The excitement that brings the final blow home


"It's absolutely thrilling stuff," said the commentator halfway through The Big Fight (ITV), "the East Enders here are lapping it up." After the event, the clich seemed to recover its old life - a distant image somewhere of dogs at the scene of an accident, barking their excitement, sidling in to lick at spilled blood. Watching on television, it's easy to feel superior to the baying crowds at a boxing match (surely the ugliest of all audiences), easy to deplore their brutal nationalism, their roaring glee at damage. But, as Saturday night brought home to you, watching from your living room is hardly an efficient antiseptic. Such events don't make money because 12,000 people turn up to watch them, but because millions of people stay at home; if the viewing figures dropped through the floor, young men might not think it quite so worthwhile to risk brain damage, or worse, for a pay-cheque. And if you clench or gasp as a punch lands and the sweat flies like cartoon stars round a fighter's head, you're one with that crowd.

And after the event it's very easy to be pious too, to disavow those disreputable companions in the sudden shame of being found out. The fight turned sour with the suddenness of a car crash, McClellan dropping to that penitential pose on his knees, an almost ceremonial motion of surrender after such reckless combat. Even as you were still thrilling to the sense of a proper ending, reassured by the commentators that you had seen the stuff of stories, the glimpse of McClellan prone came like someone turning the light on, conscience caught with blood on its hands in the middle of the room. "What me, get excited by this? No, you've mistaken me for someone else. I've never approved."

Which might rationally be true. But such disapproval doesn't weigh much against the compelling spectacle of the preceding rounds. It started with silly jokes, the danger of the encounter translated into nervous laughter; what was it like, you wondered, to be the poor sap who had paid £250 to get an uninterrupted view of Frank Bruno's jacket, and if you were the poor sap how would you go about asking Frank to sit down? Then the extended violence of the fight made the mood tenser, suddenly less detached. Benn's recovery from what looked like imminent defeat rewrote the terms on which you watched, even if you began with no allegiance, or actively contemptuous of the dry-ice and sneering hokum. He had to win to make the story come out right, a tale of heroic resilience and dramatic reversal.

"Benn looks the happier of the two to me," said one commentator hopefully, a few round later, but happy was a decidedly odd word for it - you only found out afterwards that he had been fighting with a damaged jaw, but well before that knowledge you could see that in both men a fearsome will had already scored a knockout over self-preservation. At the end it was as if Benn was possessed by his survival of all that pain, unaware, still spoiling for a fight. At home though, some hind-brain passion remembered where it was, shamefacedly took its seat again, and then you had an uninterrupted view of what all that excitement had been about.

Oleg Gordievsky gets a credit as "Special Adviser" in last night's Messengers from Moscow (BBC2), which may have been a plus point when the series was completed but can't help looking a little odd now. Did Stalin really push the Soviet Union to the point of war over Korea or has Oleg just got over- excited again? As it happened you're soon reassured; the makers gently boast about the credentials of their speakers by introducing them with archive photos, in which the nondescript figure standing just behind Comrade Stalin and Chairman Mao is picked out as if by spotlight. They were really there, this says, and now they're here to tell you about it.

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