REVIEW / At the end of the day, it's a game of two halves
Tuesday 31 May 1994
Theme television, in which you spend a night, a week or a month mugging up on one subject, is the industry's growth industry. After the lofty issues tossed about in seasons called 'War and Peace' and 'Crime and Punishment', an evening with Gary Lineker and co was obviously the next logical step.
Although it lasted about as long as one of the shorter Wagner operas, attendance from overture to curtain call was optional. BBC 2 has perfected the menu in which even those with the attention span of a gnat are catered for, so anyone who didn't fancy that episode of the Likely Lads could nip out for a meat pie.
In fact, this wasn't just interim entertainment for lager louts. As the evening put together a neat six-hour passing move you could hear the crowd shouting 'Gimme a P]' 'P]' 'Gimme an H]' 'H]' Put 'em together and what 'ave you got: 'Phootball': the closest the beautiful game gets to a degree in philosophy.
You had to admire the work-rate of a midfield composed of social psychologists with top buttons done up and 'writers' in polo necks, all promoting phootball as a phit subject for a postgraduate study. But the problem with talking about football on an intellectual level, a trick which rent-a-phan Nick Hornby pulled off again in The Ball Is Round with slightly diminishing returns, is that it runs up against the sketch, quoted in Football Hell, in which Eric Idle's deconstructionist pundit bamboozles John Cleese's brain-dead centre forward with PhD-speak.
L'Etranger, a study of the loneliness of life between the sticks which took its title from that celebrated keeper Albert Camus, further illustrated the tension between the director in the dugout and the player on camera. You can take the most philosophy-friendly player on the pitch, film him from weird angles and surround him with quotations from Nabokov, but there's no getting away from the fact that John Burridge is not Jean- Paul Sartre. Unless he's leading a double life we haven't been told about.
At the start of his film Hornby admitted that 'It's hard to explain the phenomenon of football to those who don't understand it'. Even with clips from some of the best matches ever played, as here, it's probably impossible, as it is for ballet or fox-hunting. But in this case it probably didn't matter. BBC 2 might have hoped otherwise, but the proportion of the audience who needed 'the phenomenon of football' explained to them must have been well under 0.001 per cent. This was a night laid on for the converted, ineffectually disguised as a night for the curious.
For those in the minority who did want it explained in lay language, Lee Chapman said scoring was better than sex; Chris Waddle said sex was better than scoring; Pele said scoring was like an orgasm, no better, no worse. He always was well-balanced, that Pele.
The inclusion of Hugh McIlvanney's old film about George Best brought to mind that sports writer's acid aesthetic test: for artistic impression, is the 1970 Brazilian team, remembered in The Sexiest Kick-Off, as good as King Lear? Is football high art? At least for the duration of the forthcoming World Cup, BBC 2 will be hoping the answer is no. Otherwise, they can wave goodbye to their core audience until 18 July.
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