Failing the screen test

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The Independent Online
HAVE you noticed how much sporting drama there is around at the moment? No, I mean the real thing, on the screen, with actors. Last week, for example, we were all lifted by the return, against many predictions, of Trainer, the BBC series set in the glamorous world of horse racing, so memorably described as 'studs, hoofs, jerks and jodphurs'.

Last month, too, there was Born Kicking, a gripping account of the rapid rise, disillusionment and triumph of the first woman to play football with the lads at the very highest level; her name was Roxy and her chairman and mentor was played by that fine actor Denis Lawson, trying to hide behind a moustache.

Tonight it's the turn of boxing, in Lynda La Plante's Seconds Out, 'an engrossing saga about a boxer in his mid-20s who is on the verge of a title before being framed on a rape charge and pushed into the nightmare world of unlicensed fights' (Time Out). Crikey.

I shall be watching, of course, because I'm something of an aficionado, a bit of a buff of screen sporting drama. I can even remember, just about, the BBC soccer opera of the 60s, United, a sort of grittier version of Compact. And how many people now recall Diana Dors in the rugby league series, Queenie's Castle? I certainly wouldn't have fancied stopping Diana at pace, I can tell you.

All that, though, is by-the-by. What you want to know, quite rightly, is why sporting drama is always so awful. Well, first, a few provisos. There have been some excellent sporting dramas. Personally, I thought the King (Elvis Presley) gave one of his finest readings as Kid Galahad (1962), but that is just me. More generally acclaimed was Raging Bull, the life of Jake La Motta, which had the benefit of both Bobby de Niro and Marty Scorsese, as we buffs call them.

I noted, too, from the Q & A slot on this page that some of you still have vivid memories of Yesterday's Hero, in which Ian McShane brought an uncannily accurate haircut - he still has it - to the role of the burnt-out dribbler with one great game left in him. Striking though that was, it cannot compare with my all time favourite, Escape to Victory, starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Bobby Moore and Pele as Allied prisoners of war taking on the might of the Reich at football. I cannot now remember whether they won or escaped, but I shall never forget Sly Stallone's goalkeeping.

Actually, in the acting stakes, I thought Mooro's pronounced underplaying just shaded Stallone's, although both lost out to Caine's stomach, which seemed to have a life, and certainly a direction, of its own, particularly on his deep runs from midfield. (I understand he has now had a lot of it sucked away with that new process; he will never, though, erase the memory of Escape to Victory.)

Caine's protuberance pointed up the familiar problem of the sporting drama, the difficulty in showing actors as convincing athletes. Thus all those shots very close up, all those shots from rather a long way away and the enthusiastic crowd from what is obviously quite a different event altogether.

The other tricky bit is the script. Life, in general, is but a poor reflection of Art. But not Sport. Sport beggars the imagination. Who would dare write the script of the 1966 World Cup Final? C'mon . . . a Russian linesman does what? Who could, would invent Nigel Mansell? Ted Dexter? Micky Duff? David Coleman? Or, pardon the intrusion, the extraordinary hod carrier profiled next door? Only his reality gives any credibility at all to Cloughie.

That's why true stories, like Raging Bull, work best. But I don't think we should give up. And I happen to have some really good ideas: The Twicker Man, for example, in which a retired wing commander, played by Bruce Forsyth, makes some strange discoveries about a game played for love; Rick], my musical about the birth of the Premier League; and Mallet, set in the raunchy world of international croquet, where the shrubbery always beckons, starring Mark Arable, a well-muscled cereal farmer who has a way with a pair of shorts and a sensational roquet. Bobby, Marty, call me.

Marcus Berkmann is away