Television Review

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The Independent Culture
"Again, like 1966, the whole country has caught fire," said Des Lynam, demonstrating the touching capacity of sporting commentators to generalise from their own enthusiasm. You might be surprised how flame- retardant some of us are, I thought. But, none the less, there I was, doing my patriotic duty - fully aware that to appear on the streets between the hours of 3pm and 5pm on Saturday was tantamount to an act of treason. The mood of hysterical expectation had left the pre-match panel a bit giddy, verifying their excitement with each other - "I don't know about you but it's a long time since I've experienced an atmosphere like this," said Des. Hill, for whom the two human genders are "Fellers" and "Ladies", eagerly advanced the fact that his wife had asked about the kick-off time as a symptom of a fever which had overturned even biological imperatives. And then his colleagues in the commentary box took over, murmuring nervous, placatory noises about the fans, much as people say of an over-boisterous dog, "He's very good natured, isn't he?"

"The atmosphere. Is joyous," said Barry Davies with that kite-launching upward push that is used for anticipatory build-up. "We seem to have lost the feeling of aggression for which some English supporters have been noted... They want victory, of course, but the spirit is right." At which point you offered up a fervent prayer that the spirit, a fragile thing in its benevolence, would not actually be tested by a defeat. The camera panned across the crowd as they chanted for Ingerlund, that country of the mind in which Portillo is a hero and insulting foreigners counts as a noble form of national service. Such occasions have a power to possess the most sceptical, though. Even those who, like me, aren't "fellers" may have been feeling unfamiliar stirrings during the first half, perhaps mouthing the odd involuntary oath at a feeble pass, just as the bewitched are said to cough up toads. After half-time, in that portion of the game when England decided to play away from their own goal, things got more heated still. Not "on fire" maybe, but undoubtedly giving off suspicious curls of smoke. The cameramen did their work superbly, searching through the crowd for fans chewing on their hands so that the commentators could volley in an opportunistic cliche: "nailbiting time here". And then we were into extra-time and the prospect of a coup de grace wound the tourniquet tighter still. "Sitting in the calm of your living room," said Davies, "you may wonder how with such tension they can play at all." Calm? I had to prise my fingers free of the cornicing to write his remark down. Victory came as a reprieve rather than an exaltation, and in their glasshouse the panellists poured what dregs of partisanship remained into the slender vessel of the penalties - "Let's be frank, four out of four penalties they scored," said Des beseechingly, tapping his colleagues for the small change of justified pride. "If you were in the trenches you'd want him over the top first," remarked Alan Hansen of Stuart Pearce, capturing exactly the sentiments behind that rictus of vindication and hate. Only Jimmy Hill had the decency - and the courage in these circumstances - to murmur the necessary word "luck".

The trenches returned later in the evening - in a recorded performance of Bill Bryden's The Big Picnic (BBC2), a First World War drama performed in the cavernous interior of the Harland and Wolff Engine Shed. Within two minutes it was clear that passing such an expansive production through the narrow aperture of a television screen was not going to work. Deprived of the immersion enjoyed by the audience, it came across as a rather melancholy gang show, a military tattoo that had succumbed to doubt. Oddly enough, you could see how moving it might have been to attend it without ever feeling that emotion yourself - a classic demonstration of the phrase "You had to be there".