Monday 28 December 1998
Its comic premise was simple. Ralph, a simple-minded aristocrat, had to marry before his 35th birthday or face disinheritance. Failure to do so would also mean that Ted, his gardener and the subject of his powerful unrequited love, would be homeless. It opened with a nice visual gag. The credit for Paul Whitehouse, who plays Ted, superimposed over a deer followed by Charlie Higson's, who plays Ralph, overlaid on a stalking fox.
Essentially it was a loose patchwork stitched together, but the extended format allowed for some good jokes. Ted had a mobile phone, and a way with the "ladies". At a party he held court in a flat cap, surrounded by young women tittering at jokes about shovels.
Their Fast Show sketches had been brief encounters and I was concerned that Ted and Ralph would lack legs. The writing was as tight as one could hope for given the 70-minute duration, and the rhythm and timing of the punchlines as sweet as ever. In the kitchen helping his master prepare for a dinner date, Ted offered to drain the carrots. "There's one of those round things over there with the holes in it," Ralph told him. "I always used to think they were called calendars, but apparently they're called... sieves." There was a gentle stress on the first noun, and a marvellous comic pause before the second.
"No one's ever loved me before, Ted," Ralph reflected in the aftermath of his bride's departure. "I wouldn't really know about that, sir," his man mumbled after a truly pathetic interval.
Are You Watching Jimmy Hill? (Sat BBC2) profiled another of life's outsiders. While Des Lynam isn't quite insight incarnate, his observation that football has enough heroes and that Hill, a baker's son from Balham, fulfilled its need for a villain was roughly right. A more subtle analysis might have revealed the real essence of Hill: that he's an outsider, albeit one who was accepted.
A profile of Jimmy Hill is, almost by definition, a study in group mechanics, an analysis of its judgmental triumvirate; exclusion, tolerance and acceptance. Terry Venables told how he'd walked around the pitch with Hill as they made their way to the Match of the Day studio just before kick-off at a Merseyside derby. Spotting the distinctive pundit, the crowd took up a chant of "Jimmy Hill's a wanker!". Hill reportedly beamed at Venables and said: "There's fame for you. They love me here."
Whatever else football is, it is essentially democratic and Hill personifies the tension between subordinance and individuality. Difference is required yet despised. For every George Graham there's a David Ginola and, while Hill showed little flair on the pitch, off it he was football's first intellectual radical.
The scheduling of the programme was unfortunate - tea time on Boxing Day, when a supine nation could, at any time, have emerged from a post- prandial half-slumber to a bizarre collage of dream-like images from the 1970s. There was the footage of Eric Morecambe sharing a joke with Hill and Prince Philip - one which, by the wrinkled look of concentration on his face, HRH struggled to process. The line between reality and surreality would have been blurred further by an image of Hill sitting in the stand at a Chelsea game explaining match tactics to Raquel Welch and compounded by the image of Hill - actually quite a tall man, being an ex-inside forward - clinging to the back of a horse at Aintree as it bolted down the road. All these events actually happened. Across the country you could imagine people waking with the words: "I've just had the weirdest dream."
And, in a sense, this is how Hill has spent his busy life - having dreams which others regarded as odd; being bewitched by fantastical football imaginings. In the 1950s, as chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, he won a fight to abolish the minimum wage, which then stood at pounds 20 a week. Years before Heysel and Hillsborough, as manager and chairman of Coventry City, he introduced the country's first all-seater stadium. Heck, he even argued for three points for a win to make the game more exciting.
The impression was of a very happy man. Vive la difference.
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