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

‘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!

Opening the Span of Our Horizons

Brian Lamb and the Loss to Democracy

May 19th will see the retirement of a man who might well be able to lay claim to being the most important media figure of the last 50 years. C-Span founder Brian Lamb is retiring.

Here in the UK, C-Span is not often watched – perhaps unsurprisingly. My impression is that ex-pats, politico geeks and ‘The West Wing’ affectionados form its core audience.

My introduction came via this last category and I stumbled across a show called ‘C-Span Q&A‘ around 2009. It was a simple show: an old guy talks to a person, usually a writer but not always, for an hour.

Just that. No adverts, no razzmatazz, no hectoring or screaming: just a person being allowed to articulate their point of view in their own words.  It is the sort of television which doesn’t get made any more and a lesson to any one with an interest in media about what can be done.

Over the last decade, I have listened to the show pretty consistently – or consistently inconsistently as I have a tendency to binge listen to them. Lamb is a revelation. Unfailingly polite, thoroughly prepared, he never pretends to know anything he does not and he asks questions in a simple way, drawing out implications for viewers in case they don’t have the depth of knowledge he does – which few of us could possibly have but he’d never be so mean as to highlight this!

And now I discover that midway through the month, he is stepping down. The former naval lieutenant who once attended press briefings with Robert MacNamara and walked LadyBird Johnson down the aisle, who persuaded Congress to let cameras in and established public service political broadcasting in the most cut throat media market in the world – and kept it free and on the air – is off.

Brian Lamb is a self-effacing one off. He will be sadly missed by people who think that politics, its coverage and how people access it, matters for the good of all – no matter where they are on the globe.

It seemed somehow tragically appropriate that the news of his retirement came via an interview in the Rupert Murdoch owned ‘Wall Street Journal’.

An interview which couldn’t read as it is behind a pay wall. Another institution which forms part of the key narrative of 20th century American media, The Washington Post, recently changed its slogan to “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. The retirement of Brian Lamb represents an unparalleled dimming of democracy.

He will be truly missed.

Revisiting… Goldeneye

Last week I wrote about my introduction to the cinema through the unexpected medium of the Care Bears. A decade or so later, I was granted an introduction to a cinematic icon in the James Bond reboot, Goldeneye.

518P0UZqfCL._SX355_

The iconic poster for Goldeneye (1995)

I had six when Timothy Dalton’s debut, The Living Daylights had been released but my folks weren’t quite up to a cinema visit for that sort of film, so I mainly remember having to make do with cards from the Trio chocolate promotional packs stuffed into the pocket of my Parka. Then came Dalton’s second outing Licence to Kill; and, let’s face it, that movie is no place for children.

So, 1995 was my chance to watch Bond on the big screen. The movie debuted on 21st November and the way we watched it speaks volumes about how movie going had changed over the 10 years which had elapsed.

My parents took me – both of them this time as disabled access was now available. We were no longer in the charmingly crafted but dilapidated flea pit Picturedrome, Bognor Regis, but in the plush surroundings of Hampshire’s Port Solent, an area of reclaimed landfill and marshlands re-purposed in the late 80s to become a marina and expensive housing development. Tickets prices to see films had of course increased by, on average, 104%.

But what of the movie?

We open on a plane flying over a gigantic dam. We’ve had the opening gun barrel walk but all incidental music ceases as the light aircraft sweeps over this vista in spectral silence.

Then, we see a man run and bungee down this impressive 750 metre edifice, which saw stuntman Wayne Michaels set a world record for a tethered jump. By the way, this location is the Contra Dam in Switzerland, and because of this – still impressive – stunt, voted the greatest of all time in a 2002 Sky Movies poll. Incidentally, and this blog in no way endorses this course of action, the stunt inspired a company to begin offering you the opportunity to bungee jump off it yourself if you’re in that frame of mind. Details here: https://www.getyourguide.com/ticino-l80/golden-eye-bungee-jumping-from-the-verzasca-dam-t3225

bond16 dam jump

Pierce Brosnan’s Bond (stuntman Wayne Michaels) dives off the 750m Contra Dam

And, I gotta tell you – Pierce Brosnan never looked better. Especially in the early part of the movie, that man is channeling both Dalton, Roger Moore and Sean Connery. There’s a best of feel to his performance which, if he’d had better scripts throughout the rest of his tenure would have put him significantly up the pecking order of greatest Bonds. Man could wear a tuxedo, too…

Tom Cruise and his rhyming slang character, Ethan Hunt, would’t debut for another six months, but Brosnan’s toilet entrance now looks like a fun twist on the famous vault access from Mission Impossible.

Alongside Brosnan, Sean Bean, an actor who ordinarily I find as sympathetic as a serial killer and as appealing as an aggressive cavity search, is never better than as Alex Trevelyan. His performance is cleaner, more nuanced and significantly more subtle than I remembered. His “execution” is harsh – even today.

Martin Campbell is clearly the man for reinvigorating the franchise as, nine years later, it would be him in the hot seat to replenish the steaming, coiled wreckage visited on the series in the superlative Casino Royale.

Here, he settles for the charmingly nostalgic return of the Aston Martin DB5, which is an excellent touch, as is the race with Famke Janssen- a driving sequence arguably not bettered until Quantum of Solace.

Dutch actress Janssen plays Xenia Onatopp, famed for her unique way of dispatching villains. Memorable for sure, but she somewhat overshadows Bean’s performance with her cartoonishly psychotic antics, which is a shame.

Famke Janssen

Other downsides? The body count is troublesome. I know this came before advent of introspective heroes, but jeso, do people get mown down with video game abandon in this movie.

Also, the incidental music is more 80s than a superhero team up featuring Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Which is odd because it couldn’t really be more mid-90s but this the consistent pounding on the synthesizer is hard going on the ear. It’s a rough listen today: heavy handed and distracting.

And, finally the theme tune. Tina Turner does belt out a tune but the only Edge that should be invoked here is the one which U2 should have been shoved off. The lyrics read like they were constructed during a Madlibs game fuelled by LSD.

Some of my favourites include:

See reflections on the water/ more than darkness in the depths/ see him surface in every shadow/ on the wind I feel his breath

Goldeneye I found his weakness/ Goldeneye he’ll do what I please/ Goldeneye no time for sweetness/ but a bitter kiss will bring him to his knees…

Goldeneye not lace or leather/ Golden chains take him to the spot/ Goldeneye I’ll show him forever/ it’ll take forever to see…

It’s a gold and honey trap/I’ve got for you tonight…

with a goldeneye, goldeneye.

To which I can only say: gibberish.

goldeneye_1995_4

Brosnan and 006 Alex Trevelyn (Sean Bean) in happier times

There’s more to say about this movie and, especially, the spin off video game which is a peak in the history of that medium so high it couldn’t be bettered by a pair of Italian plumbers, but I’ll leave it there for now. A high in the career of Pierce Brosnan as Bond, this is classic well worth #revisiting.

With a golden, goldeneye…

 

A Film Education

It started with the Care Bears, (said nobody ever.)

But, for me, it really did start with Care Bears: The Movie. I was 4 and this was 1985 and my parents took me, along with some friends from play school, to the local cinema for the first time. img_1502

I remember nothing. One of the friends may have been celebrating a birthday. She may have had a sister. I’m guessing that may explain the choice of movie.

Subsequently, I’ve done some research. Cinematic golden age problem child Mickey Rooney was in it. The writer, Peter Sauder, had written on such top notch fare as Inspector Gadget, Star Wars: Droids (that’s the cartoon which Disney are still trying to resolve the issue of its place in the cannon 30 years later) and went on to the glories of Barbar, Rupert and the Beetlejuice cartoon.

Mickey. Rooney: cinematic legend – Care Bear extraordinaire

But I knew none of this. What I remember is my mum tapping me on the shoulder – was it a minute? An hour? A day into the movie? I had no idea. I had disappeared. She learnt across and said, “Were you in the film?”

When I finally came to, I had to just nod and grin. All I knew was that I was in the screen. There was a ringing in my ears. I’d forgotten where I was. I’d forgotten that there was a here I’d forgotten about. Far as I knew, there was only Care Bears world now.

Total immersion is tough to describe. Bognor Regis’ Picturedrome dates back to the 1880s and, these days, appears to have been rejuvenated. In the 80s, when the average cost of a cinema ticket I’m reliably informed was a whole £1.70 for an adult, it was known unaffectionately as the “flea pit”. Salubrious it was not. I loved it.

The Bognor Picturedrome: previously known as “the Fleapit”. Quite nice now.

My next love was TV and Granada classic, The Professionals. I mean, due to a speech impediment, I couldn’t actually say that. So, in fact, my next love was The Procesionals, much to my parents’ delight and amusement but for me there was nothing like two U.K. Starsky and Hutch rip offs sliding across the bonnet of a pair of Ford Capris under the disapproving eye of that bloke from Upstairs Downstairs to excite my pre-school heart.

The addiction grew. But the world was very different then, even though it’s not that long ago* (*It may, in fact, now be quite a long time ago). My parents couldn’t afford a video recorder so we didn’t get one till at least 1989.

By the time I went way to boarding school in the early 90s, I was sat in the phone booth whilst my poor father had to go to the shop on a Thursday to get both the Radio Times (BBC1&2) and the TV Times (ITV/Channel 4) and then my mother had to spend her telephone bill reading out to me which movies were on that week so she knew which ones to VHS for me to watch when I got home at the end of term. No parents are perfect, but the fact they didn’t excommunicate me or leave at boarding school does speak very highly of this particular pairs’ good humour and tolerance.

I watched Barry Norman and Film Insert-Whichever-Year-Here like other people went to church. I was easy to buy for at Christmas – the latest Halliwells Film Guide would keep me occupied for hours. In fact, I’d read them so thoroughly that kids used to test me by asking me to the name the year, main actors and synopsis of any film in the book. I usually did ok too.

Last week, I began work on a script with a guy I’ve known forever and who is a successful film maker of many years’ standing. He’s thrown me an invite because he’s very kind and because… I don’t know, he took pity on me? Who knows. All I know is ill forever be grateful for the opportunity.

I hope the script gets finished.

I hope it’s good.

I hope we can get it made.

But mainly, I hope that it has the power and emotional resonance of Care Bears: The Movie.

Revisiting… Inspector Morse

30 Not Out.

Sunday night, 8th January 2017, the fourth series of ITV’s Endeavour begins. With a pleasingly orchestrated symmetry, this also marks the 30th Anniversary of its beloved origin show, Inspector Morse.

Morse on DVD

The DVDs of the Complete Inspector Morse episodes are available for purchase from Amazon

Inspector Morse aired for the first time on Tuesday 6th January 1987 and, it is fair to say, it did not appear at a time of optimism for the contemporary TV viewer. ITV’s reputation for drama had all but evaporated – the pinnacle, Brideshead Revisited, lay 6 years in the past

The previous year, 1986, had included  modern classics like The Singing Detective  and The Monocled Mutineer so, there were things of note happening on television.

Just not on ITV.

Morse would change all that.

Its leisurely pace of two hours an episode was in stark contrast to what the public were used to seeing, and even Colin Dexter, the author of the 13 novels upon which some of the television episodes are based, has acknowledged that the show was an unlikely success. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub in 2007, Dexter told presenter James Naughtie in typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, “one of the huge things about Morse was that he came at the right time, when everyone wanted to get away from the American programmes where everybody was shooting and car chasing all over the shop. And somebody said, ‘what we want is something a little bit slower and more tedious. More gentle and – perhaps – more cerebral.’ Somebody wrote, right from the very word go, Dexter’s idea of any sort of thrill in a story was to get two aged classics professors arguing about Aristotle in the Sheldonian.”

This is a little harsh perhaps, (the first episode drew approximately 14 million viewers after all), however, you can see right from the very opening of, ‘The Dead of Jericho’ that this is to be different and that, in lead actor John Thaw, here is a leading man about to put to bed his reputation-defining turn as Jack Regan in The Sweeney.

This blog has looked at this wonderfully dated slice of action thriller elsewhere (Revisiting: The Sweeney) but contrasting the opening of the two shows is instructive. The Sweeney has rushing cars, handheld wobbly camera angles of gritty realism, tyres screaming and that famous title sequence theme tune booming electronica, like sirens through a 70s hangover, frantically edited.

As Morse opens there are quick edits too; a close up of a painting cuts to: some people in a choir, beginning to sing Vivaldi’s Gloria in excelsis Deo, a stark white on black title card announces:

title-card

Cut to: a close up of the moving bonnet of a red classic Jaguar, shiny polished chrome of the big cat gleaming.

morses-bonnet

We get our first look at Thaw, a serious look on his face.

serious-morse

The music swells, the car sails past like a stately ocean liner. As he passes, a sign on the wall reads: beware-morse

This is exactly the sort of instruction designed to insight maximum disobedience from Regan, not so for Morse. He pulls up.

Another cut:

dead-of-jericho

After a close up of a woman from the choir, we move again to such exciting action as: some men listening to tuneless electronica on a radio while they respray a car. You can tell they are baddies: they have appallingly out of context cockney accents for Oxford.

However, the class of the production is hinted at in shot of Morse from within the garage through the bolted doors. The intercutting of the classical with the crass modernity as signified by the music choices and locations continues before the impending victory of the law and order side is represented by the drowning out of the modern music and the man from inside realises that it’s a trap (“It’s da law!” he shrieks), men in hard hats sneak up and handcuff him to the door of his car.

In the days of Regan and The Sweeney this would have been the time he would have bounded out and traded blows with the “blaggers”. Here, he sits passively, while he is left trying to block the escape of the criminals.

There is a poignancy and clarity of symbolism in the ownership of this car by Morse. A Mark II Jaguar was so often used as the car of the criminals in the earlier series that later Thaw claimed that he had witnessed it being written off several times in The Sweeney and that allegedly, this was the reason Thaw was frequently seen in close-up driving the vehicle as it was being towed because it had broken down.

Here, the climax of the action is the criminals crashing into Morse’s car while he looks to the heaven’s being serenaded by the choir with an exasperated look on his face, as though the holy spirit of Regan and his physicality is finally being exorcised.

exasperated-thaw

And it is this change, this passive exorcism, which lies at the heart of Thaw’s performance as we see the final move between the 1970s rough and tumble to the leisurely pace and intellect of Morse and the 1980s.

In that same Bookclub interview James Naughtie describes Morse thus; “He’s grumpy, he’s odd, he’s lonely, he’s not always kind to people he loves underneath.” But he then asks, “Why do we warm to him?” Dexter replies, “I think quite a lot of the ladies would like to go to bed with him… but I think people enjoy Morse because he was sensitive and vulnerable to a certain extent. Never quite happy about life, but always wonderfully happy about his love of music and poetry.” Thaw is the constant embodiment of this duality; the soul of an artist, the tortured longing of the unfulfilled.

The programme ran until the year 2000, consistently drawing large audiences and spawned the spin off Lewis as well as the aforementioned Endeavour. Success does not always breed total fondness and even the British Film Institute’s (BFI) entry for the series on its Screenonline section has the slightly less than effusive Philip Wickham couching his praise in backhanded terms: “’Middlebrow’ is often used as a derogatory term in British culture… the series offers little that is new or challenging; it adopts the familiar patterns of the English ‘whodunnit’…No one could accuse the programme of being grittily realistic – Oxford’s murder rate rivalled the Bronx…There is a formulaic edge to the series that veers occasionally to parody.”

Not all of 1987 has aged as well as Inspector Morse. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Chevy Chase’s Three Amigos! (and his post-Community career), A-ha’s Cry Wolf, The Housemartins’ Caravan of Love and Alison Moyet’s Is This Love were all near the top of the charts in their respective mediums and are all wearing the years more heavily than Morse. But, with his classic cars, his classical music and his preserved architecture, he was never of the time anyway, so he could scarcely be out it now.

Inspector Morse is well worth #revisiting and will surely reign supreme over domestic television crime fiction for at least 30 years more.

Revisiting… The Sweeney (1975)

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Dennis Waterman, left, as George Carter and John Thaw as Jack Regan in The Sweeney

January 2nd 1975 saw a show debut which was so unlike anything to come before it that it has been loved, parodied, referenced and adored for now over 40 years. It was Euston Films and Thames Television’s, The Sweeney.

Some shows take their place in the canon from a steady evolution of a genre and some just punch through as though out of nowhere – The Sweeney is definitely – defiantly – one of the latter.

From the opening of the first episode, ‘Ringer’, we are catapulted into a London not previously seen on British television. Famously filmed on 16mm, it’s like Ken Loach had decided that police dramas were his true metier. A villain seated in a car, smoking a cigarette, lowers a copy of The Sporting Life newspaper to reveal a green flat cap and natty sideburns. We cut to a point of view shot of a van – is it an ambulance? – speeding across an industrial wasteland.

Oh, the sky might be blue, the trees verdant green – but they frame nothing more than a concrete scar in the landscape, fringed by abandoned buildings with shattered windows. As the cars pull off, we get another point of view shot from inside the car’s cabin as now a mounted camera position allows us to feel the speed generated by the vehicles.

After a conversation, in which we are treated to handheld over the shoulder shots and sweeping nausea-inducing sweeps, we have revealed to us the gas masks and guns these gangsters are planning to use. There’s more conversation, more handheld camera antics, a light dash of humour with the villain who can’t count.

Then, and only then, do we cut to the title sequence.
These titles explode for the viewer – trumpets blaring over a thumping soundtrack as a Ford comes haring towards the camera with a staccato movement created in the edit. This is the most literal arrival of the boys in blue one could envision.

Opening titles: This wasn't your Daddy's police force.

Opening titles: This wasn’t your Daddy’s police force.

All of which presents a stark change from the world of Dixon of Dock Green, which (unbelievably) was still running when The Sweeney made its debut, (and, indeed, would run for another year afterwards, till 1976). One thing was for sure: this wasn’t your Daddy’s police force.

The origin of the series can be found in the one-off drama called – not with sparkling originality – Regan written by Ian Kennedy-Martin for ITV’s Armchair Cinema strand of programmes as a vehicle for John Thaw, with whom he had worked in Redcap.

The relationship between Thaw, playing Jack Regan, and the young Dennis Waterman as George Carter is the central heart of the series. The older colleague mentoring the youngster, whilst they both have to overcome their professional and personal vulnerabilities remains as powerful as when, albeit in a very different form, it was repeated in the more cerebral Inspector Morse (1987)

However, what concerns one now is the way that The Sweeney has come to be seen as a beacon for reactionaries who mythologise its perceived homophobia, racism, casual sexism and other areas now seen as attractive to the unreconstructed. This is simplistic to say the least. The show does have elements of all of these, it is after all an historical document of a particular time, but to say that it is more, vastly more, sophisticated than this suggests is to dance a quick step with understatement.

The character of Regan is not that guy. He wrestles with dilemmas; he is straight in a corrupt world. These are characters that inhabit a bleak world – both at work and at home – and who have to regularly make choices which are unpalatable. Thaw is a cut above the average actor in showing the self-determination wrecking his soul as he torments himself with his self-disgust, whilst Waterman was never better at playing the enthusiastic conscience for his damaged mentor.

All of which makes both the simplicity of the Gene Hunt character in Ashes to Ashes and the humourless, clod-footed Ray Winston reboot The Sweeney debacle all the more disturbing for the viewer who appreciates the importance of what this show tried to do in the period.

The poster for the humourless, clod-footed 2012 Ray Winston reboot

The poster for the humourless, clod-footed 2012 Ray Winston reboot

There’s a lot been written about the show – the bust up between creator Ian Kennedy-Martin and Ted Childs (which Kennedy-Martin discusses in a blog post) – means that the show has been subjected to a lot of analysis. There are the movies, Sweeney! (1977) and its likeable, if at times harrowing, sequel Sweeney 2 (1978) but, at the end of the day, for humour, action, emotion and drama – there’s rarely been anything better on UK television and it deserves to be revisited.

Reposting: The Politics of ‘Poldark’

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The smouldering cast of 2015’s BBC adaptation of ‘Poldark’

This post about the Politics of Poldark has proved consistently popular. Please note, this was originally written and posted in May 2015 after Season One and doesn’t deal with any later events in the show 

As with a great many of these sorts of things, I came to the 2015 adaptation of Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ novels late (i.e. after they had finished airing and we got them on DVD). I was not keen at first. “Oh good – another BBC costume drama about poncey aristos doing their best Colin Firth-impression” is not a phrase I’m likely to utter. However, I was delighted to be proved wrong. From early in the first episode, I was entranced. Not – in the way that apparently the middle aged cohort of Sunday night fantasists obsessed with Aidan Turner’s pecs are – but by the choice of subject at this particular juncture in political history. Brave does not begin to cover it. We’ve all heard the BBC criticised for bias – in Scotland for a pro-union stance, in England for its slavish adherence to Tory policy or for being the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’. I’ve always taken a neutral stance on this alleged bias – firstly, I’m sceptical that an organisation as Byzantine and disparate as the BBC is capable of maintaining a coherent party line (I struggle with believing in organisations to be that organised.) And, also, because I think if you’re being attacked for bias from all sides, then you’re probably on the right lines. But make no mistake – ‘Poldark’ is brave. In an age of austerity, with food bank usage topping 1 million people, (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/22/food-bank-users-uk-low-paid-workers-poverty) for the nation’s broadcaster to produce an adaptation centred on a man of noble birth concerned with the survival of his workers to the extent that he will take on starving miners as farm hands and use his societal position to raise capital to put his people back to work is pretty ballsy.

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

The point of business is not just to make money is like a refrain for Ross Poldark and he outrages his contemporaries with this standpoint. He stands up for poachers and petitions not only the court for clemency, but also the owner of the pheasants, because of the context of the boy poacher’s circumstances. He is acutely aware of the hardships of subsistence living in his period for normal people. Poldark even tries to form what amounts to a Fairtrade workers’ collective to gain a fair price for the tin mined in the region. “I’m disgusted by my class,” he tells the lovely Demelza (another waif saved from a poor home life by Poldark at a time he can ill-afford to pay for another mouth to feed), “not all of them, but most.” In short, the character of Poldark is like a socialist hero of another age – one who actually believes that by working together we can all get richer. At a time when the top 1% are stretching away from the other 99% across the developed world, I can scarcely think of a more suitable hero than a man who is willing to see poverty and hardship as the result of circumstance rather than sloth and ingratitude and well done to the BBC (and Mammoth Screen who have undertaken the lavish production) for daring to offer the nation a compassionate hero – even if he does spends too long topless scything and staring out of the window in moody contemplation.

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark - a socialist hero?

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark – a socialist hero?

Revisiting… Dream On

Revisiting… A new series of posts revisiting film and television shows worthy of attention

Revisiting… Dream On (1990)

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As HBO was setting out to prove that it was not just television, (“It’s Not TV – It’s HBO”) the station that went on to dramatically shift the landscape of American media culture over the succeeding quarter of a century, commissioned Dream On as its earliest original series.

John Landis – best known for directing movies like The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London – asked Universal if he could take advantage of their catalogue of old movies it didn’t really know what to do with. They agreed and, in an entrepreneurial mood, David Crane and Martha Kaufman were hired to produce a show that could utilise these clips – Dream On was the result.

The series follows the ups and downs in the life of book editor Martin Tupper, played by Brian Benben. His life is variously disrupted, supported, scuppered and generally beset by his ex-wife Judith (Wendie Malick who you may recognise from another American sitcom Just Shoot Me where she played the predatory sex-crazed former model Nina Van Horn), his teenage son Jeremy (Chris Demetral), his charismatic talk show host best friend Eddie played by Dorien Wilson and his acerbic secretary Toby (played with fine bulldog force by Denny Dillon).

The show now stands out for the way in which it both set and broke established norms of television sitcoms. On the one hand, the dating disasters of a recently divorced single man in New York was hardly ground-breaking topical comedy and Benben spends a lot of time mugging for the camera in order to allow the clips to be fed into the screen time, like a live-action collection of Family Guy cut aways.

On the other, HBO pushed the fact that it was allowed to do things that the networks couldn’t – Look: nudity! – which also meant they could address issues outwith the perimeter of ordinary television fare – open about sex, for example, and willing to do an entire episode centred around Martin taking an AIDs test; pretty close to the knuckle 25 years ago. Four years later, Crane and Kaufman were responsible for the behemoth that was Friends, not a story line I can imagine attaching to the casual liaisons of Joey Tribbiani.

Dream On is not laugh out loud funny, it has to be admitted. Benben is a likeable lead – although whiny – but this aspect is addressed by the writers too. The classic movie clips are used to punctuate the emotional beats of the scenes, which can get wearying for the viewers.

But there is charm: in the performances and in the chance to see the forgotten oeuvre of Ronald Reagan, and to realise how much B-movie schlock Lee Marvin made. The show has dated too – there are a lot of pastel colours and the shoulder pads are a wonder of quarter century old engineering.

But, it has a classic opening sequence, “https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b7fzAdDxyE” which is actually the origin of the classic static opening for all later HBO shows and if, like me, you watched it as a child on late night Channel 4 in the UK, there is nostalgia for a time when kids were sat in front of the TV and told to be seen and not heard. A bit like the narrative of Martin himself, come to think about it.