terrorist is not all that he seems. And neither is anyone else in this novel.

As well as Lyon, a lead character with a love life complicated enough to make George Smiley blush, and Queen Bee, the smoke and mirrors head of the security services, the novel is populated with a fascinating cacophony of characters, including a squirming semi-alcoholic former Foreign Secretary, a Scottish journalist with a professional and personal interest in Lyon and a Russian diplomat and his wife who may or may not be luring Jude towards the rocks of disaster. 

Conway’s plots are onion layered: peeling back one skin at a time. He manages that neat trick so often missing in this type of novel which makes plot reveals seem inevitable and surprising rather outlandish or tediously predictable. 

His storytelling remind me of the best of Charles Cumming or Jeremy Duns – engaging, jigsaw tight, satisfying at the end but with potential for expansion in a future work. 

Descriptive passages Martin Amis would be proud of

He writes well too. “Jude’s immigrant provenance is equally exotic and fragmentary, shot through with competing veins of conformity and criminality, from a cigar-chomping bank robber for a grandfather to a general given to eccentricity and dark moods for a father,” is the sort of descriptive passage that Martin Amis at his most interesting would have been proud of. 

And, while it is true, Conway’s novel doesn’t – of necessity – have the same laugh out loud quality of some of Mick Herron’s novels, “Jonno Butcher, one of Cathy’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of meat-faced nephews,” is a description of which even the Slough House author would be proud.

I will be surprised if it emerges that Conway is not a fan of Le Carré. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s an affectionate nod to Le Carré, or merely to do with the abundance of such names in the region, but all the characters from the Caucuses we encounter in the book have names from Le Carré’s novels, especially ‘Our Game’.

Perhaps the most impressive area is that of the terrorists. He makes them well-rounded, whole characters who you don’t mind spending time with. Terrifying, yes, but nuanced and engaging too.

A crash, bang, wallop conclusion done with joie de vivre 

The ending of The Stranger may be slightly crash, bang, wallop for some people’s tastes but even this is done with enjoyable joie de vivre and edge of the seat inducing tension as well as some final plot twists which make me hope that this is not a standalone novel but the first in a series.

Overall, a triumph of a novel that makes me long for the opportunity to encounter Jude Lyon and his world again. 

Just need to go back and read Simon Conway’s back catalogue now. Whole-heartedly recommended.

West Indies may be the team that we need right now…

The BBC have lucked out with getting the highlights back just in time for England’s hastily arranged series versus the West Indies. 

West Indies cricket has always been about more than just cricket. Just look at Fire In Babylon (a documentary I touched on a couple of weeks ago) for an insight into how cricket is about independence, colonialism and national identities far beyond what the crowd at Lords really understand. Throw in a global pandemic and the horror of George Floyd and suddenly sport becomes irrelevant.

Except it doesn’t. Sport is always about more than bat and ball and that is especially true in cricket (see the 1980s rebel tours of South Africa and the fall out from that which still resonates.)

In this series, the spectators (socially distanced and at home naturally) have been lucky to be exposed to insights and impassioned rhetoric from some of the most articulate thinkers on the game currently working today.

In the lead up, ESPN’s George Dobell ran a brilliant piece on What Has English Cricket Has Been Like for Black Players

Then, two of the people who had spoken to Dobell were given the space by Sky to talk at length about what was happening with the intersection between Black Lives Matters and their experience. Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent spoke from the heart and moved those who heard them, one hopes. The next day, Holding was even more open, reflecting upon the struggles of his own parents

However, just as important were the people of colour just getting on with their jobs and being excellent. The mighty TMS had brought in Carlos Brathwaite as commentator and he was everything you would have hoped: insightful about the techniques, light-hearted and relaxed alongside his colleagues and a pleasure to listen to. He slipped in well, as did Sir Alistair Cook. I look forward to hearing them for the rest of the summer.

West Indies captain Jason Holder holds his arms aloft during the first test match against England
West Indies captain Jason Holder

But best of all, was West Indies skipper Jason Holder. A 6ft 7in military medium allrounder sending the ball down at only (“only”) 80mph, his accuracy, movement off the seam and joy in his artistry was magnificent. 

A small aside: I am not a betting man. I’m not claiming I never have a flutter but, for a number of reasons – fundamental innumeracy, catastrophic mismanagement of money (see previous point), poor decision making and an addictive personality to name but four – I don’t bet regularly. But if you do want a tip this is it: always bet against England in any sport.

For some reason, bookies always over promote England even when it’s a two horse race. To whit: the current West Indies cricket tour of the England. The West Indies were available at 12:1 in a two horse race.

Considering Holder is the number one ranked Test allrounder, the number two Test bowler in the world – his batting lets him down a bit, he’s only ranked 35th – he captained with heart, imagination and skill.  

Man of the Match Shannon Gabriel celebrates with his West Indies teammates during the first test
Man of the Match Shannon Gabriel celebrates with his teammates

Shannon Gabriel got the Man of the Match award for his tight five wicket haul which exposed the oft underbelly of the England team but in Holder, the Windies have a leader for our times.

The BBC have lucked out with getting the highlights back just in time for England’s hastily arranged series versus the West Indies and they may have just found a contest which will resonate for a long time to come.

Repost: 48 Hours in… Leicester

With Leicester arriving in the news for the first time since  that Premierleague triumph, why not revisit this trip from 2015? If nothing else it will remind you of all the stuff you’ll be able to see when they lift the lockdown…

‘ Let’s go to Leicester on holiday’ said no one, ever. Certainly not me, anyway. I’d never previously been to this compact Midlands city but, a friend’s wedding and the chance to explore a place my partner, Miss Pretty Shoes knows well, meant that I was delighted to be introduced to the myriad attractions of this under-rated destination.

The main attraction is that it is a vibrant city. Small enough to walk around comfortably, there are really only two main shopping streets, criss-crossed at regular intervals by lanes which gives it the feeling of Brighton without sea.

You can find all of the things we associate with modern Britain – Nandos, a plethora of Subway franchises, tanning shops, betting emporia and soulless chain drinking dens – but don’t be put off. Just around the corner will be a cutesy independent store selling original t-shirts, bookshops or antiques priced at a sensible level. And, in fairness, even one of the ghastly chain boozers is named The Last Plantagenet which is a quality pub name anywhere.

A replica of the skeleton of King RIchard III

A replica of the skeleton of King RIchard III

The big attraction is definitely history and Richard III in particular. Since being rescued from the less than celebratory location of a city centre car park in 2012, the city has gone Dick mad. The King Richard III Visitor Centre (www.kriii.com) is spread over two floors and allows you to learn the basics of his reign before heading upstairs to cover the details of the discovery of his final resting place and the science behind it. It is a beautiful venue, all the more impressive that it opened only two years after the discovery. It caters to people of all ages, incorporating interactive exhibits, multimedia presentations and displays throughout. I was particularly taken with the archaeology dig pit filled with iron filings to allow you to uncover pieces found at the gravesite – but that’s because I’m a big child. You can also see the actual location of where the body was found and – if you must – walk on top of it, (I’m afraid I must. And I did.) The guides were friendly and knowledgeable and took the time to answer questions and debate historical events with Miss Pretty Shoes, which pleased us no end. The visitor centre isn’t cheap – around £25 for two adults and a gift book – but if you’re interested in this most maligned monarch then it is money well spent.

The tomb of the newly interred King RIchard III within Leicester Cathedral

The tomb of the newly interred King RIchard III within Leicester Cathedral

Across the road – past the statue of the man himself wielding a crown and, as in popular mythology, presumably crying out for a horse – is the charming Leicester Cathedral (www.leicestercathedral.org). The day we visited was a Sunday so a distinct balancing act between people coming to engage in a normal service had to be offset by church officials against the large crowd of visitors looking to see the site of the newly interred monarch. The Cathedral is free, but donations are suggested and with the volunteers offering a guide to the building and the constant stream of visitors, the suggested £3 is not outrageous, if for no other reason than the upkeep of the fabric of the building. There has definitely been a bit of Dicky III fever in the city indeed, but almost all the cashing in seems to be in a vein of quiet, respectful bandwagon jumping, so good on them!

The outside of the compact, but cute, Leicester Cathedral.

The outside of the compact, but cute, Leicester Cathedral.

We walked. Leicester is one of those small cities which just beg you to explore on foot. We walked up New Walk past beautiful architecture from the Georgian era, the Victorian Age as well as past the loveliest Art Deco-style fire station I’ve ever seen. Then we walked to the University of Leicester which Miss Pretty Shoes had previously graced with her presence. (www.le.ac.uk) The main attraction for her – then and now I reckon – was that Richard and David Attenborough had been brought up on the campus as their father – Frederick Attenborough – was the Principal of University College and instrumental in the conversion to University status with the award of the Royal charter in 1957. Their house remains on the grounds and a tower was built in his honour.

The Attenborough Tower at the University of Leicester

The Attenborough Tower at the University of Leicester

Leicester has one of the most multi-cultural populations in the UK and this is most abundantly clear in the wide variety of food available. Leicester’s Market (www.leicestermarket.co.uk) is a wonderful place to stroll around, packed with high quality fruit and veg (as well as t-shirts, DVDs and second hand TVs) including one Lineker’s stall which hosts beautiful strawberries and also produced a former England captain many will have heard of.


Kayal is an Indian restaurant specialising in healthy seafood with a South Indian origin. The food is delicate – superbly filling and has been promoted by guests such TVs The Hairy Bikers and The Times. The fish platter starter alone is enough for a main course and comes heaving with delicately battered calamari. The service is gentle, knowledgeable and considerate and it is a place I can no recommend highly enough for an evening meal. (www.kayalrestaurant.com)

On our last day, we stopped for lunch at the adorable Kuru Kuru Sushi (www.kuru-kuru-sushi.com) which offers a wide variety of sushi and sashimi at really affordable prices. The food is delicate and the service is kindly and efficient. It is not large – four seats at a breakfast-style bar – but the mint-infused tea and the quality of the fish should persuade you to go early. Take-away – both in person and over the phone – is available for those who don’t want to sit next to strangers.

A rocket at the National Space Centre

A rocket at the National Space Centre

Our final destination was the National Space Centre (www.spacecentre.co.uk) which is situation two miles outside the town centre. Here you can visit the Patrick Moore Plantetarium and watch a documentary (aimed at children really) called We Are All Stars narrated by Andy Serkis. From here you can explore rockets, see real moon rock and lose yourself in a wide variety of activities covering pretty much everything to do with space. It’s an absolute knock out venue which, especially with children, I would heartily recommend.

So, that was my 48 hours in Leicester. A vibrant city of multi-cultural influences, gorgeous food and a surprisingly wide array of activities I never thought I’d find in the middle of England. ‘Let’s go to Leicester on holiday,’ said no one ever. Except me, next time, I reckon.

*Myself and Miss Pretty Shoes stayed at the Premier Inn Leicester City Centre. None of these venues knew I would be writing about them, nor paid for any endorsements.

 

The outside of the compact, but cute, Leicester Cathedral.
The outside of the compact, but cute, Leicester Cathedral.

‘The Last Dance’ Filling Dance Cards

It feels like just me – and the rest of the world –  have been enjoying Netflix and ESPN Films’ 10 part documentary The Last Dance.

It is, of course, difficult to know exactly how many people are watching, courtesy of Netflix’s notoriously secretive metrics for success, but 2,310,000,000 Google results added to less quantitative social media hype, does tend to imply that the series is doing OK. Especially impressive is that, in the UK, Basketball barely gets any coverage.

For those who don’t know, the programme follows the 1998 Chicago Bulls as they aim to win the NBA Championship for the third year in a row, and their sixth in eight years – the notorious and unprecedented “Three-peat”. It follows this journey intercutting with the backgrounds and stories of the disparate cast of characters which made up the playing, coaching and management staff at the Bulls in those days.

There is much to adore about the show: both personally and as a consumer. If, like me, you were playing basketball as a teenager in the 90s, the Bulls reigned supreme and Jordan especially. However, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen were hardly under the radar. I was never a good basketball player: too short, too tubby. But I could scrap like Rodman – even if I couldn’t pull off the hair.

Then there’s the merchandise: my Dad bought me a Jordan-sponsored Chicago Bulls black and red basketball which was constantly getting dribbled on the path outside the house. I only got rid of it when I moved my Mum out of that house a couple of years ago and, if I hadn’t been travelling on a plane, that ball would have made the trip back with me, smooth and ancient though it then was. It had to go in the skip. Now, both my father and the ball are gone and… What can you say: there’s the nostalgia.

However, in some ways, the thing I have enjoyed even more is the rabbit hole it’s sent me down. First, there was a podcast – The Dream Team Tapes with Jack McCallum which tells the story of the US Olympic basketball team from Barcelona 92. McCallum is a basketball Hall of Famer and has been with Sports illustrated for a very long time and his delivery and unravelling of the story behind this remarkable team is first class. Is it a shameless coattail ride on TLD? Yes, and for a book, The Dream Team, released in 2014  but now I have to read the damn thing. Oh, well sure I’ll cope.

Then there was this profile by Wright Thompson on ESPN from 2013 when Jordan turned 50. I got to it from The Ruffian, the newsletter of journalist and author Ian Leslie http://ian-leslie.com/about/ and it’s super. Top notch sports writing: revealing, emotional, inspiring – a little horrifying in places.

I know some people think that TLD is a puff piece but, if this is Jordan censored and touched up, then he may be an actual monster because I think the makers go for balance as much as possible. The scene where Jordan tearfully calls for a time out in an interview when he is asked if winning came at the expense of being a nice guy is heart-breaking and revealing.

I know it doesn’t address Craig Hodges However, Jordan’s hesitancy to speak out over issues of race (“Republicans buy sneakers too”) is addressed by no less an authority on these issues than former President Obama so, that’s not exactly ducking it.

I know it doesn’t address Horace Grant and the stories about Grant being denied food after bad games. But, Grant does appear in the show, so feelings can’t have been hurt that badly.

What this programme does over 10 episodes is look at what it takes to win – what the fire and fuel it takes to dominate in any profession and it does it in a warts and all way. There’s lots of rabbit holes to go down with wider context and that’s a form of nostalgia I can enjoy.

Teen Spy on Point

Full disclosure: I came to this series a fan of the books. I think Anthony Horowitz’s (@anthonyhorowitz) Baby Bond character, now spanning at least 12 novels, is one of the prime reasons why young adult fiction continued to thrive post its initial Potter boom.

I saw the 2006 Stormbreaker adaptation which was, perhaps,  a little “too full of blue sky thinking” really. But I was well disposed towards this and my hopes went up when I realised that they are skating over the top of most of Stormbreaker, the novel, and really beginning with Point Blanc, my enthusiasm increased not least because I think this is probably the best novel in the whole of the Alex Rider series.

So, was I disappointed? Nope. I think, considering the crowded market, the pressure of adapting novels as popular as this, Eleventh Hour TV and Amazon Prime have done an exceptional job.

Casting Otto Farrant (Thomas Grey in The White Queen) as the eponymous lead no doubt attracted some negativity because he’s 20 rather than the 14 that Alex Rider is in the novels but he’s is really good as a slightly ageless late teen and it allows the character to look very convincing in the fighting and action scenes which are put together brilliantly.

One of the points about the novels which made them such a best seller is that although this is Junior James Bond, the actual world of espionage is seen almost through a jaded Le Carre-esque haze of internecine squabbles, blackmail and skulduggery. Rider is a reluctant spy forced to do the bidding of a morality-free state by adults exploiting his skills. There is no shying away from that in this adaptation.

In fact, far from shying away, the production design reflects. Gone are the primary colours of the earlier movie. Here, MI6 is rendered in greys and ash tones. The very strong supporting cast playing Alan Blunt (Game of Thrones Stephen Dillane and Line of Duty’s always excellent Vicky McClure are rooted in this world and seems to exist in a gunmetal sepia which is atmospheric and adds tension and verisimilitude to the whole series.

Added to this mix, Ronke Adekoluejo (Dr Who) as house keeper Jack Starbright and Alex’s best friend Tom Harris, another Games of Thrones alum Brenock O’Connor, a character vastly expanded from the novels, are both very well drawn and manage that difficult task of being real, rounded characters as well as vehicles for exposition and moving the story on.

The set design for Point Blanc is breathtakingly good – you can smell all of that Amazon money just pouring off the screen – and the action set pieces (the make shift snowboard, if you know, you know) are done brilliantly. Being the stunt co-ordinator on this project must have been

The sound design is also a huge bonus. Both the tension building scenes and the action are underpinned by some subtle yet effective scores and, always a bonus, there is a belter of an opening theme tune by London artist Samm Henshaw. I wouldn’t be against EON coming and sniffing around Henshaw for the next grown up Bond theme, although there’s every chance Farrant will be in an old folk’s home by the time they get around to making whatever comes after No Time to Die.

Is it perfect? No, but what is? Guy Burt has done a superb job with adapting Horowitz’s world but occasionally the dialogue is a bit clunky. There is an actual “They crossed the line,”
“No, they can’t even see the line anymore,” exchange which is just… Ouch.

Also, I’m fairly sure the street where Alex lives bears an uncanny resemblance to the one from BBC comedy Outnumbered which did keep making me expect Hugh Denis to wander out on the street and tell everyone to keep it down, which did pull me out of the story a little.

Finally, there is also something of a question about exactly who this is marketed towards – but teens are by their nature neither fully adult nor fully children and that does sit well with the tone of this production which is too violent for little kids but perhaps too slow moving for distracted second screeners?

However, any show with the charm and confidence to have a character wear a t-shirt saying, The Book Was Better, has got to be worth watching, right? Roll on Season Two!

Consistency is Key – A Guide to Failing at Comedy Writing

I believe I am funny.

Probably more so than is entirely sane. In fact, looking back I feel as though most of my ways of thinking about the world may well be derived from sitcoms. As for my twenties, in hindsight, they begin to look like some form of experimental absurdist comedy where I was trying the most pretentious form of Brechtian theatre of alienation imaginable. I’m not sure whether there is any other explanation for having a student hoodie in Scotland, with the nickname “English Cunt” on the back other than advanced comedic stylings.

Or because it’s true. Whatever.

After far too many podcast episodes of Stuart Goldsmith’s ComCom Pod, I would love to try stand up but for various reasons (geography, cowardice, him telling us not to, geography, cowardice to name a few) that was non-starter really.

But, my novel was finished and sitting waiting to go out to agents while I gather courage (see above as to my level of bravery when taking on the world) and I needed a project.

Enter Sitcom Geeks. Another podcast, this time run by James Carey and Dave Cohen, crammed full of helpful writing tips and how to break in. And, basically, their main advice was Newsjack.

OK, heard of Newsjack – that’s a start.

Even listened to the show before – tick.

Listened to all the podcast episodes dealing with submitting to Newsjack and the people who make the decisions – tick.

Inflated sense of entitlement and unverified belief in sense of humour – tick, for sure.

Okay, more “research” (“Hey is research another word for procrastination?” “Shut up, Inner Monologue.”)

A bit of googling and I discover the work of Chris Douch and his work at the Comedy Loser blog. And he’s great. He has some really insightful tips on writing for Newsjack and the submissions process.

I contact a friend who I know has had stuff on before. I ask if she would like to team up for this series. She does not seem enthusiastic. In fact, I’m not sure she is talking to me any longer, which is a shame because she’s really nice, I’ve known her for years and now I appear to have infringed some societal contract which I don’t understand so… that’s not a great start.

Upside, from Chris, I enter a Twitter rabbit hole and learn: there are loads of us! All wanting to write comedy, all sharing failures and, weirdly, all being really open and friendly. I am suspicious – after all I’ve just lost a friend over a clumsily worded approach but, here we are, sharing our jokes which have been rejected, encouraging and supporting. It’s really nice, a little writing community.

From Newsjack to Breaking the News.

I am consistent.

I am consistent in failing to get anything on any of the shows.

But I consist. I file my wee one liners every week. I only submit one sketch. My brain doesn’t seem to work like that and I’m learning still but, every week (bar one) I send off my jokes. I get nowhere.

So, what have I learnt?

I’ve learnt I may not be as funny as I thought (you did not see that coming, did you?)

I’ve learnt that there is a comedy writing community of aspiring writers who are really nice and supportive.

I’ve learnt I am terrible at trying to recruit my friend to collaborate and I worry too much about the offence I accidentally caused.

I’ve learnt that this was good writing gym regime and I’m going to be back next season, plugging away and probably failing.

But failing consistently. And that is the key.

Agent Running Through Fields of Wheat?

“You know what Trump is?’

‘Tell me.’

‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.’

Which is as good a place as any to begin with John Le Carrè’s latest work, Agent Running in the Field. Rumoured to have angered his former employers, (according to one very put out spook at the Cliveden Literary Festival at least)

Mr Le Carrè’s somewhat classy retort in The Times was enough to generate some publicity for what is certainly a lower key release than 2018’s Legacy of Spies (which even got a session at the London’s Royal Festival Hall beamed to cinemas over the UK).

This was supposed to be his Brexit rant – his anti-Trump, reactionary wail of despair at UK national suicide, the world gone mad, manipulated by the kleptocratic, Tsarist spook-in-chief in Moscow. This was supposed to be his deconstruction of the British state and it’s Cambridge Analytica-altered, Putin fiddled with, Big Red Bus of Deceitful Propaganda opus. Hell, even the title sounds like a riff on our former Prime Minister’s childhood agricultural misdemeanours. And, at least in the character of Ed, the novel does reflect those emotions.

“It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the Us is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.”

This, in fairness, is hardly an equivocal position. But, nor is it a radical stance so far out with the opinions of many of the people watching Brexit unfold and, in comparison to – say 2003’s Absolute Friends – this is a quiet and measured response.

And, really, that is my take away from the novel. It is a small story in a way that the absolute first rate Le Carrè pieces aren’t. The character of Ed is a graceless and, as a narrator in one of his novels might say, seems to have elevated gracelessness to an art form. Nat is an unreliable narrator, the seemingly happy marriage undermined by what everyone else sees in him apparently, although the influence of this on the plot seems slim.

Overall, it’s always better to read Le Carrè than others. There are the usual damning characterisations, the usual pithy descriptions and he does physical nuance just about better than anyone but, here, the plotting lacks surprises and the ending fails to pack the sort of punch that even a relatively minor novel of his latter period, Our Kind of Traitor or A Most Wanted Man for example, manage to produceAgent Running.

A Law Firm in the Way Dr Pepper is a Doctor

“For Brutus is an honourable man” Julius Caesar, Act III, Sc II
As most of you know, I like to keep things positive online but recently I’ve encountered a company which makes that impossible. Welcome then to Nero Legal.
Interesting choice of branding, that. Naming your business after a man for whom family relations were on the Russian roulette side of stability and who specialised in running roughshod over common decency and justice all the while claiming it was acceptable because Nero wrote the laws. Not your usual corporate role model.
And Nero Legal appear not to have a conventional set up either. There appears to be one lawyer, he is also a director, and an army of paralegals.
There was another director, but he’s resigned and now seems to spend his days enjoying the attractions of Andorra so is, presumably, not much involved in day to day affairs.
So, in the good old spirit of the ancient Romans their name invokes there’s one man at the top.
Now, to be clear, I am not calling Nero Legal negligent. Negligence is a very specific legal term which implies “conduct which falls below the standard required to protect others against unreasonable risk of harm” and, god knows, I am no lawyer – which interestingly puts me in the same category as most of Nero Legal’s staff.
To cap a long story, we are selling a house. The buyer is using Nero Legal. To see what this poor couple are going through has alerted us to the fact that I would rather entrust my medical care to Dr Pepper than my legal affairs to Nero Legal.
Did I enjoy filling out the endless forms which make up modern house selling in Scotland? I did not but it’s standard. Did I enjoy then having to answer the same questions – or a sizeable chunk of them anyway – 6 weeks later in a clearly pro-forma letter? I *really* did not. Now, I’m not saying that this negligence or even gross unprofessionalism because I’m not a lawyer. Which, lest we forget, puts me in the same category as most of Nero Legal’s staff.
Did I enjoy the same paralegal who was doling out non-sensical pro-forma letters not responding to calls and emails from our solicitors? I did not. When they asked for a completion date which was very soon we were thrilled – when they discovered it was on a bank holiday (a bank holiday only in Glasgow incidentally, where they are based) it was mildly irritating. But surely not negligent or gross misconduct. Although, I can’t really say that because, as I’ve mentioned, I’m not a lawyer. Very much like most of Nero Legal’s staff.
When this same paralegal told us that the buyers couldn’t complete on the next date, this was vexing – but these things happen and Nero Legal has actually answered an email so we were feeling positive. When the new completion date was a full month later that rang alarm bells but, you know what, what do I know? I’m not a lawyer- it turns out, exactly like most of Nero Legal’s staff.
When neither we, nor our solicitors, had heard anything – other than another set of questions we’d already answered, naturally – I think we were becoming pretty close to as downheartened as understatement will allow.
When Nero Legal only deign to let your solicitors know at 11.30 on the morning of your new, month later completion date that they still can not complete – as you are moving furniture Out. Of. Your. House, it may feel like gross negligence and professional misconduct but, remember I’m not saying that, because I’m not a lawyer. Very much like most of Nero Legal’s staff.
When it then turns out that the buyers can’t complete because Nero Legal are not approved receivers of funds from the mortgage company, one might be positively alarmed and feel like this is information any real company should have been in possession of before the third completion date.
In fact, to not let their clients know that might well feel exactly like gross negligence and professional misconduct but, I’m couldn’t possibly say that, because I’m not a lawyer. Very much like most of Nero Legal’s staff.
What I do know is that filling your social media feeds with paralegals channeling the Robert Palmer girls from the “Addicted to Love” video, claiming to support good mental health is not as efficient to generating actual good mental health as doing the tasks you are being paid for.
I’m sure that having that army of paralegals be jaw-droppingly slack at responding to emails and telephone calls is sharply contrasted to the public projections of these social media channels which begs the question: what are they doing all day? Oh yeah, it appears the answer is cutting cakes and dressing up as giant bananas for “charity”.
When your solicitor phones them four times and, in the end, has to refuse to get off the line before he can talk to a solicitor who, by extension, must be their one and only director, who promises to get back by the end of the day and doesn’t, it will probably feel like gross negligence and professional misconduct but, it probably isn’t because I’m not a lawyer. Very much like most of Nero Legal’s staff.
It seems, at least to the untrained eye, that having only one lawyer, who is also sole director might make for a lean and efficient enterprise but, I can tell you, it doesn’t feel like that.
However, perhaps he’s stretched too thin, the poor lamb, what with the other previous director, also of Aaen Peach, a legal firm based in the same offices of the same building with really some of the worst reviews, having now resigned. No wonder it works better to out source your legal work to unqualified paralegals with hit and miss spelling and a predilection for asking questions which have already been answered. Twice. But what do I know? I’m not a lawyer. Very much like most of Nero Legal’s staff.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use Nero Legal. I’m saying that you shouldn’t and you should also make sure that you’re buyers aren’t either: it might be the only way to protect your sale.