Television Review

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The Independent Culture
Thank God, the new season is upon us. I have television in mind here, not football, having been born without the soccer chromosome. But, as it happened, one of the first signs that we were reaching the end of the desert of repeats and sweep-it-under-the-carpet scheduling was a football comedy. Eleven Men against Eleven (C4), written and directed by Andy Hamilton, followed the misfortunes of City, a Premier Division club teetering on the edge of relegation. City is essentially a comic compendium of all football's current agonies - the big-money corruption of sleaze and greed, bungs and snorts, kung-fu kicks and thrown matches. Not the least of its problems is its chairman, Sir Bob Luckton, the sort of man who moves disabled spectators because their wheelchairs obscure the view of pitch-side adverts. Sir Bob has a shrewd grasp of the economic dynamics of "the people's game". "This club has to be big," he explains to a colleague, "because soon that's the only kind of club there's going to be."

Things don't look good, though. The Inland Revenue are coming at him like Cantona in a bad mood, and in recent games the team has "scored less than Cliff Richard". Then Sir Bob is forced to sack his manager for irregularities over transfer fees. In his place, he hires Ted Whitehead, junior team coach and a melancholy proponent of football's ancient virtues. James Bolam is brilliantly cast here, playing Ted as if he was a battered old piece of kit, salvaged from the back of the boot-room - he's an old-fashioned leather football in a world of logoed polyvinyl and dazzle camouflage shirts. It's the old satirical device of the guileless man in a world of guile, the dupe whose innocence turns out to be dangerous, but it was beautifully done and often very funny.

Disaster follows disaster - the club's star player, a black striker, is attacked by racist hooligans, who realise too late that they are disabling their team's only hope ("Sorry Leo - we thought you were black"). Another player launches a savage attack on the club mascot, an incident that is exhaustively scrutinised by television commentators ("No excuse for what happens next. Roebuck loses composure and - bang! - down goes the penguin"); four more players are lost after an FA random drugs test ("We detected marijuana, cocaine, amyl nitrate, heroin and a compound which, as yet, our chemists have been unable to identify").

Hamilton is as witty with the camera as he is with words, using his double role to excellent effect, so that the punch line to a joke is often supplied by images rather than dialogue. His favourite device - it occurred often enough to qualify as a signature shot - is to aim the camera over the shoulder of a character, so that the background offers a mute contradiction: thus Ted Whitehead delivers a pious homily to the junior players about practice and professionalism, while behind him the squad rehearse a goal- scorer's hip-grinding dance, a routine they haven't actually had to employ for 12 games. "He was a bit upset when he got home, but he seems to have got over it now," says Ted's wife, after another catastrophe - through the window you see a plastic heron arc across the garden, propelled by Ted's boot.

The ending was as good as the rest - first a hilarious match in which a bent referee and a bribed goalie try, with increasing desperation, to engineer victory for a team that seems determined to lose - and then a wonderfully cruel destruction of Ted's only comfort - the precious memory of his crucial winning goal in 1969, which got the club promoted in the first place and which he reminisces about at the slightest excuse. "Grand day," he says reverently to the man who let the goal in. "For me too," the man replies, "I got two grand for letting that one in."