TELEVISION / Failing to achieve life's goals

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The Independent Culture
'WELL, speechless I suppose you can't be as a commentator, but I've never more felt like that,' said John Motson. His world had turned upside down, and so had his syntax. We needed a flying start - and we'd got one. Unfortunately San Marino were in the cockpit. 'Oh, a mistake by Pearce. And San Marino. I don't believe this. Ex-straw-din-ary start. Galtieri the little No 11. Ten seconds. Goodness me. Trevor Brooking, what can you say?' Trev too was struck dumb, but he knew his country was counting on him: 'I gotta say something - all right, it means we need eight goals.'

Never mind the score, the libretto was terrific. Sportsnight Special (BBC1) had characters and a plot that must have had Gilbert and Sullivan jiving in heaven ('For Graham Taylor's life is not a happy one. Happy one'). There was a crack team of hapless foreigners - No 9, a builder, had said on the news the night before that San Marino had 'nuzzink but passione' - and 11 blithering Englishmen. A band straight out of Trumpton sat on the pitch parping the national anthem. It went at a leisurely pace, unlike the fans who took an early lead and finished 12 bars ahead. In the vast maw of Bologna's stadium the sprinkling of supporters looked like fillings. 'It's hardly full tonight in any sense at all,' reported Motson. Soon after play began, there was a sound so terrible you wished the band would come back - the sound of cows being mown down by gatling guns. The loudspeaker system had jammed. Motson made the snorting noise that passes for laughter among the humourless: 'I think it's fair to say England have jammed as well]' It was about this time that they lost the ball. You couldn't help feeling Trev was on to something when he said: 'It's a right Comedy of Errors.'

Back in London, some whizz had come up with a trailer showing our boys in action to the tootling tune from The Great Escape. It took us to the comic heart of England's predicament. The only difference was The Great Escape had Steve McQueen on a motorbike, and we had Stuart Ripley on two left feet.

Behind the control panel, Des - he's delicious, he's delovely, he's de Lynam - was smoothly making a crisis into a drama. His warmth and authority are now so capacious that you actually find yourself not minding Jimmy Hill. Jimmy and Terry Venables were there to explain the algebra by which Poland had to beat Holland, England had to win by seven goals, and all known animals with trotters had to report for immediate take-off at Gatwick. Wales too might win if . . . It wasn't just a question of keeping your eye on the ball; you had to keep it on four balls, at least three of which you couldn't see.

Back in Bologna, the drought on the field produced a refreshing stream of honesty from the commentary box: 'It's getting sillier and sillier,' marvelled Motson. A goal flash told us Holland had scored. Trev knew what that meant: 'It's a mortal blow, innit?' We cut to Cardiff to see a penalty in the Wales v Romania game, and never looked back. At last, a match that didn't require the massed staff of William Hill to calculate the odds of victory. Thousands of Englishmen jammed the BBC switchboard. I hope their phones were next to the TV so they didn't miss Ryan Giggs - all corkscrew curls and bottle.

It was the right decision - if Wales had reached the World Cup they would soon have been promoted from 'the Welsh' to 'the British interest'. Back in the studio, everyone agreed that English football suffered from a lack of skills, training and investment. Not so much a game then, more our way of life.

Oliver Stone's Wild Palms (BBC2) tried to look like a way of life (Los Angeles in 2007), but after two episodes you saw it was just a game - albeit a stylish one. To play you have to be as much like David Lynch as possible (the inspiration is Twin Peaks, and one entire scene is ripped from Blue Velvet): extra points are scored for cryptic symbols, but you will be out if you land on any traditional satisfactions of the genre - plausible plot, believable relationships, etc. At its centre is lawyer Harry Wyckoff (James Belushi). Harry has bad dreams - and so would you if you had a mute daughter who breaks her silence only to murmur 'Everything must go', a son who turns out to have been conceived synthetically in a lab, and a mother- in-law (the fabulously feline Angie Dickinson) who makes Lady Macbeth look like Miss Marple. Harry is impotent (the rhinoceros in the swimming pool may be displaced penis envy, but I'll get back to you on that) until he is seduced by a dark woman from his past now working for the Wild Palms group. This sinister outfit is trying to subjugate the US through virtual reality on TV. It is linked to the capitalist Fathers who are waging an underground war with the liberal Friends who . . . Come on, pay attention out there] There'll be questions at the end.

Wild Palms will go over the heads of most people, but it will pass by the hearts of everyone - a first- degree crime for any drama. Cults are born and not made. Assembling the parts - classic sports cars, retro clothes, designer violence - is not the same as having a roadworthy vehicle. Tellingly, the best bits involve technology - the scene where sitcom characters are beamed into a living-room was genuinely magical. Here was something to build on - a ghastly glimpse of a future where humans could be so mesmerised by virtual reality that they started liking it better than the usual kind. But Stone is too busy with his big theme, paranoia. He even turns up on a talk show to receive applause for being vindicated over JFK - just the biggest and yuckiest of a heap of in- jokes. In one scene, when people started playing catch with giant, inflatable spheres you wondered if it was a post-modernist, intertextual referent to the floating globes in The Prisoner. On the other hand, it could have been just a load of balls.

Time travelled the other way in Goodnight Sweetheart (BBC1), the new comedy from Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. Nicholas Lyndhurst plays Gary, a TV repairman who gets lost in London and finds himself in the Royal Oak in 1940. Naturally, Gary thinks the landlord is running an over-zealous theme pub, while the landlord assumes Gary is a spy. Dropping a character into the past like this is a wonderfully potent device - if he plays his cards wrong Gary could end up being his own grandfather - and full of pathos. In 1993, Gary is an ordinary bloke, but back there he can display the extraordinary wisdom of ages to come, impressing the barmaid (a winsome Dervla Kirwan) by playing one of his own compositions - Elton John's 'Your Song'. I laughed out loud at that: elsewhere the pleasures were quieter. The wartime scenes have the abrasive good humour of Dad's Army, but the present is less surely handled, and we need to know how Gary gets from one to the other. Still, with Lyndhurst for a hero, Sweetheart can hardly fail. Combining the charms of a Lost Boy and a beagle, he swiftly enters the chamber of the affections which I thought was permanently sealed after the death of Richard Beckinsale.

And finally, a force of Nature. The Attenborough is a sophisticated life form, perfectly adapted to the harsh televisual environment where lesser creatures become parodies of themselves and even eat each other just to survive. Yes, the Boy David (allegedly now 67) was back with Inside the Freezer (BBC1). On a perfectly white landscape, we saw a dot. The dot began talking: 'I am in Antarctica, the loneliest and coldest place on Earth, the place that is most hostile to life (You smile here, because you know he is about to get to the yet bit), and yet in one or two places it is astonishingly rich]'

And so it is. A glacier collapses, roaring like a detonated tower block. Here comes a troop of penguins hitting the sea with the stuffed-shirt propriety of Edwardian gentlemen. Offshore, there is a petrel crisis over a pink skein of dead whale. A shoal of krill passes beneath like an underwater Afro. The footage is magnificent, and the words rise to the occasion rather than drooping into the soppy anthropomorphism of other wildlife shows. On South Georgia (had Mrs Thatcher seen this rock when she urged us to rejoice?), an albatross feeds her huge chick - an absurd, bursting sackful of dandelion fluff. Suddenly, through their beaks, we spy a blue cagoule. Our man has gone in for a better look. It was intoxicating stuff, but then Attenborough is the broadcaster most alive to the drunkenness of things being various.