Friday, 27 May 2011

Starsky and Hutch

In recent days I have been re-living my childhood by watching episodes of the classic 1970s TV show "Starsky and Hutch".

This was the first time in many years that I had watched the programme, and several things leapt out at me from the screen. When first viewing as a child, it had simply seemed to me like escapist fun, and simply part of the stellar BBC Saturday evening line-up of that particular era.  I was oblivious to the nuances of characters and plot, and my young mind failed to grasp the issues which were being touched on.

Revisiting the episodes brought home to me how dark and bleak some of the subject matter really was, dealing as it did with the seedy and hedonistic underbelly of urban life in the 1970s. Topics such as race, homosexuality, narcotics and official corruption were examined with a maturity and a frankness which was unusual for a prime-time show of that time.

One of the strengths of "Starsky and Hutch" was the depth of the characters, and the care taken with them. The producers did not just take the easy option of making the two lead characters exact
opposites, and sitting back and watching the tensions develop. A more holistic approach was adopted.

It is probably fair to say that back in the 70s, the character of Hutch was more popular, perhaps because of David Soul's pin-up appeal and music career. However, watching the programme afresh has endowed me with a fresh appreciation of the talents of Paul Michael Glaser, and his versatility as an actor. He ably portrayed the street-wise, volatile but principled Starsky. By way of contrast, Hutch comes across as cerebral, taciturn and reserved. However, these qualities frequently overlapped, and the topics of male friendship and bonding underpin much of the show's enduring appeal.

"Starsky and Hutch" was given additional depth by its supporting characters. The detectives' superior, Captain Dobey, came across as cynical and grumpy, but he was always loyal to, and trusting of, his men. An endearing and well-pitched performance by Bernie Hamilton.

The character of Huggy Bear was a master-stroke, with the writers and producers not allowing themselves to fall for lazy stereotypes. Although as hip and savvy as they come, Huggy was also clearly in possession of ethics and principles.

Criticisms? Well, a few of the plot-lines were slightly far-fetched, and things always worked best when set in the everyday environment of "the streets". Also, it is difficult to believe that that much violence occurred, even in 1970s Southern California!

On balance, any criticisms are outweighed by the show's virtues. Even if it was very "of its time", "Starsky and Hutch" has aged better than most other programmes of its genre.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Boer War - Thomas Pakenham - book review

I have just finished reading this admirable chronicle of an often overlooked conflict.

The author is at great pains to lay pipework in the opening chapters, placing the war in its correct historical and geo-political context, and explaining the role of the politicans, military men and also the businessmen (particularly the owners of the large mining companies).

As Pakenham vividly details, the conflicts were not only played out between the British and the Boers. Vested interests, both political and economic, led to internal dissension on both sides, particularly in the British camp. The antipathy between notable British generals, and also with their political masters, is a constant theme throughout the book.

The story also examines the war's role in the industrialisation of warfare, and the measures taken against civilians as a means of furthering war aims. It is clear that these trends continued to develop, reaching their peak (or nadir) during the two world wars.

Militarily, the main strands which I picked out were the resourcefulness of the Boers, fighting against the numerical and material odds, and the often painful lessons learnt by the British in adapting to the terrain and the tactics of the enemy. Also stark are the strategic errors made by the British in seeking to bring the war to a swift conclusion. These mistakes seemingly often had the effect of bolstering Boer resistance, thereby prolonging the war.

The issue of the "camps" set up by the British to house Boer women and children is also examined in some detail, as is the role of the indigenous populations of South Africa in the war as a whole. To his credit, the author addresses these matters in a balanced but frank way.

In the closing chapters, the peace agreement, and the legacy of the war for the region, are also scrutinised.

As someone who before reading this work had limited knowledge of the subject, I found this to be an absorbing and enlightening book.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

David Bowie

The other day, I was stuck on public transport, with only my MP3 player for entertainment. Throughout the journey, I listened to a David Bowie compilation, which gave a varied and fairly representative overview of his career from 1969 until the late 1980s.

When the diversity of Bowie's output during the aforementioned period is discussed, opinion can be divided. Mainstream opinion tends to laud his willingness to experiment, and his apparent ability to pioneer musical trends (glam rock, disco/funk, electronica, rock/dance fusions etc). Some more cynical observers deride him as an opportunistic musical chameleon, merely capitalising on genres which were already thriving "underground".

Whilst there may be some truth in the latter contention, on balance I see it as a strength. Yes, some of Bowie's early work was derivative of ground already covered by the Velvet Underground and others. However, he managed to bestow these fashions with mainstream acceptance, by giving them the "Bowie treatment". Even well into the 1980s, he retained some "cred" with the critics and musos, as well as enjoying commercial success. To his credit, it also seems that Bowie was quite candid about his influences.

For what it is worth, my favourite Bowie era is the mid-1970s, in the aftermath of the Ziggy Stardust hysteria, and prior to his period of greatest experimentation. The works around this time were stripped of some of the earlier artifice, and concentrated more on straight-ahead rock n roll. The "Diamond Dogs" album seemed to act as some sort of pivot for Bowie's career.

Although his music appeared to lose focus and zest as the 1980s wore on, he was still making well-crafted material, plus the occasional gem ,"Absolute Beginners" being a case in point.

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Sporting Weekend - Seve Ballesteros / Football / Turkish GP

The sporting weekend commenced with very sad news, following the death of Severiano Ballesteros.

The loss of Seve has been particularly keenly felt across the world, as he represented the romantic and swashbuckling antidote to an increasingly sterile and commercialised world. There is a sense that with his passing, a whole era has ended. His charisma, natural talent and competitive spirit made for a potent cocktail, lacking in the vast majority of other players.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Seve performed the role for European golf which Arnold Palmer had fulfilled for the game across the Atlantic, bringing renewed zest, and attracting legions of new fans.

Leeds United needed a victory at QPR, and help from Crystal Palace, in order to qualify for the Championship play-offs. United delivered a praiseworthy win at Loftus Road, but in fairness it was expecting too much for the other variables to work in their favour.

Many fans expected a season of consolidation, but at the same time to come so close is very disappointing. One can only hope that the coaching staff and players can learn from this season, and make a concerted and consistent promotion bid next term.

The mood of us Leeds supporters was not helped when Manchester United defeated Chelsea at Old Trafford, thereby putting themselves on the brink of clinching the Premier League title. At least the fourth Champions League spot is being keenly contested...

On Sunday the Turkish Grand Prix produced more exciting and competitive racing, even if Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel emerged as a reasonably comfortable victor in the end.

There has been some comment in the media to the effect that the new technical measures have made overtaking too easy, and watching the highlights from Istanbul gave some credence to this view, cars sailing effortlessly past their helpless opponents. However, on balance I feel that things are just about right. Many of the people now criticisng the FIA are the same observers who for years have been pilloring the sport for its perceived lack of entertainment value. They cannot have it both ways.

Let us hope that the rest of the season sees racing of the quality which we have witnessed thus far in 2011!

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner

I just thought that I would post my thoughts on this documentary film from 1974, directed, produced and written by Werner Herzog. I had seen clips from the film before, but yesterday I watched it in its entirety for the first time.

The film takes a "fly on the wall" look at the world of ski-jumping and its participants, following the Swiss jumper Walter Steiner and capturing his hopes and fears. Steiner was also a carpenter, hence the title of the movie!

Herzog made excellent, and it would seem quite innovative, use of slow-motion cameras, and there are some stunning shots of jumpers in flight. The pictures are accompanied by an evocative prog-rock soundtrack. Well, it was 1974!

One of the things which struck me was how dangerous the sport was back then. Even in the mid-1970s, most ski-jumpers wore just woolly hats on their heads. No crash helmets....

Werner Herzog himself appears on camera, mostly on location at the ski-jumping venues.

For sports fans, and devotees of 1970s' popular culture, this film is essential viewing.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

All-Time Football World XI

In the past few days, there has been much speculation about Lionel Messi's place in the pantheon of great footballers, and indeed whether he merits a place in a fantasy all-time world team.

For what it is worth, and just as a bit of fun, I thought that I would detail my chosen line-up. This is based on what I have seen, read and heard over the years.

Goalkeeper  - Dino Zoff

The great Italian just gets in over Gordon Banks and Lev Yashin, mainly by virtue of his longevity at the top level, and his consistent performances on the world stage. By modern standards Zoff was quite an unobstrusive goalkeeper, but he always seemed to inspire confidence in the defenders in front of him.

Right-Back  -  Cafu

When looking at options for this position, the cupboard was surprisingly bare, but this elegant Brazilian is a worthy choice.  An adequate rather than outstanding defensive player, perhaps, but he more than compensates with his other qualities. Great going forward and linking up with colleagues.

Left-Back   -  Paolo Maldini

The obvious choice for this slot, beating off the likes of Nilton Santos, Ruud Krol and Paul Breitner. Outstandingly consistent and reliable,  and dangerous in the air at set-pieces. Could also be a very accomplished central defender if required.

Central Defence   -  Franco Baresi

The defensive unit would be anchored by the redoubtable Baresi.  Not the most demonstrative of players, but a fierce competitor with an uncanny ability to read the game.  He just edges out Bobby Moore for this role.

Central Defence/Sweeper   -  Franz Beckenbauer

My team would be captained by the majestic Beckenbauer.  An ability to direct operations, and also to augment the attack, were his main strengths.  He could also act as a flexible central midfielder.

Central Midfield  -  Lothar Matthaus

Many players have possessed more flair than the German, but few could match his will to win and his work-rate. A regular goalscorer, he could also act as a libero if called upon. Matthaus would act as the fulcrum for the attacking talent around him.

Central Midfield  -  Michel Platini

An ideal foil for the doggedness and energy of Matthaus would be this graceful and talented Frenchman.  Midfield creator, brilliant at set-pieces, and an eye for goal.

Attacking Midfield  -  Johan Cruyff

The Dutchman's versatility and creativity would be a valuable asset.  He was able to come deep and dictate play, as well as getting on the end of other people's passes and crosses.  In my team, Cruyff would have a free role, and a roving brief.

Attacking Midfield  -  Diego Maradona

The mercurial Argentinian would have a role similar to that of Cruyff, able to roam the field without worrying about other responsibilities. Almost a one-man team in himself, he could create space for others to exploit.

Striker  -  Pele

The all-round talents of Pele would be integral to this team. In my line-up he would play as the second striker, linking up with the other creative players, as well as seeking out goalscoring opportunities for himself. His aerial power would also be a great asset.

Striker  -  Gerd Muller

Perhaps the most contentious choice in my selection, but Muller gets in because of his extraordinary scoring record at both club and international levels. In a team with such creative panache, there would be always be plenty of "scraps" to feast upon, and nobody was better at capitalising on these opportunities than the diminutive German.

I would have an old-fashioned five-man substitutes bench, occupied by the following:

Lev Yashin
Bobby Moore
Zinedine Zidane
Alfredo Di Stefano
Marco Van Basten

A team to be reckoned with, I think!

Rose-Tinted Spectacles?

Just recently a friend and I were reminiscing about our formative years, and waxing lyrical about how idyllic things were "back then", meaning specifically the period from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. Although my friend is about four years older than me, she recalled many similar experiences, and harbours the same cynicism about the problems encountered by "the youth of today". Our shared conclusion was that we were glad that we were born when we were.

In the past, I have probably been guilty of slipping casually and lazily into "it was better in my day" mode, without giving the matter balanced consideration, or indeed defining what constitutes "better".

During our philosophising, my friend and I placed particular emphasis on a perceived loss of innocence generally, and a decline in the variety, aesthetic quality and social impact of children's television! Later, when analysing the conversation, I came to accept that these were scarcely adequate criteria on which to form a fair and balanced comparison of eras. Indeed, were such comparisons even valid or feasible?

When recalling the glories of our childhood, and bemoaning the supposed plight of today's kids, there is an understandable tendency to highlight the areas in which it can be plausibly argued that things were better in the past. Hence our focus on Mr Benn and The Magic Roundabout. By the same token, the less agreeable aspects of growing up in the 1970s were obscured and overlooked. Neither of us made mention of power cuts and wildcat strikes, for example!

Every generation defends and cherishes its own achievements and virtues, and such talk also betrays an insecurity and jealousy concerning the advances made in later decades.

So, although we children of the 1970s revelled in Fingerbobs and Trumpton, and played outside with our friends until all hours, we probably had a lower quality of life in other ways, not benefitting from the advances in technology and healthcare which were to come later.

In addition, as the youngsters of the early 21st century have no conception of what it was like to live three or four decades ago, how can they feel a sense of being deprived? They simply adapt to the circumstances with which they are confronted. Similarly, people of my generation have not known what it is like to grow up in the current epoch, so direct comparisons are pointless. This process will go on ad infinitum, and can be filed under "progress".

I think the moral of the story is that looking back on the glories of one's childhood is very healthy and heart-warming, but it is also worthwhile to think in parallel that today's children are also enjoying and reaping the benefits of what the modern world has to offer. Human nature remains unchanged.