Robin Scott-Elliot: Why exercise yourself when Liddell and Abrahams still do it for you?
The Real Chariots of Fire, ITV1
Monday 09 July 2012
There is a simple solution to the problem of the declining number of young people (or "the feckless", as I believe they are known in government circles) playing sport. Stop showing every ball kicked, hit, thrown or polished in what is rapidly turning into the year of sporting years on television.
Who wants to get off the sofa and go for a run when Mo Farah can do it for you, and so much better? There's no time to rush for the nearest tennis court today because it's time for the Olympics and best not to miss a moment of that, what with it being a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remain justifiably rooted to that sofa.
With Wimbledon done it's now full steam to Gamestime and there will be no escaping it over the coming weeks. This is the Alcatraz of sporting events. Every TV viewer should already be able from memory to draw a contour-perfect map of Jessica Ennis's stomach.
This week the BBC will show four weighty films telling the history of four areas of the Games, the 100 metres, gymnastics, swimming and the 1500m.
The one on the history of the 1500m is fascinating and beautifully made, although at the preview screening Seb Coe didn't make it to the end. Forced out perhaps by footage of himself slogging along roads around Sheffield with his father sat in a car behind, urging him on. That or he had a Games to organise.
ITV got in on the act last week with a clunky meander around the story of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. It wasn't very good – it was as cleverly thought through as a Coalition economic policy – but it was rescued by archive footage of the two men in action, including extraordinary shots of Abrahams in training, with his exaggerated elbow movements and Tower of Pisa forward lean, and by the story itself.
Unlike Chariots of Fire, this stayed with its subjects until what was, in Liddell's case, a bitter end.
Liddell was a truly heroic figure and one of the earliest Scottish sportsmen (Scottish sports stars – it will never catch on) to transcend his particular niche. He turned his back on sport not long after winning his Olympic gold and died in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War, aged 43.
The footage of him taking the 400m gold in Paris was illuminating. He led from start to finish, head tipped back in characteristic style, running it as if it were a 100m sprint. The tilt of the head and open mouth convey the impression of a man enjoying himself. It was sport for sport's sake.
The contrast with Abrahams was acute. Here was a man ahead of his time, a professional athlete committed to winning, and one who had to combat the Establishment en route. The anti-Semitism that shadowed Abrahams through his time at Cambridge and beyond was touched on although, according to one cloistered interviewee, the chip on Abrahams' shoulder was "inherited from being at Repton".
Nigel Havers was a jolly pleasant host, journeying from Cambridge to Edinburgh and Paris and being terrifically keen. In Edinburgh he bounded up to some carefully prepared bagpipers to ask them what they thought of Liddell. That's how it works on ITV prime time – look! men in kilts; we're in Scotland. No wonder Andy Murray gets the hump with the English.
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