Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Sweeney (television series)

When I was very young, there were certain television programmes which retained a mystique, usually because I was never, or rarely, permitted to watch such programmes by my parents!  One of these shows was The Sweeney, the highly influential and acclaimed Seventies crime-drama series.

As I grew older, I was led to understood that The Sweeney had been "ground-breaking" and "gritty", but I had been unable to judge this for myself.  When the series was first broadcast, a combination of factors meant that I was not able to view the show.  The timeslot when it was shown, parental concern over violent content, and our family's mild anti-ITV snobbery were foremost. Whenever any discussion turned to the show, I felt somehow left out.

It was not until the recent past that I was able to watch The Sweeney in any concerted form. It was a revelation to me, although from a 21st century perspective it doesn't seem as innovative or as edgy as it must have done circa 1975/76. And of course some of the attitudes exhibited would not meet the approval of a modern audience.

The series gives a very authentic and honest portrayal of the Seventies in London, and by extension of Britain as a whole during that period of time. An atmosphere of decay and gloom, maybe, but also a sense of community and certainty before technological and socio-economic developments began to change things irrevocably.

The Sweeney follows the adventures of a group of detectives in the Metropolitan Police's Flying Squad. The three main characters are Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw), Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) and their boss, Frank Haskins (Garfield Morgan).

Regan is an intriguing and ambiguous character, superbly played by John Thaw. A proponent of unorthodox methods, he seems old-school, but in some ways he might be said to be ahead of his time. He is regularly at odds with his superiors, and even with his subordinates. The writing and the acting combine to make the concept and realisation of Regan very believable and credible, not just as some caricature. A man of contradictions, he appears cynical and jaded, but at the same time seems wholly committed to, and immersed in, his job.

Another key, in my eyes, to the success and appeal of The Sweeney is that it does not over-emphasize or excessively utilize some of the "recurring" themes. For example, Regan and his team are not uniformly at loggerheads with The Powers That Be. Sometimes they find common cause. This measured approach adds authenticity, and prevents the series from becoming stale and predictable.

Dennis Waterman has perhaps not been accorded enough praise or credit for his performance as George Carter. I have always found Waterman likeable in whatever role he happens to be playing, and this series finds him in great, assured form.

The character of Carter perhaps represents the police in a state of flux, incorporating clear elements of the "old school", but also receptive to, and embracing, new methods and tools. Carter often questions Regan's excesses and his outlandish schemes, but is sometimes placated by his "guv'nor"'s self-confidence, his persuasive manner and his track record.

The episode "Hit And Run", in which Carter's wife is killed, provides a fine showcase for Waterman's talents, going way beyond the bravado and machismo for which The Sweeney is, rightly or wrongly, renowned.

It is tempting to see parallels between Jack Regan and Inspector Morse, another detective famously portrayed by John Thaw. An older, cynical, grumpy character, with a penchant for the unorthodox, partnered with a younger, ambitious, more "domesticated" sergeant.

The plaudits extended to The Sweeney are well deserved, but this is not to say that every episode is brilliant. Like other similar television series, it suffered from a lack of continuity and consistency, partly because different episodes had different writers and directors. The ambience and tenor of each story could vary greatly from the next one, with difficulties in maintaining "back story".  Some episodes bordered on comedy - "Thin Ice", "Golden Fleece" and "Messenger Of The Gods" spring to mind. Light relief is all well and good, but not to detract from the mood which is essential to the show.

Few punches were pulled in the depiction of an escalation in the ruthlessness and violence displayed by criminals. I can see how this would have been shocking for the people in the Seventies, raised as they were on a diet of shows featuring gentlemanly, even chivalrous villains, and correspondingly placid and reticent cops. Episodes such as "Taste Of Fear" and " Bait" have the capacity to unsettle and disturb, even after all these years. The rawness set new standards.

The impression emerged that the intricacies of detective work and police procedure had been thoroughly researched, and some things are left unexplained, leaving the viewers to work a few things out for themselves. One eventually gets used to the jargon and slang!

A few episodes did over-reach themselves, and look rather silly today.  One example is "Tomorrow Man", in which John Hurt plays a computer whizz-kid. The word is that Thaw and Waterman grew finally to consider that The Sweeney had run its course. Within the remit of the squad, it was inevitable that genuinely fresh ideas for storylines would dry up eventually. That said, I don't feel that the show went particularly stale or moribund. It ended on a suitably bitter and abrasive note in "Jack or Knave", with Regan feeling highly aggrieved after being investigated for alleged corruption.

Watching The Sweeney is still a rewarding and satisfying experience, sometimes thought-provoking. Dated in some respects, yes, but still quality television.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Sebastian Coe - Coming Back - David Miller

Recently I have been going through a concerted phase of reading about the Olympic Games, and middle-distance running in particular.  This led me to delve deep into my "archives" to re-read the book "Sebastian Coe - Coming Back", by David Miller, published in 1984.

This is not a biography as such, but it documents that phase in Coe's career from the end of the 1981 season through to the aftermath of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It examines the runner's recovery from two years of illness and injury to retain his Olympic 1500 metres title.

What makes this work doubly interesting is that it covers a period when the sport of track and field athletics itself was going through a time of transition, when commercialism was being allowed to rise to the surface, and when inevitable growing pains were being encountered. Indeed, there are several instances here where those commercial pressures seemed somewhat at odds with the long-term interests of certain British athletes.

Coe was dogged by misfortune and setbacks in 1982 and 1983, and his often turbulent relations with the British press are examined here, as he is written off, and parts of Fleet Street revert to their traditional practice of knocking sports stars when they are down. A hardening of Coe's attitude reached its culmination in his famous gestures to the press box after crossing the finishing line in the 1500 metres final in Los Angeles.

This focus on his dealings with the media is just a part of a wider look at the Coe psyche and temperament. He displayed a resilience and a resourcefulness which many were unaware he possessed, in overcoming adversity to regain past glories. By the time of the '84 Olympics, one becomes aware of a serenity, almost, mixed with a confident resolve to succeed.

Another interesting aspect of this book is its close look at the training methods employed by Coe and his father/coach Peter, and how these were modified to suit the special circumstances of 1984. It becomes apparent how consummately he had peaked for his second Olympics, although I am left wondering how much the problems of 1983 might have actually played a role, by dictating the time when the athlete could begin serious running again.

Reading a book published in 1984 allows one to be "wise after the event.".  The author, for example, assumes in his calculations about the post-1984 athletics landscape that the Soviet Union and East Germany would still exist by the centenary Olympics of 1996. Also, Coe's proposed move up to the 5000 metres event, much discussed within these pages, never really materialized.  Also, he did eventually capture that cherished major title over 800 metres (at the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart).

An enjoyable and interesting read, this one.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Kirkstall Abbey - part 2

Further to my previous post, here are some additional photographs taken during my recent visits to Kirstall Abbey....

Friday, 8 September 2017

Kirkstall Abbey

For reasons which need not detain us here, I have recently been in a position to visit Kirkstall Abbey in Leeds a couple of times. Despite the place being in reasonably close proximity to the area where I live, this was my first time there since my school days (the early 1980s, to the best of my recollection), when it was a popular destination for day-trips of an educational and enlightening nature.

Kirkstall Abbey is a monastery which was founded in the Middle Ages, and it is situated in the northern suburbs of Leeds. Although today's tourist attraction is basically a set of ruins, it is still a fascinating and thought-provoking place to encounter, exuding some eeriness, but also considerable grandeur and spirituality.  The abbey and its grounds are now surrounded by ordinary residential streets and the normal hubbub and noise of modern commercial activity, and this apparent incongruity only makes the tranquility (both then and now) of the former monastery seem more welcome and desirable....

As I slowly made my way through the various sections of the abbey, what crossed my mind was how the scale and intricacy of the architecture and structures, impressive as it is/was, throw into sharp relief the achievements of other, earlier civilizations in terms of engineering,building, logistics and sheer human effort, ingenuity and endeavour. On the face of it, the things constructed and operated by the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and so forth, hundreds or even thousands of years before, were scarcely less advanced or complex than what was created there at Kirkstall Abbey.

The abbey is yet another of those places which makes me wish that I could have my time again, in order that I could train and work as an archaeologist or a historian! It was quite easy to visualize, looking at the ruins, what the scene would have been like all that time ago, as the monks went about their daily tasks and rituals. The state of some of the ruins also leaves plenty to the imagination, as one speculates what function such and such a row of stones might have fulfilled back when the monastery was active and vibrant.

My recent strolls around the ruins brought back memories of my childhood visits, and I sought in some respects to reproduce the atmosphere and spirit of those times, even to the point of buying myself an ice-cream (complete with chocolate flake!). Looking back, as a callow and somewhat shy youth I was insufficiently inquisitive or outward-looking to fully appreciate what I was seeing, or being told, about the abbey and its history. These virtues have only come to me in comparatively recent times. Better late than never, I'm forced to admit...

If you are staying in Leeds, or even just passing through, Kirkstall Abbey is well worth a quick visit.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Superstars (TV series)

One of the staples of my childhood television viewing was the British/European version of the multi-sports competition "Superstars". Just recently I have been revisiting the history and the essence of this programme, and I was reminded what an entertaining, worthwhile and intriguing show it was.

I have vague and misty memories of watching the likes of David Hemery and John Conteh appear on "Superstars" when I was very young, and of course the Kevin Keegan cycling incident from 1976 is almost etched into the collective consciousness of the British nation.

The BBC's "Superstars" coverage was presented by David Vine and Ron Pickering, two of the most capable and likeable sports broadcasters of that era. Vine was authoritative, urbane even, and could paint great pictures with words. Ron Pickering, on the other hand, was enthusiasm personified, and his passion for sport and its benefits always shone through in his contributions.

For the uninitiated, "Superstars" pitted competitors from various different sports against each other in a succession of events, including sprinting, cycling, canoeing, weightlifting and the famous (or infamous) gym tests. Points were awarded according to the positions attained in each event. National series thrived in the USA, Britain and elsewhere, and European, International and World championships took place.

As a boy, the European superstars finals held a particular mystique and pull and, funny though it seems now, a taste of the exotic. Vine and Pickering were very adept at conveying the atmosphere in Rotterdam's Ahoy Stadium, where the European showpiece was stage. Special emphasis was placed on the banked cycling track there. Impressionable as I was, I almost gained the perception that "Superstars" was the most important and prestigious sporting event in the world, perhaps even surpassing the Olympics!

It has become a cliche, but a large part of the charm and appeal of "Superstars" was its propensity to propel comparatively little-known sportspeople into the spotlight, allowing them to exhibit their talents to a wider audience, way beyond the confines of their chosen speciality. Classic examples of this were Kjell Isaksson, the Swedish pole vaulter, Ties Kruize, the Dutch field hockey player, and the British judoka Brian Jacks. These men regularly outshone more famous and renowned athletes in this test of all-round sporting prowess.

I vividly remember the performances of Isaksson, the remarkable little pole vaulter. His feats in weightlifting were staggering from some one of his slight build. He was also formidable in the gym tests (parallel bar drips and squat thrusts).

Of course, Brian Jacks became a national celebrity in Britain in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and appeared to receive far more recognition for his "Superstars" achievements than he did for his accomplishments in the world of judo, which were themselves considerable. Jacks' counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic was the remarkable Canadian soccer player Brian Budd, who notched up three World Superstars titles, not to mention three Canadian titles! Budd was a formidable competitor in most of the events on the schedule, and he was also quite a character.

Another hallmark of the UK version of the show was in allowing older athletes such as Hemery, Lynn Davies and John Sherwood to prolong or extend their careers in the competitive arena. Many who grew up with "Superstars" possibly knew little of their respective careers and feats in track and field athletics.

It is interesting to analyze which sports appeared best suited to supplying successful "Superstars" participants. Pole vaulting provided Bob Seagren, Kjell Isaksson, as well as Brian Hooper, who shone at the tail end of the franchise's golden age in Britain.

What made pole vaulters so ideally suited to the challenge of "Superstars" and its format? I guess it had something to do with agility, "pound-for-pound" strength, speed, all-round athleticism and technical aptitude. This ensured that they were consistently good across most of the disciplines contained in the schedule.

Amongst football (soccer) players, the aforementioned Brian Budd was perhaps the exception which proved the rule. Generally, practitioners of "the beautiful game" seemed to lack the power and the strength to compete for outright honours, although they fared very well in areas such as sprinting - Malcolm McDonald famously broke the eleven-second barrier in the 100 metres in 1975. The extra power and muscle of rugby players (from both codes) appeared to make them more suited to the rigours and the nature of the "Superstars" test.

Were there any flaws in the make-up of the "Superstars" event? To me, the UK version seems to have placed undue emphasis on strength and brawn. More skill-orientated sports, such as racquet games or even something like ten-pin bowling or snooker, might have counter-balanced things in favour of those possessing finesse as well as muscle.

The rules barring or handicapping some competitors in their alleged "specialities" also seemed nonsensical and anomalously applied. Handicapping pole vaulters in sprints and 400-metre hurdlers in a steeplechase?  It made matters unnecessarily complicated and I think that a "swings and roundabouts" argument could be justifiably made here.

Allowing people to "opt out" of some events was also wrong in my opinion. I would have just required everyone to take part in every event. This was supposed to be a test of all-round proficiency, after all. Brian Jacks in the sprints and steeplechase would have been very interesting to watch!

But these are very minor gripes. To me "Superstars" in its prime was emblematic of its time, when the innocence of the era allowed such an enterprise to thrive. A great series!

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Rack Pack (2016 film)

Having recently been immersing myself in appreciation of snooker's "golden age" - from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s - I decided to watch the 2016 film "The Rack Pack", a comedy-drama which is set in that era, focusing primarily on the rivalry between Alex "Hurricane" Higgins and Steve Davis.

The early portion of the movie introduces us to the two main protagonists, capturing and invoking the contrast between the freewheeling maverick Higgins and the more reserved and clean-cut Davis. The "retro" settings and stylings are surprisingly convincing, and there is excellent utilization of classic Seventies rock and pop music (Led Zeppelin, T.Rex, The Who, Thin Lizzy etc).

I must say that I was impressed and drawn in by Luke Treadaway's performance as Alex Higgins. Alright, some might argue that he is too good-looking, and that he doesn't always exude the mercurial shakiness of the character. However, he does nail down much of the famed truculence and swagger, and some of the on-table mannerisms. Kevin Bishop is likeable and entertaining in a somewhat "cartoonish" portrayal of Davis' manager, Barry Hearn.

As is often the case with "biopic" type projects, facts, incidents and anecdotes are packed into a condensed timespan. Any inaccuracies and distortions here will only irritate the anoraks and those intimately cognisant of the true history and chronology. Allowances must be made for the comedy element of this production.

The snooker scenes are very realistic and credible, leaving me wondering whether the actors might have been selected for their roles because they had some modicum of proficiency at the game.

In emphasizing the contrasts in temperament, approach and playing style between the two main players, the film-makers may have slightly over-laboured the supposed "nerdiness" and squareness of the young Steve Davis. This was probably done to entrench the notion that the two men represented polar opposites.

A major sub-plot in "The Rack Pack" is the increasingly corporate and commercial nature of snooker, as orchestrated by Barry Hearn, Higgins' perceived exclusion and alienation from that milieu, and the increasing bitterness and resentment which consequently built up within him. Indeed, though this is ostensibly a work which chronicles and examines the Higgins-Davis dynamic, much of the most vibrant and penetrating dialogue is that between the Higgins and Hearn characters.

The one scene which rather jarred with me was the one featuring a nightclub "altercation" between the Hurricane and Cliff Thorburn. Did anything remotely like this actually happen in reality?  A few things like this were doubtless added for dramatic effect, like they are in many similar pictures, and they didn't really tarnish my overall appreciation of the piece.

Another intriguing sub-text is a depiction of the relationship between Alex Higgins and Jimmy White, the latter gradually inheriting the mantle of "People's Champion" from the former. The narrative seems to imply that White learned from some of the mistakes of his "mentor", being prepared to make minor concessions to pragmatism and conformity in order to fit in with a changing sport and a changing world.

The decline of Higgins is, I would contend, quite deftly, touchingly and sensitively handled in this movie. It dovetailed with one of the central messages of the film, about the "cultural" tensions and the changing of the times.  Alex played a pivotal role in creating and popularizing modern snooker, but found himself being marginalized and left behind as others prospered both on and off the table.

Overall, I found "The Rack Pack" to be an enjoyable and well-produced film. It concentrates mostly on the personalities and the human aspects, rather than the intricacies of snooker itself, and largely succeeds as a result.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Russians Are Coming - (Only Fools and Horses episode)

Another notable episode from the first series of "Only Fools and Horses" is "The Russians Are Coming", in which the Trotters build their own nuclear fall-out shelter.

The premise of "The Russians Are Coming" is not exactly original, as lots of movies, television shows, comedies and the like were eagerly tapping into unease and paranoia about the Cold War and nuclear weapons in the early and mid-1980s. In the event, this episode contains some of the most affecting observations and passages of any of the show's plot-lines. Their impact and poignancy is perhaps heightened by the humour with which they are surrounded and occasionally clothed.

The plot stems from a business deal concluded by Del, a by-product of which results in him inadvertently "acquiring" an experimental "do it yourself" atomic fall-out shelter. The family decides to assemble it and spend some time living in it, as their own form of emergency planning.

Following an amusing effort to replicate the panic of the four-minute warning, and a simulation of the journey to a prospective location of refuge, the story really takes off when Del, Rodney and Grandad are safely ensconced in the shelter itself. The logistics and practicalities of surviving Armageddon are the source of some good, strong material. The highlight is perhaps Grandad's monologue about the true nature and horrors of war, delivered to chastise and rebuke Del for some of his excessively gung-ho and glib talk on the subject.

Whenever the subject matter threatens to become too serious and heavy, John Sullivan's comedic genius kicks in, and the mood lightens. The "captive" situation in the shelter creates an atmosphere conducive to sharp, taut and rich exchanges, and all three of the actors are on fine form, with great use of lighting to accentuate the intimacy. There is a noticeable absence of filler or padding in the script, and the shelter sequences are indeed very concentrated, fluent and absorbing. A real high point of the early days of OFAH, on more than one level.

Some speculation on the likely social consequences of a nuclear war adds to this episode's resonance and charm. Besides the humorous ruminations on the likely effects of the feared catastrophe, this is an intelligent and finely judged piece of work, addressing a difficult and emotive topic with more simplicity ,honesty and acuity than many more "serious" works arising from that era. It is also highly entertaining and funny.