The Virginian Suicides


Another enjoyable Wimbledon Tennis Championship draws to a close. Each year, as a racquet-ball widower, I draw upon the alternative entertainment on offer at the Curzon cinema – and by digital extension, Curzon Home Cinema – to help me through the fortnight of tennis. I’ve already reviewed The Midwife and A Man Called Ove; here’s the second rally, effected over two days. (As an embargo prevents me from reviewing Dunkirk until tomorrow, I feel I should honour the smaller films on offer.)

The “biggest” of the five films I’ve chalked up is The Beguiled, in the sense that it was directed by Sofia Coppola, who picked up an award at Cannes for the painstaking trouble she went to in remaking an ancient Clint Eastwood film for the Millennials. It’s certainly not the longest of the five pictures that entertained me over the weekend: at 94 minutes, it’s nine minutes shorter than Don Siegel’s 1971 version, but then, Coppola has chosen to excise the black slave character Hallie (Mae Mercer) for fear – I have assumed – of muddying the waters of the story for white liberal viewers. It really is gorgeous to look at. Coppola’s films tend to be. Shot in Louisiana, for Virginia (It was set in Mississippi in the original), it’s a fecund setting, all shafts of light and trailing fronds, a wall of natural beauty between the virginal/celibate, starched female inhabitants of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies (two adult tutors, five remaining young ladies) and the outside world ie. the grim reality of the American Civil War, fetchingly hinted at by photogenic wisps of smoke in the far distance and tiny thrums of gunpowder igniting. Colin Farrell plays Clint’s Corporal John McBurney, the injured Union soldier taken in by the seminary to convalesce and to ruin the hormonal balance of the plantation house.

I don’t object to beauty for its own sake. Film is a visual medium, after all. But The Beguiled lacks freight. It is almost weightless. Even when Farrell’s sap rises, it’s as glimpsed and hinted-at as the plumes of war. He has one outburst – the one with the pet turtle if you saw Clint in 1971 – but even that’s cauterised. His fate will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the original film on TV, as I did as a kid , or who saw this remake’s trailer, which gives the whole game away. It’s an oddly neutered version of the original film. When Nicole Kidman’s headmistress washes the war-filthy body of an unconscious Farrell (something the slave did in the first version), he looks like he’s already been pre-washed. When the ladies do what it’s clear they’re going to from the trailer, it’s all off-screen. A tale of violent coming-of-age in a violent era it may be, but the violence is not even worth mentioning on the BBFC classification card (only “infrequent strong sex” – if you insist!) It reminded me of Coppola’s delectably moody debut, The Virgin Suicides (which shares Kirsten Dunst with The Beguiled, now all grown up) – but that really was beguiling. It’s like she’s moved from art to home decorating.


Get Out (released earlier in the year and out on DVD next week) is the polar opposite of The Beguiled in terms of squeamishness around race. Written and directed by feature debutant Jordan Peele – half of an acclaimed sketch double-act Key & Peele, yet to be exported here – this is a horror film about race. It comes on like a laser-guided post-Girls satire on the terror of white liberals around black people, with Chris (British export Daniel Kaluuya), the “black boyfriend” of Rose (Allison Williams), who’s taken to meet the rich parents in their cloistered suburban enclave, where the only black faces belong to “servants”, about whom Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad (Bradley Whitford) are wracked with progressive guilt. (Rose tells Chris she never told them he was black, and why, as a colourblind liberal, would she?) From the get-go, Get Out is different. On first inspection, though drawn as figures of fun, the parents aren’t racist. The subservience of their black maid, and the compliance of their black groundskeeper, give cause for concern, but Chris is as blindsided by his own desire not to be reactionary to the casual stereotyping. (One white guest at party of Mike Leigh awkwardness actually hints at a black man’s fabled sexual prowess, while a golf fan claims to be a huge fan of Tiger Woods, as if that absolves him.) Without giving the game away, things turn nasty, and disturbing, and you won’t see the twist coming, I swear. It’s funny and terrifying, and has so much to say, it ought not be this fleet of foot. But it is. Peele treads on toes without tripping up. One of the most original films of the year.


We’ve already seen Elle Fanning in The Beguiled, and although I understand why her willowy presence is so fashionable right now, it’s a dangerous game to appear to be in everything. (I guess when you’re that thin you slot in easily.) She’s in 20th Century Women, a film you’d be certain from its title and its publicity was written and directed by a woman. It’s written and directed by Mike Mills, the one who isn’t in REM and who gave us the memorable Beginners, a film about men, a son and his gay dad. This is, inevitably, more female. Set in 1979 and appealingly soaked in punk and post-punk including Talking Heads, The Damned and The Clash. Fanning is a willowy occasional patron of Annette Bening’s free-for-all hippy boarding house in Santa Monica. Another tenant is Greta Gerwig’s pretentious cancer patient who discovers she has an “incompetent cervix” from her gynaecologist, dances to exorcise her anger, and, we’re told in voiceover, “saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and dyed her hair red.” Bening had her son (Lucas Jade Zumann) late and feels she’s too old to meaningfully steer him to young adulthood, recruiting the other women in her orbit to do it in shifts. So, it’s a coming-of-age, like The Beguiled, except the women are in charge of a teenage boy, not a wounded man. Ironically, he seems old beyond his years, confused that Fanning rejects him since he got “horny”. (“We don’t have sex!” she assures an adult who finds them in bed together.) Billy Crudup, another tenant, also a carpenter who’s renovating the tumbledown hotel California, is too obsessed with wood to find any traction with the kid.


Pregnancy, cancer, menstruation, feminism, all are fit subjects for his ad hoc home-education, and you sort of envy him, as he drowns in radical thinking. I felt that the reliance on narration in the recent Bryan Cranston film Wakefield eventually did for it (it was adapted from a New Yorker short story, much of it word for word). But in 20th Century Women, it suits the quirky, episodic, Wes Anderson-indebted style. When the narration mentions a particular brand of fertility medication, we see a rostrum shot of a single pill from above; when Gerwig talks of a photography project, we see the Polaroids in sequence. That kind of caper. Mills also slots in genuine photos from the period (of Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols, that kind of caper), and it reminded me of the original of The Beguiled, which set its scene with genuine photos of the Civil War. There are no rules against it. I also loved Bening’s line about smoking: “You know, when I started, they weren’t bad for you.” Such economical signposting of age. She says, in narration, that she will die of lung cancer in 1999. It gives you quite a start: she’s suddenly omniscient. Bold writing, and worthy of its Oscar nomination.

In Get Out, Chris is lured into something unpleasant by psychotherapists. In 20th Century Women, everybody is either in therapy, or should be, or offers amateur psychoanalysis at the drop of a hat. If Get Out if post-Girls, this is pre-Girls. Jamie is artistically bullied by Black Flag fans – who spray-can his mother’s VW (“ART FAG”) – because he likes Talking Heads! (“The punk scene is very divisive,” observes Gerwig.) Jamie ends up telling his mom, “I’m dealing with everything right now. You’re dealing with nothing.”)


My Cousin Rachel is the second big-screen adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel that’s actually a kind of “reverse Rebecca.” (Why wasn’t that on the posters?) Adapted and directed by Roger Michell, it’s as perfectly poised as The Beguiled, but its dramatic tableaux carry freight, emotional and narrative. Rachel Weisz was kind of born to play the title role, as she is also called Rachel, when Olive de Havilland wasn’t in the 1957 version. Sam Claflin in well cast from the neck up, in that he convinces as the orphaned heir of a wealthy cousin who inherits a Cornish estate and discovers another claimant on his inheritance, the titular cousin, half-Italian and suspected of foul play. When I say Claflin – who takes the role etched by Richard Burton in the 1957 one – is well cast from the neck up, I mean it literally. His face acting is first-rate – although when he has been a gullible fool throughout and finally admits, “I’ve been a fool”, one gentleman in the Curzon quietly exclaimed, “Yes, you have!” and other patrons laughed without malice. But at one point when, as in all costume dramas, he is forced by a sexist orthodoxy to take off his shirt, we see that his shoulders are not shoulder-shaped but triangular, as if perhaps this country fop was a bodybuilder. (In real life, like all young male actors, he presumably feels duty-bound to work out to within an inch of his life, and this often breaks the spell of costume drama. I mean there’s no way Ross Poldark got like that by cutting the grass.)


Look at the above still. It’s a fabulous bit of location scouting in Devon, costume design, lighting, framing and cinematography. They have done Du Maurier proud.

I relish this Catholic spread of cinema. The most generic of all was Berlin Syndrome, a film I took to be German, as it’s set in Berlin, but turns out to be Australian, the third film of Cate Shortland, whose entire output I have seen without trying to. (She also made Somersault, set in Australia, and Lore, also set in Germany.) In it, an Aussie backpacker, Clare (Teresa Palmer) goes back to the flat of a German teacher, Andi (Max Riemelt); they sleep together; he goes off to work the next morning; she finds herself accidentally locked in his apartment. He gets home; she discovers that he has no intention of letting her out. (Imagine the torture of being a globe-trotting Australian traveller being locked into a flat with reinforced, acoustically soundproofed windows so no-one can hear you scream!) This film is a thriller, a chamber piece, and a very effective one. A touch of Rear Window about it, and a bit of hobbling that recalls Misery and The Beguiled.


It’s not deep, but it is lyrically shot by Shortland, showing scenes of “normality” outside the flat that becomes Clare’s cell in slow motion, as if to underline the freedom of ordinary existence. There’s gore and terror, and more than a hint of Stockholm Syndrome – or is it? – to keep the otherwise claustrophobic story going. Andi is well played – he really is charming enough to convince girls back to his flat, and to keep his workmates in the staff room from suspecting (until he starts to unravel) – but it’s Palmer’s triumph. She is the victim, but does not play the victim. You’re willing her to get out.

The tennis is literally just finishing as I finish typing (Jamie Murray and Martina Hinglis are being interviewed after the doubles final). Five worthwhile films, two at the cinema, three at the laptop in coffee shops. If you’ve seen any of them, let me know what you thought.

Love film. Film love.




It’s a knockout. And, as the canopy of shade creeps diagonally across pitches from Manaus in the north to Porto Alegre in the south, we have borne witness to the birth of the “cooling break”, whose very name refreshes those of us at home, where temperatures are not in the thirties and humidity a lot less than 66%. The hallucinations constantly threatened if the players don’t rehydrate are all happening to us, the armchair spectators. With the group stages over and my Guardian World Cup Guide fastidiously spidered with numbers, we’re at that point where every match counts. Even, on a low level, Costa Rica Greece, which I forewent last night in order to catch up on Glastonbury, but turned out to have gone to dratted penalties (5-3 to Costa Rica). Aside from the sight of Adrian Chiles in tight shorts with his legs wide apart under the garden table last night on ITV, during the channel’s unique on-the-patio bit before the game (he dresses to the left, cock fans), there’s little to complain about. Suárez is long gone – subsequently joined, connectedly, by Uruguay, after a sound thrashing by Colombia. The narrative (and I love a narrative, as has been pointed out to me on Twitter) is that one superstar is gone, and another is born: 22-year-old striker James Rodriguez, whose 29th-minute volley is being talked about as the goal of the tournament – and that’s with stiff competition.


As already established, the post-England phase of any international cup is always my favourite part. No more residual stress about whether or not “our boys” can prove, or improve, their world ranking, and the sheer joy of being able to cheer on whichever team I like, switching allegiance mid-game if I fancy. I do not blame the whole of Uruguay for the developmental and denial issues of Suárez, although the shine did come off them as a result of his toothmanship and when Colombia went one up with That Goal, I pinned my allegiance to their yellow shirts, perhaps in subliminal solidarity with the hickey-marked Italy, or with Gloria from Modern Family.

Either way, poster boy Rodriguez, who’s now scored in all four of his World Cup games, delivered a magic moment when he chested, then left-footed a 25-yarder past the Uruguay goalie. To quote from the write-up by the BBC’s Phil McNulty, who will have seen and described more goals than I ever will do, “It was the most perfect combination of technique and talent, drawing gasps from around this iconic stadium when it was replayed on the four giant screens that hang from the roof of the vast bowl.”


What a game Brazil Colombia will be on Friday (Colombia’s first ever quarter final). Another serious South American derby, especially now that Brazil have recovered their mojo. Their victory against Chile in the first knockout match may have been decided on penalties – just checking: nobody wants a World Cup match to go to penalties do they? – but it was no kickabout in the 120 minutes preceding.

A goal apiece from Brazil’s Alan Davies-haired David Luis and Chile’s Sanchez evened things out in the first half-hour, but the turning point came in the second half: a disallowed goal from Hulk, who appeared to use his bicep before getting one past Claudio Bravo, an anatomical subtlety identified and penalised by brave British ref Howard Webb, whose shiny head always makes me think of my last editor at the NME, and my own Uncle Phil, who was a professional referee in his prime, which seemed supercool to me as a boy. (We witnessed him spraying the medicinal-smelling Ralgex onto his legs before a game, which was an eye-opener. It was like he operated in another world and yet he was Uncle Phil.) Webb was at least balanced: he denied a penalty appeal by both sides. Much for the pundits to unpick at half-time.


Those penalties. It was hot out there and even those used to the stifling humidity and wilting temperatures didn’t really want to play on for another 30 minutes. But there it was. Somebody must always go home empty handed from now on. Or empty-armed in Hulk’s case. If this game had been blocked and written in a writers’ room, then Hulk, so ambiguously denied his second, would-be-decisive goal, would have scored Brazil’s winning penalty, thus redeeming himself, and allowing Howard Webb to get home from work safely and sleep more easily. As it was, Hulk’s shot was saved by the estimable Bravo – bravo! – but it was Julio Cesar’s denial of Sanchez’s penalty kick – hail, Cesar! – that sealed it at 3-2 for the hosts. Tense, yes, a ridiculous in-out way to decide a match so steeped in chance and subtlety, but the shootout was not without nuance: Neymar’s mindfuck shuffle was quality entertainment.



In our house, we’re still unable to get over the image of Holland’s star striker as a character in Game Of Thrones: Iron Robin. But this is a minor impediment to the enjoyment of watching him lead a seriously below-par team to a squeaked victory against my favourites Mexico. I decided they were my favourites during the first half, when they gave as good as they got and their first quarter final in 28 years seemed a delicious possibility. I love to watch Holland pass, but they couldn’t break the Mexican wall. If I had more analytical skills, I’d tell you precisely why like Glenn Hoddle did at half-time when it was still 0-0, but I find it difficult to follow him. It was 38.8C out there, and fans unlucky enough to be sat in the sun literally abandoned their seats. If both teams had agreed only to play in the shade throughout, I would have taken my hat off to them, and then put it back on again for protection. It may have explained the Dutch failure to convert. The Netherlands is not a hot country, and the orangemen (sorry) who aren’t bald, have shaggy dog hair – neither ideal in a bake-off.

HolMexQsave I know this much, Mexico’s keeper Guillermo Ochoa was the man of the match. Commentator Sam Matterface may have mocked him for looking like something out of an “80s fitness video” (he favours a thick headband to keep his head looking like a tied-up bunch of fresh carrots), but his quick-witted ability saw a parade of Dutch chances punched, slapped or body-bounced off the line. When Mexico’s Dos Santos put them one-up at the start of the second half from the fabled 25 yards (I don’t even know what a yard looks like), things really hotted up. Holland didn’t equalise until the 88th minute – despite Iron Robin’s repeated attempts to lie down in the penalty area and feign injury – but the man we call V2 Schneider (but is actually called Wesley Sneijder) turned it around in style. Hallucinatory extra time seemed inevitable, but Robin finally had his way, earned a penalty after a Marquez trip-up, and Easter Island-browed substitute Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored the winner from the spot. As you will see from this picture, the wrong player is called Hulk.


Because I remained a loyal Mexico supporter to the end, telling anyone who’d listen, including our cat, that they deserved to go through, I was crestfallen by Holland’s zero-hour comeback, as juicy and dramatic as it was. Also, as with the Oscars, I like surprises and dislike sure things. But with whole sections of the crowd burnt to a crisp like extras in Threads and welded to their plastic seats like puddles of face paint, Holland celebrated not just getting through to the quarter finals, but to a potentially comfy tie against either Costa Rica or Greece (it turned out to be the former).

On with the games.

It’s not the end of the world


First: it looks like I’m getting two weeks off! So, this week’s Telly Addict, although not a review of the year, acts as an end-of-the-year, end-of-the-world edition. Under review are BBC Sports Personality of the Year, BBC1; the finale of Season Three of Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic (no spoilers); The British Comedy Awards, C4; Richard E Grant’s Hotel Secrets, Sky Atlantic; Inside Claridge’s, BBC2; and Little Crackers, Sky1.


Secondly, I was also asked to promote The Great British Bake Off as my favourite TV show of 2012 (incorrectly billed as “the best TV programme of 2012″ in their more provocative headline). You can watch my little three-minute film here. Props to the Guardian website people for, once again, flagging this up on the main page. It’s reassuring to see that the commenters below the line have been instantaneous with their comfort and joy.

I watched this once. The presenters heads are completely up their own arses and it’s about the most tedious, poncy, self opinionated, piece of shit I have ever had the misfortune to view. Baking should be fun, with these arseholes it becomes a ritualised chore. More utter bilge from the increasingly bilge-producing BBC.


The middle-class fetishisation of food at a time of austerity – just what a PSB provider should be doing! What next … four celebrities in a big house with all the heating and electricity on talking about how warm and cosy they are?


FFS. We used to have telly like Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation, Malcom Muggeridge, Face to Face, Not Only …But Also... Now we have endless cookery crap and people taking DNA tests live on air. Seriously- God help this country. It ain’t the Royals fault, either.


Corn syrup for undernourished brains.


Utter trash. Pointless competitions make for cheap nasty television. The smug presenters and contestants are horrible.

No names, obviously, as that would be playing into their evil hands. (I like the concept of “self opinionated” though.) So it’s “Goodwill to all men!” to those miserable fuckers, and “Merry Christmas!” to the rest of you. Thanks for viewing this year – in increasing numbers, so I’m told, since we moved to Tuesday mornings. Here’s to another year of me sitting at a slight angle and trying not to wear the same shirt two weeks’ running.

The biggest prize in sport

+++++++++++++++++++++++Moan alert!++++++++++++++++++++++

Yes, the 2012 London Olympics are almost upon us. If you’re unlucky enough to live in London, your giveaway evening newspaper has been providing a thrilling day-by-day countdown which I think may have begun on 7/7 in 2005, the glorious day after the capital won the Olympic bid. I’m no fan of the London Evening Standard – which is given away free to grumpy commuters each night and, as such, is by definition worthless, although it can claim to be less unloved than the morning Metro – as you have to machete your way through so much propaganda in order to get to the actual local news, but it’s been especially impenetrable this year, with the Mayoral elections, the Jubilee, Heathrow and now the Games. It’s difficult to know where the editorial ends and the advertorial begins.

But hey, such blurring of truth and profit is very much in the spirit of the Games. I didn’t vote for the Olympics. Ordinary Londoners were never asked if we wanted the biggest sideshow in sport held here, and part-funded by our council tax. We were promised regeneration of some of the East End and Docklands. We were promised a fabulous upswing in commerce and opportunity (“Every sector of the economy will benefit from the staging of the Olympic Games”, went the bid). We were promised a second Westfield shopping centre. We were promised millions of tourists descending up our already full and already filthy city. Some of these dreams may yet come true – there’s a brand new Westfield now in Stratford, whose car parks have already been closed for the duration of the games – but estimates about how many people are coming here on holiday were hugely optimistic, as many non-Olympic “vacationers” have been understandably put off, either by the threat of crowding, or just being blown up.

Let’s contextualise my disinterest in the Games. As a punter I’m really not that bothered about athletics. Sport in general is not something that gets me going. You know I dabble with football, and I ended up watching that tennis match at last year’s Wimbledon that went on and on and on out of peer pressure, but as a rule, as a spectator, I prefer artistic rather than physical endeavour. That’s just my personal choice. I have nothing against sport, or sportspeople. I care about my health and used to love going to the gym when I could afford it. Better to do sport, whether it’s a kickabout in the park or the fully-fledged sacrifice of training for the Olympics, than sit around doing nothing. What I have against these Olympics is that, as a Londoner, I get all of the aggravation and none of the benefit.

It’s not just that the Tube and buses are going to be overcrowded, although that’s pretty annoying when your job involves a lot of travelling about in London, and, I expect, even more annoying if you have a nine-to-five job that can’t realistically be “done from home”. London’s bus drivers are threatening to strike for a bonus payment, as their jobs are going to be extra stressful between July 27 and August 12, and August 29 and September 9. But passengers can’t strike. We’re stuck with it. (I think anyone whose job is going to be made harder by the Olympics should be entitled to a bonus.)

What I really object to is the relentless bombardment of corporate sponsorship. It seems tragic to me that sporting endeavour has to be privately funded. If we lived in the benign Communist utopia of my fevered dreams (and I haven’t worked out all the details yet), sport would be state-sponsored for the health of the nation and the pride of representing your country. So would the Arts. The minute you hand over the Games to advertising “partners”, and these “partners” are then able to literally dictate which credit card you use to apply for tickets, and which fizzy drinks you drink in the stadia, and which burgers you eat, then the sport comes a poor second to profit. And when even the top sports stars must flog their spandexed arses in TV ads in order to keep fit – Usain Bolt clowning for Richard Branson a typically undignified example; Victoria Pendleton getting her actual kit off for men’s magazines for more subtly commericial returns (FHM: “Victoria has the sort of legs that could, should you inadvertently find yourself in a sexual embrace with the woman, kill you”) – it’s a sad world indeed.

As a user of the already creaking London Transport network, I have for some time been assailed on all sides by adverts telling me not to travel in London during the Olympics and the Paralympics; to stay at home; to choose an alternative route; to avoid certain lines and stations; to fuck off. Even worse, there are ads everywhere put up by Procter & Gamble, the American multinational petrochemical giant, whose $82.6 billion turnover for 2011 is helping to fund a big chunk of the Olympics. P&G, as they’d prefer us to call them, want volunteers in London to help clean the place up, using P&G cleaning brands like Flash and Febreze. That’s right, the company that makes Flash wants us to give up our own time to clean the city before the tourists arrive. If they’re so keen on cleaning, why don’t they pay out-of-work Londoners the minimum wage to clean the streets? Just a thought.

On the subject of cost, the Guardian came up with some figures back in April. Originally slated to cost about £2.4bn, Olympic costs had already jumped to £9.3bn by 2007. The total kept rising. The House of Commons’ public accounts committee revealed costs were heading for around £11bn. Then Sky Sports worked out that, including public transport upgrade costs, the final score was closer to £24bn. By continually revising the budget upwards, the Olympic Delivery Authority have been able to say that the whole thing will finally come in under budget. But it’s all based on made up numbers. Big numbers that are constantly being moved about.

The Olympic village was supposed to be financed by Australian developer Lend Lease, but private investors scarpered when the economy imploded in 2008, leaving it to the government ie. us. In August 2011 they sold the village at a taxpayer loss of £275m to the Qatari ruling family’s property firm. (Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt called this “a fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a legacy from London’s Games”. He’s not still Culture Secretary, is he? Really?)

As for security, after initially estimating the need for 10,000 police officers, they’ve since had to tap the military for 13,500 reserves at a time when a) the country is still fighting a war, and b) military personnel are being cut along with every other corner of the public sector. We’ve got ships situated in the Thames, Eurofighter jets and surface-to-air missiles on top of tower blocks. The cost of security has increased from £282m to £553m. There are less than 13,500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. (Londoners get the security bill, by the way. I’m not leaving a tip.)

I guess there’s never a good time to hold the Olympics, but London definitely drew the short straw holding them at such a time of economic woe. (April’s Guardian Comment Is Free article about “celebration capitalism”, from which I’ve drawn most of these figures, is here.)

Every huge international sporting event is an advert for something. And the London Olympics just seem worse because they’re on my doorstep and I’m having my face rubbed in them. Even if you’re excited about the sport – and I understand there will be some sport somewhere in the middle of all this branding and synergy – it’s hard to argue with the assessment that it’s a public-private partnership that needs some serious counselling.

For the record, these are the private companies who are funding the Games.

Worldwide partners:
Acer Inc.
Dow Chemical Company
General Electric
Omega SA
Panasonic Corporation
Procter & Gamble
Official partners:
British Airways (thanks for despoiling The Clash’s London Calling in your TV advert, as if Scouting For Girls didn’t do enough damage to it at the Olympics homecoming gig four years ago)
BT Group
EDF Energy
Lloyds TSB
Official supporters:
Cisco Systems
Thomas Cook Group
United Parcel Service
Official suppliers and providers:
Boston Consulting Group
CBS Outdoor
Crystal CG
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
London Heathrow Airport
Heineken International
Holiday Inn
John Lewis
McCann Erickson
Mondo Worldwide
General Mills
Nielsen Company
Rapiscan Systems
Rio Tinto Group
Thames Water
Westfield Group

Have I missed anybody?

Wide men can’t jump

Ah, Euro 2012. Just because I’ve not had the time to write about it, don’t for one moment think I’ve not been following it like a proper football fan. I’m football crazy. Although still desolate without the traditional Guardian booklet with which to guide myself through the jungle of new names and managers (and too late to pick up the recommended When Saturday Comes equivalent – in two years’ time I won’t be so tardy), I’ve seen the majority of the games, except when two are playing concurrently.

As is traditional, the tournament has increased my intake of beer. I suspect it’s the weather, too, but I can no more avoid falling into the cliché of a male football fan on the sofa with a glass of lager and a barrage of shouty advice for the players on the screen than I can avoid falling into the cliché of a Guardian reader going on about Grayson Perry. There is, as Perry indeed noted on his glorious C4 series about class, comfort in conformity. I have yet to watch any Euro 2012 in mixed company, and I run past pubs showing it, as I fear my deficiencies of contextual knowledge would expose me to ridicule. At home I’m safe.

I have no idea, for instance, who Wellbeck and Lescott and Milner and Young play for when they’re not playing for England. I’m pretty certain that Torres and Ronaldo play for English Premiership clubs, and I can make a stab at which ones, but in one way, it doesn’t matter. I’m watching Euro 2012 for its own merits. Wellbeck plays for England. Torres plays for Spain. That’s all that matters to me. While I have vertigo-inducing respect for those that follow league football and balance and reassess its administrative intricacies at all times, as I’ve said, I don’t have the spare brain power. For me, it’s like going on holiday once every two years. (Which is ironic, as I don’t go on actual holiday even that often.) I’ve just realised I don’t know Torres’ first name. Respect me!

This summer, I’m vacationing in Poland and Ukraine – unlike the cast-strapped BBC pundits, who are alone in Salford, acting like Star Wars characters against a constant green-screen. (If the BBC was allowed to lie like it used to in the good old days, it could easily drop in a Warsaw backdrop and make it look as if Gary and Alan and Alan and Alan were there.) So, we’re out of the group stage and facing the quarter finals. I find it difficult to believe that England won their group, and even more difficult to believe that the goal-line decision on Ukraine’s would-be equaliser actually went our way. (I mean, it was over the line, wasn’t it? I think it was the ITV commentator who adjudged it “karmic”, a sort of existential payback for all the times when such an anomaly went against England. I can live with that. It’s not an exact science, after all; it’s a load of overpaid, spitting male philanderers chucking themselves at each other, and without the balletic beauty of slow motion. Borderline things happen.)

Still, it’s a result for me personally, as I am attending a family function on Saturday night that would have been – shall we say – affected by a potential England quarter final at 7.45pm. As it stands, those who would not have been able to miss such a thing will presumably be persuaded to join the party while Spain play France, as thrilling as that would surely be.

It’s never a walk in the park following England’s progress through an international championship. They have a habit of displaying bursts of promise, and then urinating that promise up the wall at a later stage. To have held France to a 1-1 draw was a surprisingly positive start last Monday, and to have provided us with three goals against Sweden from three relatively new players (completely new to me, of course, in the case of Wellbeck and Carroll, although I remember Walcott – which we are childishly pronouncing in the Germanic way for no reason whatsoever in our house – when he was Sven’s wild card at World Cup 2006 when all the famous strikers were injured) was a treat beyond our expectations. It’s amazing to see any goals, especially when teams of lofty reputation like Sweden, Holland, Italy and Germany had been coming up with frustrating results like 1-1 and 1-0 in those early games.

I am a seasoned enough watcher of the sport to know that it’s not all about number of goals scored, and that a 0-0 draw can be thrilling, but at this level – as we veterans say – you expect such a lot. I was sad if not surprised to see the Republic of Ireland go out, although the team’s fans seemed a hell of a lot cheerier in defeat than Roy Keane did at any time back in the studio. (I don’t know that much about him except that he was a national hero, but he seems a right grump, totally immune to the Fantasy Football atmosphere Adrian Chiles is charged with whipping up by ITV.)

I don’t know which pundits I am allowed to like. I sense that Alan Hansen is widely derided, but I can’t let a consensus that has been decided while I was out of the room affect me. I don’t mind him and his pompous manner and propensity to be wrong. Lineker’s been working out too much in the gym and does not fit into his expensively fitted shirts around the shoulders and tops of his arms, which is a problem that needs addressing. On the other side, Chiles seems in his element, which you can’t take away from him, not after his unfortunate experiences on the rollercoaster of daytime; he just prefers the social company of men, clearly. I can’t understand Carragher. I think Andy Townsend is funny, whether he’s meant to be or not, and it took me a while to work out that he was referring to players as “wide men” and not “white men.” I’m sure he didn’t coin the phrase “skyed it” but he was the first commentator I heard say it, so I use it in his honour every time a player kicks a ball high over the top of the net. (Every two years, I dust down “he couldn’t get on the end of it”, “flick on”, “making chances”, and “they closed him down”, too. Such evocative language! Who wouldn’t be delighted by it?)

I have been fascinated to hear the chant of Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes every time a goal is scored. Does Jack White know about this? Does he get royalties? And is it actually being played out over the PA, or is it just in the gift of the crowd? (A helpful 6 Music listener emailed in and suggested it had begun in this country and has been exported. Is this so?)

See, I’m into it. It’s dominating my evenings and it’s causing me to leave the office early so that I can settle down in time for kick-off (or, in the case of ITV, about half an hour after kick-off, so that we can fast-forward through the adverts for betting shops – there are enough adverts during the games without being assailed by them at half time).

I can confidently say that part of me wishes Wayne Rooney hadn’t been played in the Ukraine match, even though he scored the decisive goal with his extended head. I think having an iconic, talismanic player on the squad can be detrimental to team solidarity. If England “expects” one man to shoulder the whole burden, it allows the others to defer. But look at Wellbeck, Carroll and Walcott (sub) against Sweden! Out of the shadow of Rooney, they bloomed – and it looked like Hodgson had moved the chess pieces around with skill, timing and foresight. Or at least, this is how it looked from my part-timer’s sofa. I am the armchair manager’s worst nightmare: the armchair manager who doesn’t even bother to turn up for work for two years at a time! Fear me!

Heavens, I’ve just written about 1,200 words on the football. Better get back to work, so that I can leave work and watch the football. I must admit, I have enjoyed watching Portugal, who have the most tattooed arms in the tournament now that Denmark and Ukraine are out, I think. Maybe there are a lot of tractors in Portugal.

He skyed it

Looking back on previous international football tournaments, which are my cue to become interested in football for a couple of weeks every two years, it amazes me that I somehow had the time to “review” individual matches. I’m impressed with myself. Not at the layman’s articulacy with which I captured a sport which I spend most of my life not watching, but at the sheer dedication, and at the sheer spare time I seem to have had in 2010, 2008 and 2006 (before which I wasn’t blogging).

This is essentially what I wrote before the last World Cup, and it still stands. It is important to know it. I do not follow football. I don’t have a team. As a boy, I never went to see the Cobblers play, although I followed league football with fervour and could draw every club badge from memory, as well as name every squad and ground. I collected the stickers, and knew who played for whom in the First Division and even some of the teams in the Second. I supported Liverpool, and then Leeds, and to know why I switched you’ll have to read the Leeds Mug chapter of Where Did It All Go Right?, which is available for 1p on Amazon. I realise I am every true football fan’s worst nightmare: someone who takes a keen interest in football once ever two years ie. for the international tournaments. For these, I throw myself into the stats and personnel and even fill in the scores in my Guardian guide. Or at least, I have done for as long as I can remember, but NOT THIS YEAR. This year, due I can only assume to the general penny-pinching of the print media as it looks down the barrel of extinction in the digital age, the Guardian have not supplied a pull-out guide packed with essential information for the casual fan. I am bereft without it, and didn’t think to pick up another paper which did have a guide in it. It’s too late now. I know all the information and commentary will be online, but I don’t have a smartphone at my side while watching the telly, nor do I wish to. And it’s not just about filling in the results. It is a bit about that, as the last World Cup’s guide proves:

Anyway, on with my disclaimer. If I was one of those people who followed football on a religious, weekly basis, I would find me irritating or even heretical. But please don’t. I won’t be standing in a pub pretending I know all about football for the next couple of weeks. I won’t be pretending anywhere. I’ll be at home, watching the matches, and only supporting England through geographical accident of birth. I shan’t be painting my face.

I am already following their progress with interest and enthusiasm, but not to the point where I will fly a flag (I think you know how I feel about the flag), or weep when they go out. I actually like watching the other teams more. During the World Cup I became particularly fond of the African and Eastern European nations. I liked both France and Italy in 2006, and enjoyed the final – until Zidane did “the stupid thing” – without partisanship. I do not hate the Germans, either.

I enjoy the nature of the TV coverage, identifying the voices of the commentators and pundits, picking up on their cliches, and I love the roar of the crowd, even when it’s through the speakers of my TV. You won’t find me watching football in public. But I do cheer and boo at home. Especially if I’ve had a small beer. And I do shout at the screen.

Here is my review of the 2006 World Cup final. If you scout around previous entries at that time, July 2006, you can read other reviews and get a flavour of how a football lightweight covers such a tournament. Also, Euro 2008 is covered; just look up June 2008 in the archives over there on the right. As I say, I’m quite proud of my efforts looking back. I wrote a series of “essays” for the 2010 World Cup – “essay” being a subtle pun on SA, South Africa. The first is here, and the rest are nearby.

I won’t be “reviewing” matches this year, as I simply do not have the luxury of time. I’m busy writing two pilot scripts for two broadcasters and when I’m not doing that, writing bits and pieces for Word, and writing my Guardian TV review, and writing things for Radio Times. I’m jealous of myself in 2010, 2008 and 2006 for having the time to write so many words for free, for myself, for fun. I am, however, enjoying Euro 2012 and will be “reviewing” it for Telly Addict this week, with clips!

So far, I’m fascinated by how many players have one entire arm covered in tattoos, usually the left, although I think the Republic of Ireland’s Glenn Whelan has his right arm covered. I feel sure this has increased since the World Cup. See? That’s the fun of only watching football every two years; it’s like not seeing a niece or nephew for that amount of time and noticing changes that would be imperceptible to others closer to them. When the BBC’s Alan Shearer came on for the first time, for a split second I thought they’d sent his dad.

Oh, and I’m really enjoying what feels like a pretty new England team, while they’re still in the competition. So many names and faces I’ve never seen before! Wellbeck! Lescott! Young! The improbably-named Oxlade-Chamberlain! I pity the rest of you, with your rolling knowledge.

Anyway, on with the melodrama, the greasepaint and the well-recompensed spitting philanderers …

Sky sports

Having emerged from the full-on, round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week flotation tank of Mr Blue Sky, I am now in the luxurious position – for the first time since Christmas – to occasionally write blog entries about films and telly for the simple pleasure of doing so, which I’m sure is something I used to do?

First, then, let us consider two US imports, both showing on Sky Atlantic (sorry about that, Sky refuseniks), one brand new, the other six years old, both linked by one defining fact. They make me interested in a world of sport that I have zero interest in.

The first is Luck, which comes from HBO, top-heavy with talent from the movies, and created by TV deity David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood – not that I’ve ever seen Deadwood; you may start ordering me to rectify this … now). I am not big on sport in general. I was obsessed by football as a kid, mainly in the 1970s, and could name every ground of every club in the first division, and draw its club badge from memory. I drifted away from it in the 80s, when films and post-punk music filled my head. I’ve never been that interested in other sports. And I’ve certainly never cared about horse racing. Luck, now at its fourth episode, is set in the world of horse racing, and in the subculture of gambling that emanates from it.

Not only do I not care about it as a sport, as an animal lover I am alarmed by the cruel way in which racehorses are treated, and dispatched when injured. I believe I am right in saying that five horses died at the recent Cheltenham Gold Cup? (Apparently, the British Horse Racing Authority say that with 90,000 horses running a year in Britain, this is a minimal fatality rate.) But great drama does not rely upon an audience’s foreknowledge of, nor participation in, a specific field. It should educate and enlighten. Luck does this in dazzling, tactile style. From the moment Michael Mann’s first episode started, we were dropped into a rich ecosystem of trainers, owners, riders, agents, gamblers and gangsters – not to mention animals.

It looks incredible. Even an average HBO series looks as good as any Hollywood movie, and this is above-average. It takes you from the stands onto the track and then behind the scenes, into the stables, and to the places where deals are done, and horses are traded. It then leaks out into the bars and hotels where business continues while the horses sleep. With talent like Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Kevin Dunn and John Ortiz on show – not to mention Joan Allen, who’s just been introduced, and Michael Gambon, who’s promised – it’s human drama of a particularly salty type. Mumbled? Yes, Luck is one of those shows for grown-ups, like The Wire or Generation Kill, that speaks its own language and assumes you are alert and patient enough to catch up.

Because of the initial impenetrability of the world it inhabits (and we are looking here at people who appear to do nothing but think about horses – except perhaps Hoffman’s mobster, who thinks chiefly about money), it took me until Episode 3 to truly click with it. But it was a revelation. You have to work at a series like this. But what payback.

So, my Saturday nights are now illuminated and clouded with steaming equine breath by Luck. Friday nights, which actually occur on Tuesday nights, are lit up by Friday Night Lights, an NBC series about high school football which ran for five seasons from 2006 and is now showing, box set style, on Sky Atlantic, having previously been patchily and lovelessly shown on ITV4. Here, again, is a show about sport, and about fanatical local devotion to sport, which is a world away from my own, but which has hooked me right in.

Created by Peter Berg – it began with a movie of the same name – it takes a factual basis and fictionalises it in the made-up small town of Dillon, Texas, where the local Panthers are less a team, more a way of life and death. Regardless of the sport, which still strikes me as lumpy and brutish and detrimentally constructed around intervals, this presents a further layer of devotion that’s foreign to me. But it’s conveyed with such warmth, understanding and empathy, again, you’d be hard-hearted not to get drawn in.

Kyle Chandler plays the new coach, whose reputation hinges on the score of a game at the end of each week, and among the stars of his young team are Taylor Kitsch as the Keanu Reeves-like airhead Tim Riggins, Scott Porter’s paralysed Jason Street and Zach Gilford’s chorus-girl ingenue Matt Saracen. Connie Britton is exceptional, too, as the Coach’s wife. It’s a soap – a description I used on this week’s Telly Addict and which drew some ire from fans of the show, although I would never use “soap” as a qualitative term. FNL is a show that centres around a whole town’s worth of characters and traces their interconnected lives on a weekly basis, which is pure soap opera. And it’s sublime stuff, fluidly filmed in hand-held style, and run on the natural authenticity of partly improvised dialogue and blocking.

I love these two shows, albeit FNL with a more romantic devotion and not a single caveat, which can’t be said for Luck, which will never even reach its second season, let alone its fifth. Either way, I find myself currently caring about the result of fictional horse races and football games.

As for the unhappy fate of Luck: I was naturally horrified to find that two horses were actually euthanised after injury in the making of its pilot and one subsequent episode, although in many ways, the horses were just racing for the cameras, as they would be if racing for real – neither is crueller than the other, you might argue. But after a recent third injury, which also resulted in an animal being put down, Luck basically cancelled itself, with regret, and with representatives from PETA fuming that their dire warnings were not heeded.

Animals can never be categorised as “actors”, as they do not volunteer. You can train them, but they are always working animals, not thespians. And no worker, human or otherwise, should be put in danger.

So, Luck is about to run out, and FNL has already finished (albeit with around 70 episodes yet to air – yippee). It would be better if both shows were broadcast on a free-to-air channel, but Friday Night Lights is already boxed, up to Season 3 at least for Region 2. It really is – as fans have been insisting for some time – one of the modern greats, and worth seeking out.

You won’t see me at Cheltenham any time soon, but then nor would you see me volunteering for the army, and I love dramas about world wars. The best can take you somewhere you haven’t been.