Monday, 31 October 2011

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - book review

One of the authors who I had been meaning to check out for a while is Ray Bradbury, having been intrigued by what I had read and heard about his work and life. So, whilst in a bookshop the other day, I took the plunge, and purchased Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles.

First to receive my attention has been Fahrenheit 451. These are my own observations on what I think that Bradbury was trying to say, and the themes of the book. I accept that others may place different interpretations on things!

The plot concerns a future dystopian society (it is not specified which year this was), in which books have been banned, and the main role of firemen is now to burn any books which come to light. The main character, Guy Montag, is a fireman who begins to question the status quo. This process is accelerated following Montag's discussions with a girl by the name of Clarisse McLellan, who has managed to retain some imagination,curiosity and appreciation of life for its own sake.

As Montag wrestles with his conscience, we learn more about the circumstances in which people are living. Books have been outlawed because they encourage creative and critical thinking, and these things in turn engender inquisitiveness, doubt, uncertainty and instability. The mass media, medicines and repression are used to crush these things, in favour of certainty, homogeneity and equality of outcomes.

At various stages, Montag's resolve wavers, and we wonder whether he will decide to acquiesce, and become subsumed into the sheep-like majority, observing the maxim "anything for a quiet life". Eventually, following the plan by the firemen to burn books concealed at his own house, he makes his bid for freedom,  linking up with a group of intellectuals who are dedicated to preserving knowledge by memorizing books. The story ends with an apocalyptic war, and the opportunity for some kind of "rebirth".

The first thing which occurred to me when reading Fahrenheit 451 was the style of story-telling. No detailed explanations are given of some of the elements of this dystopia, and readers are left to deduce some things for themselves. This is partially the case with the Mechanical Hound, which is the subject of several of the most harrowing passages.

Some of the stark imagery in the novel is really quite unsettling, but probably essential in conveying events, and concentrating the mind of the reader.

Fahnrenheit 451 was published in 1953, and thankfully most of the restrictions depicted within have not yet materialised in our world. However, whilst reading the book I was conscious of the extent to which some of the phenomena discussed therein have seeped into our existence. Indeed, it is believed that in writing the novel, Ray Bradbury was commenting on the direction of post-war America.

In the novel, much is made of the use of "trash" culture and medicines to induce a type of numbness, helping to create an illusion of happiness, activity and prosperity, and as a means of suppressing original and dissenting thought. Filling the minds of the populace with ample but useless information. In our own 21st century context, reality TV and consumerism are added to this cocktail. Suitably anaesthetized, people allow their thinking to be done by others on their behalf.

There are several quite disturbing references in the work where characters display a chillingly blase and matter-of-fact attitude to war, violence and death. Of course, such "desensitization" is often remarked upon as a cause for concern in current times. People becoming divorced from pity, empathy and emotion.

One of the scenes in the novel which had the most prescience was the one in which politics was discussed. The merits of presidential candidates were debated entirely in terms of their physical appearance, speaking style or perceived personal charisma. Ideas, principles and values were of secondary importance. Does that sound familiar? The phrase "dumbing down" had not yet been coined in the early 1950s....

Another part of Fahrenheit 451 which jumped out of the page was the effort by the authorities to orchestrate the manhunt for Montag. When the fugitive proved elusive, matters were stage-managed in front of the TV cameras, and an innocent person used as a "prop". All to keep the masses docile and subservient. In the view of the powers-that-be, the ends justified the means.  Truth and justice were secondary. Shades of  21st century media manipulation...

What conclusions do we draw from the fact that Guy Montag finally resorted to violence?  Was the author hinting that subjugation can only go so far before some citizens "snap"?  On the other hand, matters truly came to a head when the books in Montag's house were discovered. Is it the case that humans often only lash out when their own domain is threatened?  Montag's own moral compass seems confused in this part of the story, perhaps illustrating how repression causes people to behave irrationally and vengefully.

The dilemmas faced by some of the characters also pose the question of whether in life we should accept things as they are, however unsatisfactory, or rather be true to ourselves. The latter course of action may lead to doubt and uncertainty, but allows us to feel truly alive, vibrant and fulfilled.

Fahrenheit 451 is definitely one of those novels which sets you thinking....

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Indian Grand Prix 2011 - Talking Points

I must confess that until Sunday I had not given the Indian Grand Prix my undivided attention, because of other commitments. However, having now watched the race, and caught up with some of the gossip and paddock talk, I thought I would offer a few observations.

First of all, the circuit itself. Granted, it is not exactly the Nurburgring Nordschleife, but equally it is a cut above some of the other much-criticised "identikit" tracks which have come on stream in recent seasons. There are some nice sweeping corners, a good long straight and, (whisper it quietly,) some changes in elevation.

By and large, the track seems to have received a favourable verdict from the assembled drivers, pundits and fans. Admittedly, we did not witness a particularly scintillating contest at the front of the field today, but the racing lower down the field served notice that the Buddh International Circuit is a worthwhile addition from a spectacle viewpoint.

For me, another thing to emerge from the weekend has been the continuing crystallization of Sebastian Vettel's status as the undisputed "benchmark" driver of the present era, the man whose sheer excellence all others drivers must now aspire to. His name may not yet resonate like those of Senna, Clark, Stewart, Schumacher et al, but the German increasingly sets the standards against which others are judged.

Of course, the pre-eminence of Vettel brings with it problems for the sport itself. While fans and those directly involved would no doubt champion F1 as the ultimate triumph of excellence over mediocrity, not everyone sees it that way. Indeed, it is surprising that the non-specialist mainstream media has not made more capital out of Vettel's perceived domination. Perhaps I am doing them a disservice, and even they may have taken note of some of the spirited racing going on throughout the field this season.

On the question of the Hamilton/Massa incident, my initial reaction was "six of one, half a dozen of the other", feeling that whilst the Brazilian did turn it, Lewis could hardly claim that the corner was "his". I'm not sure whether mine is a minority view. In any event, Massa received a penalty from the stewards!

The collision with Massa was just another disappointment for Hamilton. One can only hope that he is able to enjoy a positive, problem-free winter, and emerge reinvigorated for the 2012 season. Of course, one of the issues he will have to face is the shifting balance of power within the McLaren team, as Jenson Button continues his quiet ascendancy.

Further back, Toro Rosso had another solid race, and in particular Jaime Alguersuari.  There was some good dicing involving the Force India cars, the Renaults and Perez. Mercedes were only slightly less lacklustre than usual.

On a slightly lighter note, two other things occurred to me from this weekend. Michael Schumacher is still in great physical shape, and Alguersuari currently has the best "designer stubble" in Formula 1!

Bring on the last two races!

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Electric Light Orchestra

I have what is fashionably described as an "eclectic" taste in music, and therefore regularly find myself defending some artists or genres against the derision of other people.

An example of this trend would be the Electric Light Orchestra. It seems that rather than heap contempt on ELO, many critics see them as figures of fun or ridicule, as if they are just too inoffensive to warrant genuine scorn.

My initiation into ELO's work was via my brother,who was a keen fan of theirs when he was a youngster. Natural suspicion of one's sibling's tastes instilled some resistance in me, and I largely ignored their music for many years.

It is only in the past two years or so that I have re-discovered ELO's catalogue, due to the wonders of the internet. I now find myself enthusing over their earlier work, particularly that recorded in the period 1973-76.

I find that the albums On The Third Day,Eldorado,Face The Music and A New World Record successfully incorporate the best elements of the band, namely Jeff Lynne's infectious Beatlesque melodies and also the more experimental or progressive direction which was hinted at on their first two records.

When first introduced to ELO's music, I gravitated towards their work from the period 1977 through to the early 80s, probably because it was more readily accessible and available. However, on reflection I find those later albums to be somewhat lacklustre and over-produced. Also, the orchestral backing became excessively syrupy. The earlier LPs may have lacked polish in parts, but they had a grit and spontaneity largely absent from Out Of The Blue and Discovery.

ELO's output in the 1980s did not fully return them to the heights of the middle of the previous decade, but there were signs that Jeff Lynne was returning to his roots in rock n roll and pre-Beatles pop. The single All Over The World, from the 1980 Xanadu soundtrack, was an absolute gem, and showed that Lynne still retained his songwriting sensibilities.

My view possibly differs from other fans, but I feel that the band peaked artistically around the time of Eldorado and Face The Music. The albums either side of this showed them first discarding some blemishes and excesses, and then afterwards pointing the way towards a blander and less inspired phase.

Perhaps one of ELO's problems with the arbiters of taste was that they were not "prog" enough to be ranked alongside the likes of Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes, and not sufficiently "rock and roll" for those who prefer their music more rootsy.

However, for those who relish intelligent and melodic rock music, ELO's mid-70s efforts, and also some of their other work, are definitely worthy of some attention.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Motorsport in the 1980s

Over the past couple of days, I have been watching lots of footage of the the spectacular Group B rally cars of the 1980s, and the thought occurred to me that around that time, most sectors of four-wheeled motorsport were, by most measures, buoyant and interesting.

Certainly, the three main world championships of the time were enjoying something of a boom or renaissance, although there was some overlap between these. F1 had its "changeover" period in the early 80s,when turbos and normally-aspirated ground effects cars co-existed, followed by the fully fledged forced-induction era.  At the same time Group B rallying was starting to flourish, and Group C sportscars were getting off the ground.

A number of factors contributed to this situation.  The global economic climate began to improve from around 1983, thus encouraging involvement and commitment from manufacturers and sponsors. Television coverage of motorsport had already begun to burgeon in the latter part of the 1970s, and this no doubt prompted many companies to get involved. As the level of competition and media exposure intensified, so public interest increased, and a kind of "virtuous circle" was established.

Regulations and technology also helped to make this period memorable, and there were plenty of ambitious and astute people willing and able to exploit both. This was an "anything goes" time, in keeping with the general social tenor of that decade. Big and brazen was the order of the day in most things, and motorsport was no exception...

Another important point to make is the nature of the technology which was around in the 1980s. This was before the full onset of the electronics age, and most of the attention seemed to be allocated to increased engine power and sheer speed, and comparatively little to aerodynamics and traction. This ensured that for a few years we had a wonderful spectacle, the like of which we will never again witness.

Overall, the cars and racing of that era may have lacked some of the charm and finesse of earlier decades, but few could dispute the entertainment value, and the vigour of the competition. Drivers still seemed to have ample opportunity to express themselves.

From 1986, this golden period of sorts began to unravel, for a variety of reasons. Group B rallying was shelved following the tragedies of 1985/86.  Concerns about safety probably contributed to the banning of turbo engines in Formula 1, although costs and sporting factors also came into play. Group C sportscar racing, by contrast, appears to have been sacrificed due to official folly and politicking.

By the dawn of the 1990s, top level European-based motorsport was facing a more regulated and sedate future....

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Manchester derby

Well, as a Leeds United fan, things could not have worked out much better this weekend. After Leeds fashioned a narrow but important win on Saturday, so Manchester City defeated their local rivals 6-1 in one of Sunday's matches.

No doubt many supporters of other clubs will be gloating and taking delight in Manchester United's discomfort and misfortune. However, history tells us that Sir Alex Ferguson is perfectly capable of rousing his men from their disappointment, and emerging victorious in May.

Whilst it would be premature and unwise to write off the Old Trafford club, it does seem that this City squad is closer to being the genuine article, beginning to function as a well-oiled machine, rather than as a collection of personalities and individuals. More importantly, perhaps, they look to have more belief and togetherness than before.

The gruelling winter months will tell us much, and Roberto Mancini will still be required to keep all of his star players happy, and ensure that morale can withstand any unforeseen setbacks. The City cause is arguably aided by less intense competition, with the jury still out on the "new" Chelsea, Arsenal off the pace, and other pretenders not yet entirely convincing.

The next few months will reveal plenty about the respective coaching and playing staffs of the two Manchester clubs, but I say again, write off the men in the red shirts at your peril....

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Peterborough 2 Leeds United 3

I didn't follow this match via either television or radio, but by various snippets of information on the internet!

Either way, a very encouraging win for Leeds;the sort of closely contested victory which could prove crucial come the end of the regular season.

The result maintains the team's momentum, and keeps Leeds firmly ensconsed in the play-off positions.

Another tough away fixture, at Birmingham, beckons, and any sort of result there would be very praiseworthy.

It is still early days in terms of ascertaining who the main contenders will be in the Championship, and this particular division is notoriously unpredictable and volatile, but on paper almost every match looks quite daunting. Consistency and resilience seem to be the keys to prospering, and this Leeds team may be on its way to acquiring these traits, to a reasonable degree at least...

As the saying goes, though, it is a marathon not a sprint, and these are still early days.

Friday, 21 October 2011


Last night, for the first time in many months, I watched Roman Polanski's Chinatown, probably my all-time favourite movie.

I was reminded how evocatively and seductively the film depicted both the glamour and the menace of 1930s Los Angeles. This process commences even with the opening titles and music, which help to draw in the viewer.

Jack Nicholson stars as Jake Gittes, the street-wise private detective who, almost by accident, uncovers an ever greater web of corruption and sleaze. Faye Dunaway plays the part of the archetypal "black widow".

One of the most affecting performances is that by cinema legend John Huston, as the sinister Noah Cross. Even the director himself has a cameo role!

One of the most interesting aspects of Chinatown is the disturbing and surprising ending. Justice is not necessarily seen to be done, and the "good guys" do not win....

This is one of those films which everyone should try to see during their lifetime....

Thursday, 20 October 2011

1988 Japanese Grand Prix

Last night, I watched a full-length video of the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix, and a few things struck me about the race, and about F1 in general during that particular time.

The footage first of all reminded me how ungainly and bulky many of the cars of that time looked, in particular those of the teams which were still running turbocharged engines. Maybe this impression is amplified by many years of watching leaner and more compact normally-aspirated cars. That said, I have read more than one journalist remark how development was curtailed in readiness for the new 3.5 litre regulations to come in 1989.

It was notable how much of an impression some of the "atmo" cars made at Suzuka, particularly Ivan Capelli in the March, and to a lesser degree the Benettons.  After a promising start, both the Ferraris and Lotuses seemed to struggle.

The performance of the March chassis against the mighty McLarens was impressive, and this of course was an early indication, in F1 terms at least, of the talents of one Adrian Newey...

Sometimes the memory can play tricks.  My recollection was that once he had taken the lead, Ayrton Senna had built up a sizeable lead. However, the video revealed something different.  Alain Prost stuck doggedly to his task for many laps, and Senna really had to work for the victory, which of course clinched his first world championship.

One thing that has changed since 1988 is the nature of the television coverage. Satoru Nakajima and Aguri Suzuki seemed to get about 60 percent of the airtime!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Beatles

When I first began listening to the music of The Beatles seriously, in the mid-1990s, I vaguely subscribed to the notion that "everyone loves The Beatles".  However, I soon realised that the Fab Four have their share of detractors and nay-sayers, and equally those who maintain that they are beyond criticism.

So, what are the charges most often levelled against The Beatles, and to what degree do they have some foundation?

Perhaps the most common  complaint is that they were "in the right place at the right time", and that they were no more deserving than numerous other British (and American) bands of the day. Well, they were certainly helped by circumstance, and by factors largely outside of their control. Equally, we will never know how other artists would have reacted and developed in a similar situation.

It is also difficult to deny that The Beatles had the talent, ambition and nous to capitalise on their breakthrough. Subsequent events indicate persuasively that the hype was warranted, and they could not be accused of squandering their opportunities, or lapsing into complacency.

In addition, there was ample room for other acts to flourish, so The Beatles were not really guilty of crowding out or hampering the careers of others. On the contrary, their own success helped to pave the way for their contemporaries.

Critics also point out the lack of technical musical virtuosity within The Beatles. Although a case can be made for Paul McCartney as a multi-instrumentalist,this is largely fair comment. However, such analyses miss the point. The appeal of The Beatles had little to do with conventional musical proficiency,and related more to expression,imagination, ideas and inspiration.

Working within their own limitations, and that of the recording technology of the time, often proved advantageous. One of the striking things about the Beatles' career is how seldom they descended into pretentiousness or self-indulgence. Their sense of quality control was impeccable, and they had very keen "antennae", being able to assess what worked and what didn't.

So were The Beatles necessarily doing anything musically that their fellow groups were not?  In truth, probably not. It was their unique non-musical attributes, including their social significance, which set them apart. To be fair to them,they rarely to my knowledge claimed to be particularly great musical innovators, and respected the work of other artists. In the spirit of the Sixties, the accent was on friendly competition and the exchange of ideas. This was evident in the transatlantic "communication" between the Fab Four and the likes of Bob Dylan,the Byrds and Brian Wilson.

And what of the role of producer George Martin?  Some have opined that he was the real "genius" behind The Beatles. In the early days, he was undoubtedly very important, but before long the band members, especially McCartney and John Lennon were beginning to dictate the agenda. They needed Martin to help them realise their artistic visions, and he also proved to be a valuable sounding-board for ideas. In interviews over the years, the producer himself has sought to slightly downplay his own importance.

Notwithstanding the above, it would be a mistake to under-estimate George Martin's contribution to the Beatles' success. Would the group have thrived similarly with a different producer, and achieved the same chemistry?  We will never know...

Much debate has also centred on the merits, or otherwise, of The Beatles as a live band. In the Hamburg and Cavern days they are reputed to have been a tight and dynamic outfit, although relatively little recorded evidence exists. From what I have seen and heard, they were still good concert performers during the early stages of "Beatlemania".

From 1964 onwards,audience hysteria (and screams), the primitive nature of 1960s amplification and a punishing schedule began to take their toll. The concerts became less about quality of performance, and more about a sense of "event" and spectacle. Bad habits set in, and in any event the band were already devoting their energies more and more to songwriting and recording.

In the right circumstances, The Beatles as a live band could still cut the mustard, as glimpsed in the famous rooftop performance in the film Let It Be. It would have been fascinating, if they had remained together, to see the Beatles in concert during the 1970s, with more controlled environments and better sound equipment. Alas, it was not to be....

Taste is largely subjective, but objectively one can have respect for the craftsmanship and influence of a group. Since I went through my original "Beatles phase", I have been able to put their music into perspective. Certainly, some of their work can seem tame when set against the elaborate and ambitious rock music of the 1970s, with its better sound quality. 

I have listened to lots of music in the rock/pop genres, much of it technically complex and emotionally affecting, but much of it struggles to match the optimism and life-affirming qualities of the Beatles' body of work.

The debate will no doubt go on as long as music is written and played....

Monday, 17 October 2011

Dan Wheldon

I was shocked and saddened early this morning to receive news of the death of Dan Wheldon in the Las Vegas Indy 300.

He was one of many British drivers who, in the past two decades, moved to the US to further their careers, after opportunities in Europe were denied to them.  Although comparatively unknown to the general public in Britain, it is abundantly clear that he was well respected by his peers and the wider motorsport community.

This tragedy is another reminder that, despite the unrelenting efforts to improve safety standards, the risks are always present, and will never entirely go away. One can only hope that whatever lessons are learned are acted upon.

Sincere condolences to Dan Wheldon's family and friends.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Korean Grand Prix 2011 - Reflections

It has occurred to me that I haven't blogged much recently about modern Formula 1.  Time to put that right, as we digest this morning's Korean Grand Prix.

In the end it was quite a comfortable win for Sebastian Vettel, even if this was not really reflected in the distance by which he triumphed. Following the early stages, Lewis Hamilton and others could never quite sustain a meaningful and concerted challenge.

The race tightened up as a competitive spectacle from around half-distance onwards, with the main entertainment being provided by Hamilton and Mark Webber. Much has been said and written about the Englishman's current mindset, but his racing instincts were still very much in evidence during his wheel to wheel dicing with the Red Bull driver.  Throughout the race, one got the impression that he was trying very hard.

In the context of the Hamilton/Webber tussle, the BBC's David Coulthard made reference to the legendary Villeneuve/Arnoux battle at the French Grand Prix in 1979. A slight exaggeration, I thought, although it was nice to have events at Dijon mentioned!

At several points in the race, Fernando Alonso's driving seemed to be a touch ragged and untidy, perhaps indicating frustration or impatience. This was also alluded to in the BBC TV commentary, with the inference that he is not altogether happy with Ferrari's progress.

Alonso was also heard to say "I give up" to his engineer late in the race. The Spaniard has subsequently clarified the remark, insisting that motivation is not a problem, and I prefer to reserve judgement on these matters. It is interesting to note, however, that questions marks are being raised about the state of mind of two of F1's most talented drivers, Hamilton and Alonso. An interesting sub-plot in the remaining races?

A few people have remarked how phlegmatic Michael Schumacher seemed to be in the aftermath of his collision with Vitaly Petrov, for which the Russian was clearly at fault.  In Michael's heyday, he would certainly have been more vocal, but today I could not even detect any cryptic expression of anger in his remarks. Maybe he is mellowing with age?

Staying with matters Mercedes, Nico Rosberg had one of his strongest races for a while, before fading slightly. It is difficult to gauge Rosberg's current standing because of the reservations being expressed about Schumacher.  I hope that he does not begin to go stale. F1 history is full of cases of talented drivers reaching a plateau, and being overtaken in the pecking order by newer, fresher candidates.

Talking of "comingmen", Jaime Alguersuari drove a combative and composed race for STR. It is possible that one or more of the top seats could become vacant in the next 18 months or so, and his name is sure to be mentioned if he continues his upward curve.

Even though the two world titles have been decided, there is still plenty to mull over!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Day Of The Jackal (film)

Quite often, movie adaptations of novels turn out to be a disappointment, particularly if one has already read, and become fond of, the book. I find that the celluloid recreation usually fails to summon up the same mental images which seep from the pages into the mind.

Happily, The Day of The Jackal, the 1973 film, does full justice to Frederick Forsyth's novel, and is a worthy and gripping piece of work in its own right. It is somewhat surprising to read that it was not a massive success at the box office.

The storyline centres on a plot to assassinate President de Gaulle of France, and the hiring of a contract killer to accomplish this task. The then largely unknown Edward Fox played the part of the would-be assassin, the Jackal.

From the outset, the "Jackal" character fascinates. A dapper and cultured English gentleman, but also a clinical, ruthless and cold-blooded killer. The charm and patter are constantly employed as a means to an end, and emotion is really seen as an impediment....

The bulk of the film is reserved for a portrayal of the parallel campaigns of the Jackal and the French police, the prospective assassin making his preparations, and the authorities striving to foil the plot. Cleverly, we are constantly switched between the two, and are able to contrast the methodical and measured approach of the Jackal with the desperation and improvisation of the security services, who are always a step or two behind.

Probably the most absorbing sequences in the movie are those during which the Jackal procures weapons and false documentation, emphasising the elaborate precautions essential for operations of such gravity. Other crime stories tend to gloss over such things, but in this case the attention to detail adds appreciably to the sense of authenticity. The "water melon" scene is particularly chilling...

The film lasts nearly two and a half hours, but this amount of time is necessary to cram in the bewildering amount of detail, and also for the tension to build remorselessly. The Jackal exhibits his single-minded nature, by eliminating several people who either threatened to compromise his plans, or whose presence represented a hindrance. In the end, of course, he is narrowly thwarted.

A very pleasing 1960s-meets-1970s aesthetic permeates The Day of The Jackal, in particular the fashions and the tasteful motor vehicles on view! A cosmopolitan feel also prevails, with the action moving between London, France and Italy. There are some fine performances in the more minor roles, including a young Derek Jacobi, adding to the depth of quality.

This is probably one of the better movies of its type. My advice would be to read the novel first, and then watch the film!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Senna - DVD review

For various reasons, and much to my chagrin, I did not get around to seeing Senna at the time of its release in the cinemas. However this documentary film has now been released on DVD, and these are my thoughts.

I approached the viewing with mild trepidation, having heard and read the praise lavished on the movie since it came out, and worried whether the reality would live up to the hype. Also, I had seen several other Senna-related documentaries over the years, and wondered if this one would just re-hash and repackage the material from previous efforts.

My concerns, I am happy to report, were largely misplaced. I found Senna to be a beautifully produced film, meticulously researched and well-balanced.

I would not describe it as a definitive documentary about Senna's racing career. Little effort is made to examine the technical aspects of racing, and some portions of Ayrton's exploits are afforded scant coverage. Rather, it is primarily a human story, possibly aimed at the layman or casual fan rather than the racing "anorak". Having said that, there is plenty here for any Formula 1 enthusiast to relish.

Particularly impressive is the amount of rare archive material which has been uncovered for this film. It was not just a case of showing the same old familiar footage. Some of the material from the Brazilian media was particularly revealing.

Thankfully, the producers resisted the temptation to employ "talking heads", in the form of journalists and racing people, to tell much of the story.  Any such analysis, supplied by a select few observers, was in audio form only, accompanied by pictures, and was used largely to add context to the narrative. These contributions, together with the striking footage, and the words of Senna himself, served to drive things forward admirably.

Instead of being a dry, chronological account of Senna's achievements in the sport, the film concentrates on several of the pivotal periods and races in his time in F1. From Monaco in 1988, which many regard as a watershed, because of his otherworldly qualifying performance and unforced error whilst leading the race, to the Japanese Grand Prix of the same year, when he clinched his first title, and other episodes.

Naturally, a sizeable proportion of the movie is taken up by the tumultuous years of the Senna/Prost rivalry, from the relatively cordial, but still tense, days of 1988, to the outright animosity of 1989/90. Although Senna's side of the story is told, the film is quite even-handed and non-partisan.

Perhaps the passing of time has enabled some observers to be more dispassionate and candid about the events of that era, and this seems to emerge in the film. The sourcing of commentaries from various countries (UK, Brazil, USA etc) also helps to instill a sense of balance.

Some of the most illuminating passages of the film are the clips from drivers' briefings, and Senna's interactions with his fellow drivers and officialdom.  The tension evident in those meetings is palpable, particularly in Japan in 1990. Senna's increasing concern about safety matters is also clear, from 1990 onwards.

I would not go so far as to say that this is a "warts and all" documentary, but neither is it a deferential whitewash. For example, the infamous interview with Jackie Stewart is given an airing, as are the criticisms by the likes of Alain Prost.

The sections dealing with racing are interspersed with home and family footage, and some effort is made to assess Senna's social impact in his home country. I think the film-makers pitched this side of things just about right.

In addressing the traumatic events of Imola in 1994, the film does not try to be wise after the event, and allows the pictures and words to tell the sad story. The aftermath of Imola is dealt with beautifully;moving but not maudlin.

As mentioned before, the film does not attempt to be an exhaustive chronicle, but I was surprised that scant mention was made of Senna's relationship with Gerhard Berger, and that Ayrton's exploits in the junior formulae, and especially his Formula 3 rivalry with Martin Brundle, were largely ignored. Admittedly, these are minor complaints, in view of the time constraints.

One very nice touch was seen at the end of the film, when the story came full circle, and we returned to Senna's karting days, before politics, money and pressure held sway.

For me, Senna was definitely worth the wait. An endearing and compelling portrait of a complex man and his remarkable, if tragically short, life.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Jacky Ickx

Often our sporting heroes are not necessarily the ones who are statistically the most accomplished, or those who have bequeathed the most substantial legacy for the historians to mull over.

Rather, it is common for us to revere or respect those who have endeared themselves to us in other ways, by virtue of their charisma, sportsmanship, natural talent or originality. Such is the case with one of my heroes, the Belgian racing driver Jacky Ickx.

A cultured and debonair figure, Ickx was something of a prodigy in motorsport, cutting his teeth on motorcycles and in saloons, before embarking on the path which would make him arguably the greatest sportscar driver of all time.

Soon enough, Ickx made his mark on single-seater racing, becoming the European Formula 2 champion in 1967, and impressing everyone with his first outings in Grand Prix racing.

From 1968 to 1972 Ickx was without doubt in the top three of Formula 1 drivers, twice finishing runner-up in the title race. His career in the premier rank began to ebb in 1973, with Ferrari in the toils, although he reaffirmed his essential class with a podium finish in a one-off drive for McLaren at the Nurburgring.

A move to Lotus for 1974 seemed to augur well on paper at least, but it was not a happy relationship, and before 1975 was out Jacky had departed from the team. His subsequent F1 career was a spasmodic affair, culminating in his swansong with Ligier in 1979. The ground-effect cars did not seem to suit his driving style.

Although Ickx's Formula 1 prospects faded as the 1970s progressed, he continued to be supremely competitive in sportscar racing, and he remained so until his retirement from racing in the mid-1980s. By that time he had recorded six wins in the 24 hours of Le Mans.

With wins also in Can-Am and at Bathurst, as well as in rally-raids, Ickx must be counted as one of the great all-rounders. His economical and elegant driving style appeared to be particularly well suited to the classic "driver's circuits", and he was especially impressive on the Nurburgring Nordschleife, in both single-seaters and prototypes.

His prowess on the classic circuits is also consistent with Ickx's image as a traditionalist, who was ambivalent about some of the driver safety campaigns, and bemoaned the demise or emasculation of many of the historic venues.

In image and outlook, Ickx was something of a throwback to earlier days.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Space 1999

One of the television programmes which almost totally passed me by during my childhood was Space 1999, the sci-fi series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson of Thunderbirds fame.

Recently I have been watching some of the episodes of Space 1999. The premise of the series is that the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha are wandering the universe, after the Moon is unexpectedly diverted from its normal orbit around the Earth.

The similarities with Star Trek are undeniable, but Space 1999 is much darker in tone than I had previously realised, tackling weightier philosophical themes than many other programmes of its genre.

Considering that the series was made in the mid-1970s, the visuals and special effects are admirable. The futuristic design and layout of Moonbase Alpha are particularly clever and impressive.

Looking back, both the aesthetic and writing owe something to the Age of Aquarius. Having said that, there is very little in the way of levity, in what was ostensibly a show made for children and teenagers.

No doubt scientifically-minded people will pick holes in the accuracy and plausibility of some of the events in Space 1999. The creators and writers perhaps over-estimated how much space travel, and technology generally, would advance by the end of the 20th century!

Martin Landau delivers a powerful performance as Commander Koenig, whilst I would imagine that Barbara Bain captivated many young male viewers in her role as Dr. Russell!

I now consider myself a Space 1999 fan!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

1974 World Cup Final

I recently watched a full video of the 1974 World Cup final, which pitted West Germany against the Netherlands. This viewing prompted a number of thoughts and observations about football, both then and now.

The final offered several fascinating sub-plots. The teams were captained by the imperious Franz Beckenbauer and the mercurial Johan Cruyff, the two most prominent footballers on the planet, following Pele's retirement. The countries offered slightly differing styles of play, pitting Holland's pure "Total Football" philosophy against the more pragmatic and vigorous German approach. The Dutch had sailed impressively through the tournament, becoming the darlings of neutrals everywhere, while the Germans had stuttered, failing to arrive at a settled line-up until the verge of the final.

The periphery of the final had little in common with today's bland, corporate and stage-managed affairs. Quaint bands in traditional national dress played the music, and the advertisement hoardings were a veritable mish-mash of brands, many of them relatively humble companies. None of your multi-national "official partners" here, thankyou very much!

Although the preliminaries were much more amateurish and informal than those of today, there was also the sense that the final was "an event" in its own right, and not just a homogenized cog in a larger wheel. I also noticed that Ruud Krol was sporting a rather fetching beaded necklace, which would probably earn him a suspension nowadays! Photographers seemed to freely roam the environs of the playing surface with impunity. However did we cope before today's obsessive regimentation and over-regulation? And the referee and his linesmen were clad in mere black and white, perish the thought!

So what of the match itself? Well, my overall impression was that the game had less of the sustained pace of today. There was slightly more space for players to perform in, and this was heightened by the lower fitness and endurance levels. Football as a spectacle benefitted from these factors, as technical flair, athleticism and tactical flexibility never overlapped more agreeably than in the early to mid 1970s. This intoxicating mix made the 1974 World Cup my favourite of all time. The 1970 tournament may have been more outwardly dazzling, but much of its excitement derived from the comical defending of some teams, and the effects of the heat and altitude of Mexico. Four years later, the overall quality was greater, aided by the advent of "Total Football" and its imitators.

Some words also about the refereeing of Englishman Jack Taylor;authoritative but unfussy, and not hamstrung by edicts and directives from on high. Matters were left to the individual interpretation of the man in the middle, and common sense was generally the guiding principle.

After the very early Dutch penalty gave them a 1-0 lead, the match became an absorbing chess match, with the men in orange seeking in vain to out-psych and demoralise their opponents. During this phase, the solidity exemplified by Beckenbauer steadied the Germans, and they had an outlet in the form of Paul Breitner's occasional surges forward.

These days we perpetually decry the cheating and gamesmanship in the modern game, but the first half in Munich contains a couple of reminders that this is by no means a purely modern phenomenon. Firstly, there was a faintly ridiculous incident, when van Hanegem lightly pushed Gerd Muller behind the referee's back, and the stocky little striker went to ground as if he had been hit by a truck. Then, in the incident which led to West Germany's equalising penalty, Bernd Holzenbein went down very easily, with little obvious contact from any Dutch defenders. Such things were not as prevalent or endemic as in today's game, but they were there all the same....

After the Breitner penalty, West Germany sensed the fragility of the Dutch team, and stepped up the pressure. Their runs became more purposeful and incisive, with Hoeness and Grabowski making much of the running. The left foot of Wolfgang Overath also became more potent a force.

By contrast, the Netherlands seemed to lose focus and cohesion, and there was a lack of inspiration and leadership within their ranks, with few players prepared to step up and assume responsibility.

The second, and decisive, German goal, showed the true value of Gerd Muller. The forward, with his lack of versatility and technical limitations, may not have conformed to the strictures of Total Football, but his predatory instincts were indispensable.

During the final, Franz Beckenbauer did not perform the expansive sweeper role for which he had become renowned. Instead, he was quietly effective in a predominantly defensive capacity, making several timely interventions and exuding calm and authority.

On the other hand, Johan Cruyff failed to fully impose himself on proceedings, and was kept well under control by Berti Vogts, and others. His verbal altercation with the referee after the half-time whistle summed up his frustrations.

Throughout the second period, the West German rearguard remained resolute in the face of ceaseless, and increasingly desperate, Dutch pressure. Helmut Schoen's men played as a genuine team, rather than a collection of talented individuals. Attacking and defending as a team, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  Several players shunned individual glory, and applied themselves to the team objective. Much selfless running was evident.

I have often theorised that Total Football was Holland's undoing in the final itself. When the chips were down, they seemed to lack the will to adopt a more rigid or belligerent approach.

The 1974 World Cup took place just before my childhood obsession with football was sparked. Although the style of football purveyed by the tournament's better teams was revolutionary and fresh, there was also a sense that the "golden era" of the game was coming to an end. Some of the players who starred in the final had already reached or passed their peak, and their replacements were not of the same standard. Possibly in part due to the Dutch failure to capture the ultimate prize, that happy balance between flair, tactical innovation and physicality was disturbed, to the game's overall detriment.

The final in Munich may not have been a wildly exciting spectacle per se, but as a document of what football was, and perhaps never will be again, it is compelling viewing.

Final score:   West Germany 2 Netherlands 1

Sunday, 2 October 2011

David Croft 1922-2011

Many tributes have rightly been paid to the comedy writer David Croft, who died recently at the age of 89.

Some of the shows which Croft co-wrote formed part of the fabric of my upbringing during the 1970s, particularly Dad's Army, Are You Being Served? and It Ain't Half Hot Mum.

One of the most powerful and effecting pieces of his work was Branded, an episode from the third series of Dad's Army. During this episode, Private Godfrey discloses to his superiors that he wishes to leave the platoon, and that he was a conscientious objector during World War One.

The military background of Croft and co-writer Jimmy Perry is very evident in the attention to detail in the script. They managed to deal with this emotive theme very sensitively within the context of a comedy programme.

The writers contrast the gung-ho attitude of Captain Mainwaring and others with the principled and humane stand taken by Godfrey, but also seek to stress that this was all taking place in the white-heat of a major war. People were expected to make terrible and difficult choices at that time.

From a modern and purely objective perspective, Godfrey's integrity and honesty are more endearing than Mainwaring's bluster. When it is revealed that Godfrey won the Military Medal for his work as a medical orderly in The Great War, his compassion and humility are shown once again. We should not judge people by narrow criteria.

In short, Branded has the ability to cause one to laugh, cry and think deeply, all within its thirty minute duration. Quite an achievement....