Last Night's Television - Clement Freud: in His Own Words, BBC4; Imagine..., BBC1
Revenge of the nerds
Wednesday 23 December 2009
"Usually when I'm playing nothing else exists," said one of the contributors to a very entertaining
Imagine... film about Scrabble, a sentence offered as unequivocal endorsement that turned slowly in the light until it came to look like condemnation. There can be no higher praise for a diversion, after all, than that it diverts everything, blocking out anxieties about career or health or money. On the other hand, you wouldn't want the blockage to last too long – or to make you forget about washing and basic human interactions. To be fair, everyone who appeared here looked as if they had basic hygiene under control, but there were also plenty of people who appeared to have forgotten that there is a world beyond the squared board and the tile bag.
The film opened with a sprightly sequence in which Alan Yentob hauled giant letter tiles across a lawn to spell out the subject of the film, all the while offering mildly teasing clues about the alternative universe he was about to enter. It was a world, he explained, "where words are merely a means to an end" and where "all you get for murder is nine points". Curiously, they didn't begin with one of high-stake games that Yentob is said to play with Charles Saatchi, a high-profile Scrabble fan, but with the Agarwalla Brothers, two aimiable Indian software engineers who reignited the Scrabble craze with Scrabulous, which allows people to play online with their Facebook contacts.
The game itself had originally been invented by Alfred M Butts, an American architect who wasn't getting a lot of work during the Depression and had failed to make a go at writing and watercolours. Yentob visited one of his buildings, a blandly undistinguished church hall in a New York suburb that now carries a memorial plaque honouring its designer's services to parlour amusement. In other words: si monumentum requiris, ignore this building and try and get a bingo on a triple points square. It didn't initially look as if Scrabble was going to be any more successful than painting, with all the major manufacturers turning down Butt's initial designs. But eventually someone bit and, after a lucky break with the owner of Macy's, the game became a national craze.
The best bit of the film covered the preparation of the Nigerian national team for the world championships. Apparently, Scrabble is classed as a sport in Nigeria, receiving government funding and making its star players a relatively decent living. The top Scrabblers all attend a training camp before the big event, dog-eared copies of the official Scrabble word-list on all their bedside tables. This is a deeply depressing publication that simply lists permissible words without wasting space on their definition – top-level Scrabble players offering a variation on Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic as a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. They know the point score of every word but couldn't care less about its meaning, seeing yrneh only as a letter-string and indifferent to the fact that it's also a unit of reciprocal inductance. For them, jnana – knowledge acquired through meditation, as I'm sure you already knew – is important only as a way getting round an unlucky tile draw. So irrelevant is language to high performance that several champions have only halting English, treating the whole thing as an exercise in combinatorial mathematics.
Someone for whom the meaning of words did matter – and who could make them caper on a good day – was Clement Freud, who (posthumously, of course) kicked off BBC4's genial profile of him, Clement Freud: in His Own Words, with a terrific story about his grandfather, Sigmund Freud. Apparently, they were walking in Vienna one day when a passer-by had an epileptic fit. The great man and his grandson watched for a while, noting that some passers-by were sympathetically dropping money into the man's hat, as a kind of charitable assistance. As they walked away, the young Clement asked his grandfather why they hadn't made a contribution. "He wasn't doing it well enough," replied Freud slyly.
Clement learned the restaurant trade at the Dorchester, where the staff would pee in the bouillon as a form of guerrilla class warfare, and then carried the same principles of client care into his own business. "I felt that catering was a game and the rules favoured the customer so much more than the staff," he said lugubriously. "I tried to change that." Somehow, he managed to successfully make the transition from television novelty to (reasonably) serious politician, and one of his finer moments here was a fierily indignant set-to with Robin Day after Jeremy Thorpe had been asked about his sex life by a BBC reporter. Like the film about Oliver Postgate that immediately preceded it, it was a liqueur chocolate of a programme – rich and sweet and slightly self-indulgent. But very enjoyable too.
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