Production Values: A penalty shoot-out in the schedules

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The Independent Culture
It was the will to win, the urge to be first, presumably, that caused it. Two programmes about 30 June 1998 - When England Played Argentina (ITV, Tuesday) and Where were you? Passion, Pride and Penalties (BBC1, Wednesday) - were each brought forward, despite the protests of the hard- pressed production teams, from their intended Christmas slots to be transmitted this week. This kind of competitive scheduling, inherited from the scoop- hungry newsroom, seems unnecessary in this case. Surely we are grown-up enough to cope with two programmes about the same subject being shown at different times; the result of the match is no longer news, after all.

Still, it is refreshing nowadays to find two whole documentaries in one week that are not about sex. I am beginning to think that programmes just work better when their subject matter is more fun to watch than to do. For me, football qualifies.

Phil Day, for the BBC, concentrated on recreating the experience of the match. Celebrities and players recalled their reaction to that penalty; that other penalty; Owen's brilliant goal; that third penalty; Beckham's petulant flop of the leg; and, of course, the nail-biting, penalty shoot out. The programme had its centre of gravity squarely inside the stadium; in fact, the catalogue of events on the pitch was in danger sometimes of looking like a, beautifully illustrated, post match interview. Wide- screen footage shot by FIFA and dramatically lit interviews gave it visual class. It luxuriated so much in music and slow motion that it seemed at times that the ghost of Leni Riefenstahl was stalking Day's St Etienne stadium. If the celebrated filmer of the 1936 Olympics was there, she was welcome for her monumental talent, but less so for her patent inability to have a good laugh with the lads.

John Piper, for Granada, was left to provide the humour the BBC forgot. Sol Campbell had the best line about the l'affaire Beckham: "It was all a misunderstanding. I don't think he knew the referee was so close." Piper's programme found its sustenance outside the stadium. Match footage was intercut with stories of people in Britain and Argentina: the man in the power station waiting for the surge, the funny vicar, the police, the bridge club. Some were predictable, but others were linked to the match only by simultaneity. The garden shed burning in Falkland Road as Argentina scored for the second time; the man whose daughter was in the school production of The Tempest; the outrageous juxtaposition with the woman giving birth during the game (her waters broke as Owen scored): uninterpreted and unremarked by narration, these anecdotes actually provided a commentary of a richness and originality that will always elude Brian Moore.

Half hidden in a hurriedly put together documentary with hasty, overlit interviews and dodgy edits, where the rhythm was uncertain and ideas were not given time to breathe, were the elements of great literature. If only they had had more time.

It is tempting to wonder what would happen if the filmic values of the one had been combined with the structural wit of the other to make one super-programme. Why don't the England and Scotland teams combine to play as Britain? The answer is probably something about competition being good for you.

This, however, is a story of the triumph of the human spirit over the nastiness of conflict. What started as a grudge match ended with credit and honour for all. Both sides played bravely and the event generated much more pleasure than it did pain. That is all we have a right to ask for, from any pair of televsion programmes.

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