Three commandments of the crying game

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The Independent Online
Unwary documentary subjects, please take note: the one thing you do not say when being filmed is "You probably won't be able to use this bit, but..." Because, you see, the camera will not stop. It will focus a little closer, while the director makes scribbles a little note: "Sure- fire opening sequence".

So it was with the former jockey Peter Scudamore, first across the line on Grand National Tales (BBC2), a stately canter through the history of the great race. Scu wanted to pass on some slightly risque - and distinctly risky - advice that his father once gave him. "'There are three things that you want to achieve in life,' he said. 'Go to bed with a woman, jump out of a plane with a parachute, and go round the National.'"

Faced with a father's request to "go round the National", anyone sane would pop out for the Lottery tickets, but Scudamore's Dad had actually won the National, so young Peter had no option but to attempt to emulate him. He never managed it, and one suspects that eight jump jockeys' championships never quite made up for the one glaring white space on the CV.

No documentary about the National is short of hard-luck stories. The BBC wheeled out some of the best known: Pitman pere et fils compared their memories of being pipped at the post, Richard on Crisp, and Mark on Garrison Savannah. ("If there's one thing you mustn't achieve in life, son," Richard might have counselled, "it's to go round Aintree and then get beat on the run-in.")

Dick Francis reviewed for about the millionth time Devon Loch's leap over a phantom fence in 1956. What caused the Queen Mother's horse to jump thin air, throwing away certain victory? Was it the shadow of the water jump? A live electric cable? The noise of the crowd? Myself, I favour a tractor beam focused from a near-orbiting saucer by anti-royalist space aliens, but only Devon Loch will ever know, and he has gone the way of all horseflesh.

And there was poor old Andy Adams, who had to give up, through injury, what turned out to be the winning ride on Party Politics in 1992. His face as he sat in the weighing-room watching Carl Llewellyn jump the last and romp home was a picture: not knowing whether to laugh or cry, he did both.

There were other tales that were happy or sad depending on your point of view: the solicitor who had memorised every faller at every fence since the 1960s (happy) and his female companion, who had to keep testing him (sad); and the young Irishman who gets his kicks every year by joining the procession of jockeys as they leave the weighing-room to saddle up (apparently happy, but he'll be sad when gets arrested this year, having blown his cover).

But it was the happy tales that brought tears to the eyes of the sentimental viewer, prompted by Des Lynam's syrupy tones and an overdose of swampy strings. Bob Champion and the recently late Aldaniti, Red Rum - goddamit, they even tried to make us blub about Peter O'Sullevan. We all go prepared to soppy movies, but a three-hankie documentary is ridiculous.

The former jockey Steve Smith Eccles provided the best anecdote. Apparently those jockeys who realise that by halfway they have no chance hack around at the back swapping yarns. One year Smith Eccles was doing just this with Jonjo O'Neill, and was telling a long, fruity joke as the pair approached Becher's for the second time. Smack goes Smith Eccles into the ground, and as he gets up, dazed, he sees O'Neill, still mounted, trotting back down the track towards him. "I just came back to ask," the Irishman said, "what the hell did the gorilla say to the monkey?"

A Golfer's Travels With Peter Alliss (BBC2) was also hilarious, but this may not have been intentional. This is a bizarre confection, sort of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous meets A Round with Alliss. In a nutshell, Alliss gets to play on a lot of lovely golf courses while talking to his guests, gently coaching them and discoursing on the mysteries of the game and, indeed, life itself.

All sounds pretty dull, doesn't it? Well, last week, Alliss's guests were Kiri te Kanawa, HRH the Duke of York and a fish porter named Alistair Corbett, who is better known to his friends as "Tatty".

Te Kanawa sang an aria. "Ah, what a belter," Alliss sighed. "But what's her swing like these days?" All was well. "Nice, you know," he breathed sotto voce as the Antipodean warbler launched the ball down the fairway. "Not a lot of power, but - nice rhythm." Grove's musical dictionary could hardly have put it better.

Alliss put in a damp round at Royal Dornoch with HRH, then allowed him a long recruiting plug for the Royal Navy. "There's nothing like going to war for learning about yourself," apparently. Yes, yes, but what does it do for your swing?

"Tatty" had never sung an aria or piloted a helicopter, but he did wear "Plus two-and-three-quarters", which made him far and away the most appealing human being in the show.

Sport, Live and Dangerous (Channel 5) has featured downhill skiing in a blizzard all week. But the retuner is coming tomorrow.