The Weekend's TV: United, Sun, BBC2
Perspectives: Looking for Lowry, Sun, ITV1
Doctor Who, Sat, BBC1
The dream team that refused to die
Monday 25 April 2011
"You'll never win anything with kids", as Alan Hansen famously remarked about the Manchester United team that went on to win the double in 1996, showing less a faulty soothsaying ability than a shocking ignorance, for a TV football pundit, of soccer history.
Because that's exactly what they said about the Busby Babes, the youngest team to ever win the old First Division, reaching the European Cup semi-final in 1958, before the core of Sir Matt Busby's team was killed at Munich airport. And with no discernible anniversary, perhaps the week of the current Manchester United team's Champions League semi-final was serendipitous scheduling (unless BBC schedulers had been keeping a beady eye out for United's progress in this year's competition) for Chris Chibnall's drama, United.
I'd better come clean at this point and disclose a personal interest – I'm a Liverpool fan. Not, I hasten to add, the sort of morally vacant Liverpool partisan who chants "Munich, Munich" at every available opportunity, but also not a viewer likely to go automatically weak-kneed at the mythology of Manchester United. But then the mythology of Munich belongs to the whole nation, and in any case, a far larger caveat for me was that, essentially, United was a biopic, and I've long believed biopics are an inferior form of drama. Give me a good documentary any day.
That's not to fault the performances or the production, which were all fine and dandy, once you'd got over the idea of David Tennant as a football coach. Another of my prejudices, perhaps, and in the event his was the most compelling performance here, as Jimmy Murphy, the inspirational Welshman who rebuilt the team in the immediate aftermath of Munich. Dougray Scott took some getting used to as Matt Busby, with a drawl that sounded like a dodgy Sean Connery imitation – or rather Sean Connery imitating Tony Curtis imitating Cary Grant in Some Like It Hot. Perhaps this is how Busby actually spoke – I seem to recall he sounded something like this – but the effect was further undermined by a fedora and shabby overcoat that made Scott's Busby look like a second-division Glasgow gangster.
The villain of Chibnall's drama was Alan Hardaker (clammily played by Neil Dudgeon), the xenophobic Football League secretary whose resistance to Busby's adventures in Europe led to the latter chartering the ill-fated aeroplane in the first place, because Hardaker wouldn't cut him any slack over league fixtures. But compared to Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough, with its burning righteous anger aimed at the police and The Sun, Hardaker seemed like a flimsy scapegoat for what, au fond, was an appalling accident.
For the rest there was a dig at contemporary Wag culture in a scene in a nightclub where Duncan Edwards (Sam Claflin) informs Bobby Charlton (Jack O'Connell): "Don't tell them you're a footballer. The maximum wage is £15 a week and your career's over by the time you're 40. What girl's going to gamble on those prospects?" The production wisely eschewed trying to match the actors with any big-match action, the downfall of many a soccer movie – the only CGI involved some smoking Lowryesque factory chimney stacks (obviously long since gone). And as it happened, Lowry was the opening subject in a new, authored ITV1 arts strand, Perspectives. Ian McKellen was the man doing the looking.
Yes, a new ITV1 arts strand, a little more than a year after the broadcaster finally killed off The South Bank Show – and without the reassuring presence of Melvyn Bragg, any new ITV attempt at an arts documentary was bound to be greeted with some condescension. All of which makes the choice of their first subject a rather canny one, because Lowry was and still is (witness the priceless interview with Tate Britain curator on why its 27 Lowrys are confined unseen in the basement) the recipient of what painter Paula Rego called here "great snobbery".
"Is it because he's Northern?" asked Noel Gallagher, perhaps hitting one nail squarely on the head. Lowry's milkman thought "my children could paint better", but Jeffrey Archer is a big fan, buying one with his advance for each new book ("I didn't tell my wife," he added, a tad unfortunately). Noel Gallagher, Jeffrey Archer, Lowry's milkman... plenty of ammunition here for arts snobs, although I was thoroughly engaged by McKellen's quest. As for the sadistically kinky, never-before-displayed Lowrys, I'll never be able to look at those matchstick men and women in quite the same way again.
Munch's The Scream was the artwork being channelled by Steven Moffat for his latest Doctor Who monsters – although this reference was wittily turned on its head by calling them the Silence. There has already been a bit of a media kerfuffle about the scariness of this episode. Putting to one side the fact that viewers of a certain age would have found it far more frightening that Richard Nixon was re-invented as an avuncular do-gooder, surely the whole point of Doctor Who is that it does scare the nippers. More likely to frighten them however was the mind-mashing storyline, which seemed more adult than we're used to on this show. Under the present constellation of Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Moffat, this much-loved but essentially creaky old property is in danger of morphing into a very British Buffy, and praise doesn't come higher than that.
This week's Culture Club is looking for short reader reviews of the new series of Dr Who. Let us know your thougts in the comments below and a selection will appear in the newspaper.
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