Robin Scott-Elliot: From where the sun don't shine to moonshine makers, it's all a bit extreme

View From The Sofa: Cowboy U, Extreme Sports/Pelada, PBS
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The Independent Culture

A man's arm disappearing up a cow's bottom used to pass for Sunday evening entertainment here. In the US it is regarded as an extreme sport. I suspect the Americans are probably closer to the mark, although that's not to knock James Herriot or the Farnons, who never failed to handle themselves with aplomb and as much decorum as is possible given the whereabouts of one arm.

The Extreme Sports channel is not a regular stopping point, but stumbling across an anxious-looking man in a Stetson with his hand where the sun don't shine is an arresting moment, or perhaps that's just a by-product of a public school education.

Cowboy U is a reality version of All Creatures Great and Small, only with more chaps and wider-brimmed hats. A group of city dwellers compete to become cowboys and to take part in a rodeo, which is considered sport. During their time on a ranch somewhere out west (or east if you're from LA) the hopefuls learn to "cowboy up". You had to fear for David – nervous around animals – and Chris – scared of spiders. When Brandie chased Chris around the stable with a spider, Chris ran like a girl, to use cowboy terminology.

The high point of this edition was a competition between the men and women to run round a muddy pen and catch pigs. The pigs didn't look too chuffed about it. Once the mud had settled a caption appeared: "Score: Men 2 pigs, Women 1 pig." All it lacked was Tony Gubba in the commentary box. The mud meant shower time and, with that curious prudishness that grips US TV, that meant bottoms had to be pixelated, something Siegfried Farnon would never have allowed.

A far better American offering came on PBS, the US public service channel. Pelada is a documentary by Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn Oxenham, two former college soccer (sic) players who meandered around the world playing in street and park games. From Rio to La Paz to a Nairobi slum – to an argument between Arab and Jewish teams in a Jerusalem kickabout to Oxenham playing in a headscarf in a men's game in Tehran – it proved a hidden gem of sporting documentary.

In Bolivia they bribed their way into San Pedro prison to play in the inmates' daily game. "What are the rules?" asks Boughen. "Rules?" says a team-mate. In Nairobi they found Austin's Field, a patch of muddy ground cleared of rubbish in the middle of the city's Mathare slum and used to hold weekend tournaments. A team of moonshine makers won. The message that football unites, crosses frontiers and all that was beginning to sound a little like a Fifa film, only with less branding, but then came Jerusalem. In the middle of the city there's a basic pitch where it's winners stay on. Boughen scored a questionable goal while playing for a team of Jews against a team of Arabs and an almighty row broke out. "It's bullshit that football's above politics," says one player from a team waiting their turn.

The final stop, Tehran, reverted to the film's optimistic message of the game being a universal glue. The sight of two Americans, one a woman, playing with a group of Iranian men made the point with simple effectiveness. This was a visual love letter to the game and, in an era when there is plenty to dislike about the sport, it was a lesson in how to rekindle desire.