TELEVISION / A boxer's bare-faced lie, a film-maker's fantasy

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DEAR LORD, how my heart sank when I read the Radio Times billing for Arena (BBC 2). 'Ultimately', it read, 'the film probably gives as much of an insight into the making of an arts documentary as it does into bare-knuckle boxing.' In the insurance market, this is known as spreading the risk and it usually suggests that the film-maker fears there may be a costly explosion at the Programme Review Board. It also guarantees, as night follows day, that the film in question will contain a scene of the director sitting in a cutting room. Sure enough, Nigel Finch pitched up in front of a Steenbeck to tell you, in mildly confessional mode, the story of how he came to make this intriguing, Chinese box of a film.

A few years ago, he explained, a London neighbour, Paul Lynch, had suggested that he make a documentary about his life as a bare-knuckle fighter and his forthcoming bout with The Cyclone, the unofficial Northern Ireland champion. When Finch flinched, worried about the problems of presenting the brutality of illegal boxing on screen, Lynch reassured him with a video of his last fight. He was also, it turned out later, recording his own video diary about the forthcoming event.

Reassured, Finch went ahead, following Lynch through the build-up to the fight and exploring his background in an Irish showbiz family. It seemed to be a film about the hunger for recognition, even the shadowy recognition of back-street scrapping. There was the odd excursion into images of masculinity - Lynch acting out John Wayne movies with young relatives, lingering pans over his glistening torso - but the real subject was self-dramatisation. Lynch was an adaptable wannabe - changing his appearance to suit changing fashions in celebrity (Kevin Keegan curls in the Seventies, a Richard Fairbrass dome and ear-ring now).

In the end, after a visit to a small Irish town near the border, it all turned out to be a set-up. The Cyclone blew out and was replaced by a congenial Irishman who scuffled around the floor of a barn with Lynch for about 30 seconds, before crying quits. Back in London, apparently alerted by one of The Cyclone's remarks, Finch realised that he'd seen the man before, standing in the background of a photograph of one of Lynch's early fights. Confronted, Lynch confessed to having invented his career as a bare-knuckle champion.

At this point you were supposed to think that the truth was finally out in the open - that by serendipity the film had strengthened its grip on the subject of male fantasy. But I'd be very surprised if Finch didn't know a lot earlier or a lot more than he was letting on here (he has made films about such deceptions before). For one thing, The Cyclone's Northern Irish accent was even more strangely wayward than Lynn Redgrave's in Calling the Shots - surely Finch noticed the streaks of Sarf London? For another, that early video, which supposedly persuaded Finch to go ahead with the film, was obviously faked, with both men pulling their punches and bystanders doing some unconvincing rhubarbing. The final fight appeared dodgy too (Lynch was splattered with what looked like stage blood) and the video diary had clearly been constructed by someone (at one point it recorded Lynch returning to his hotel room after a night out - but if it was for real who had switched on the camera, which was waiting in the dark behind a locked door?).

The questions kept coming - how had Lynch, supposedly short of cash, paid to get his accomplices to the West of Ireland? That location made no difference to the supposed plot (Lynch could have suckered the BBC more economically and just as effectively in Essex), but it was a considerable bonus for Finch's film, allowing for a strand of melancholy nostalgia and further connections with Lynch's showbiz past. 'Deep down in all of us there's this love of romance and make-believe,' said an Irish bit-player obligingly, 'Sure it's all make-believe isn't it?' Sure I think he might be right.