Last Night's TV - Storyville: Sync or Swim, BBC4; Rude Britannia, BBC4; Coronation Street, ITV1
Mysteries of the deep end
Tuesday 15 June 2010
The Swedes didn't make it to the football World Cup, suffering the indignity of losing home and away in qualifying games to their less-fancied neighbours, Denmark. But they have the incalculable compensation of being world champions at men's synchronised swimming, a story told in last night's quirkily delightful Storyville documentary,
Sync or Swim.
The film was made by Dylan Williams, a Welshman who had fallen in love with a Swedish woman, given up his well-paid work in the British media, and followed her to Scandinavia, a romantic impulse that had quickly yielded two children, a series of menial jobs to make ends meet, and a general sense of being a fish out of water. That, as a million herring will tell you, is a well-known condition in Sweden, but Dylan, like any resourceful fish out of water, found a swimming pool, and joined up with a bunch of other middle-aged men who were all suffering in one way or another from existential angst, and had duly decided to form a synchronised swimming team. They called themselves, in that way that foreigners have of randomly lumping together several English words in the evident belief that it sounds cool, Stockholm Art Swim Gents.
There are, of course, other, more tried-and-tested ways for a chap to address a midlife crisis... an earring, a motorbike, a tattoo, an extra-marital affair, a pair of leather trousers, a one-man tent at the Glastonbury festival. But for Dylan, the way out of the burgeoning gloom was provided by the "stork's leg", the "three little triangles" and "smack my pony", those well-known synchronised swimming moves.
Not that, at first, either he or his new friends seemed to get much joy from smacking their ponies. If anything, their very Swedish angst deepened at the essential meaninglessness of making star shapes in the water. Imagine a movie co-directed by Busby Berkeley and Ingmar Bergman and you have it, more or less. After one training session they sat in a sauna invoking football as a metaphor for life, but not in a good way, concluding that they had all embarked on the second half of life's journey, losing 1-0 at half-time. Gradually, though, it began to come together, both in the pool and out. Lars, a tortured musician, fell in love with the team coach, Jane, and she with him. Dylan got a new job, teaching film studies. Then, to their astonishment, Stockholm Art Swim Gents found that they were not the world's only male synchronised swimming team. Even more astonishing, they discovered that there was soon to be a world championship, in Milan. So off they went, representing Sweden, to take on Italy, Japan, France, the Czech Republic and the reigning champs, Holland.
Men, I should add at this juncture, do not entirely suit the sport of synchronised swimming. It hadn't occurred to me that it was a gender thing until my wife observed that you can point as elegantly as you like at the ceiling, but matted underarm hair will still render the spectacle a little unsightly. Indeed, body hair in general is not an asset in aquatic ballet, and nor are small and in some cases large male middle-aged paunches.
Nevertheless, the not-notably lithe men of Stockholm Art Swim Gents clung admirably to the belief that it was their inalienable right to hold hands underwater, never more eloquently than in an interview with a Milanese radio presenter, who rudely asserted that theirs was "a sport for homosexuals". I can't remember whether it was Lars or Jonas or Pontus who replied, witheringly: "Any sport is for homosexuals, and any sport is for heterosexuals." Bravo! And bravo, too, to Dylan Williams. All things considered, this was a nigh-on perfect documentary, even if he was calculatingly disingenuous in the way he presented the team as pretty hopeless right up until the moment they won gold.
Similarly enjoyable was Rude Britannia, the first of a three-part series exploring the growth of another kind of sport, and one at which the British excel: the slaying, by way of satire and general contempt, of sacred cows. It started in earnest in Georgian times, when first William Hogarth and later James Gillray, Henry Fielding and Alexander Pope lampooned society more rudely and sometimes more crudely than has ever been achieved by Spitting Image, Viz or even our most brilliant skewerer of contemporary vanities and hypocrisy, Chris Morris. The easiest and indeed fattest target was the dissolute Prince Regent, later George IV, but by the 1830s a golden age of satire had died with him. By the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837, the British were learning to be more respectful towards society's movers and shakers, more's the pity.
Anyway, Rude Britannia continues tonight and tomorrow, and if the clever and enlightening first instalment is anything to go by, should make an ideal diversion for anyone feeling trampled by a modern-day sacred cow, the World Cup. As for another sacred cow, Coronation Street, my veneration continues unashamedly. Last night, mad Mary (Patti Clare) welcomed Gail (Helen Worth) back from the clink, where she had been languishing on a murder charge. "And when that jury came back in," recalled Mary, "and we heard those magic words, 'Not Guilty' ... I've never been happier to lose a fiver in my life." Marvellous.
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