The Weekend's TV: The guts and glory at the root of all Evel
Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel, BBC2; Casualty, BBC1
Monday 24 December 2007
"He was Elvis... on wheels," said Richard Hammond, rhapsodising about the late Evel Knievel, a hero from a less airbagged age. "This was the Seventies... the glory days before health and safety and skinny decaf cappuccinos. He spilled real blood and shattered real bones." You'd have thought that Hammond would have known better than most that the joys of high-impact trauma are not entirely a thing of the past. Indeed, he probably could have played a fair game of Top Trumps with Knievel, using medical images as playing cards. Knievel goes first with an X-ray of a compound fracture of the femur, then Hammond takes the trick with an MRI scan of diffuse axonal injury. But curiously, although Hammond made a couple of passing references to his own exposure to sudden unplanned deceleration, he and Knievel never really traded notes about their near-death experiences.
It is possible that Hammond intended to get round to it, but that none of his interview sessions with the former daredevil stunt-rider lasted long enough. By then suffering from a portfolio of crippling and painful afflictions, including a lung disease that required him to be permanently connected to an oxygen bottle, there was only so long Knievel could go before the strenuously maintained front collapsed and he had to be rushed back to the care home. But he may also have felt that his own crash couldn't compare to Knievel's when it came to cinematic aesthetics. There are no safety cages on a motorbike, after all, and when an Evel Knievel stunt went wrong, the result was a grisly, rag doll flailing that looked horrible at normal speed and could scarcely be looked at in slow-motion.
I was a bit doubtful that Nigel Simpkiss's film had much to offer me, to be honest. I never owned an Evel Knievel stunt toy when I was young and, even before he attacked his former publicist with a baseball bat, I was inclined to agree with the Rolling Stone cover that dubbed him "the King of the Goons". But Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel turned out to be very watchable: an oblique portrait of baseball-cap, blue-collar America and the Montana town of Butte (pronounced boot, but strongly redolent of butt). Simpkiss had had the refreshing idea of screening several of his more important archive clips at locations within the town - the local drive-in, a town bar - so that images of the lengths Knievel had gone to to escape his small-town prospects were embedded in the very place he'd been escaping. And, however shattered it had left him now, you didn't get the impression he thought it was a bad deal overall. When Hammond asked him about a catastrophic early stunt in which he crashed after leaping over a casino fountain in Vegas, he said, "In every adversity, there's an equivalency and a benefit... and if the Caesars Palace accident hadn't happened to me, what would have happened to me?" Breaking his pelvis and fracturing both legs turned out to be a terrific career move, in other words, since it underwrote the anticlimactic tedium of all the stunts that went right later. Come to think of it, Hammond might have shared some thoughts about that too. But, again, he never got round to it.
It was a good weekend for connoisseurs of vehicular damage, because Saturday's Casualty had started with a hit-and-run in which a pedestrian disappeared beneath the bull-bars of a 4x4 and was dragged a hundred yards up the road. By happy coincidence, Charlie was on hand to take down the licence-plate number and administer life-saving first aid, though this barely qualifies as a coincidence in Holby, which is a global epicentre of fluky conjunctions and long-odds confluences. While driving back from picking up an abandoned baby, for instance, Charlie just happened to spot his errant son and the hit-and-run driver in swift succession. Not just that, but the hit-and-run driver was then admitted to casualty and revealed to be the son of the woman who did the baby-abandoning, who was busy haemorrhaging one cubicle over. And then the Santa who came in with a broken jaw turned out to have been done over by Charlie's son. Small world, eh?
We knew that Charlie's career had taken a wrong turn from the opening scene, in which he was having a cut on his eye stitched up and making rueful remarks about getting his P45. But it took us to the end to find out exactly what had happened. It turned out that Jason, hit-and-run driver and an egg so bad you could virtually smell the sulphur, had eventually goaded Charlie into throwing a punch by his sneering contempt for human life. Since he's endured the abuse, ingratitude and general fecklessness of the public for 21 years now, it's astonishing that he hasn't done it before, but he richly deserved this overdue release.
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