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Macho Antidotes to the Royal Wedding – Part 2: United on BBC iplayer


My second suggestion of anti-Royal Wedding medication for the ordinary man, following the sensational spectacle of Thor, is a single strong dose of BBC drama United, shown on Sunday and now available on iplayer. If Thor was grounded in fun fantasy then United is rooted firmly in poignant and period storytelling, of the sort the Beeb does so well. In fact with budget cuts beginning to bite, our national broadcaster has made it clear that quality dramas like United and The Crimson Petal and the White are the future of BBC2 in particular. If future projects are as good as these then it’s a wise as well as an economical decision.

United is the story of the tragic Munich air crash that killed most of Manchester United football club’s first team, as well as reporters and staff, after a successful European cup match in Belgrade. The squad’s flight was stopping over in a snowy Munich to refuel and the players and coaching staff were keen to return in time for their league game that weekend, and thus avoid a points deduction. For most football fans the catastrophe that cruelly cut short the life of so many of “Busby’s Babes” is the stuff of familiar legend. I have been a Manchester United fan since the age of 6 and was raised on the fairytales of pure footballers from both before the disaster and after it. The men directly touched by such devastating events forged the foundations for Manchester United to become the world famous and successful club it is today.

Rest assured though, United is a good drama and an absorbing watch, pure and simple. For those without the background in football heritage or even those that can’t tolerate the game, this is a captivating human story of careers, celebrity and comebacks. Most importantly this is an extremely British tale and the perfect anaesthetic for ears bleeding profusely because of the hypocritical and imbecilic and meaningless whining of Americans pleasuring themselves over the blandest, most lifeless 24 hour coverage of the exterior of Bucking-HAM palace.

Despite the subject matter United is not all doom and gloom. For over half an hour from the start we are welcomed into the heart of a football club going from strength to strength. But it’s not about the football; it’s about the characters at the club. We are treated to finely honed BBC costume drama detail, from the 1950s fashions, to the dressing room, to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams itself, rendered lifelike with impressively unnoticeable CGI. Most pleasing of all is the delicious double act formed between David Tennant’s Welsh coach Jimmy Murphy and Dougray Scott’s understated but charismatic portrayal of United’s most celebrated manager, Matt Busby.

Most of the time, Tennant steals the show, as he does in almost everything he’s in. It is by no means one of the more important judges of an actor, but Tennant continually succeeds at accent after accent, this time believably carrying off the musical Welsh tongue. This role also allows him to show off other more vital aspects of his talent too though. He has tremendous fun motivating the players as a coach with vision and then more than copes with the emotional side to the story when the drama hits. The majority of Doctor Who fans may now be fully warming to Matt Smith but Tennant remains a class act and it’s actually refreshing to see him embracing parts as diverse and interesting as this one.

It’s fitting that United is mostly told from the perspective of a young Bobby Charlton. He’s now a Sir and a national treasure, but then he was just a lad that wanted to play football. And he ended up living through a harrowing and traumatic experience. Yet he came out the other side of it and was lucky enough to have been part of the great team before the crash, and the even greater side built from the ashes. Jack O’Connell, who plays the young Charlton here, does a really good job whether he’s stumbling through the plane’s ripped ruins and grimacing at explosions, practicing on the pitch or gazing up in awe at the stadium.

As a production United really does ooze quality. The acting is top notch, the music is touching and the directing beautiful, particularly at the snowy crash site itself and in the dressing rooms. It also deals sensitively with an immensely emotive issue. The question of blame is delicately raised and wisely the film does not nail its opinion to any specific interpretation. Some will blame those who were desperate to play abroad and then make it back home in time for the league match, and indeed Busby blamed himself. Some will blame the league officials who refused to grant a postponement to the fixture after United’s European trip. Some will insist the officials at the airport and the mechanics and the pilots should have taken more care. But the sensible will just accept the terrible tragedy of it all. The enormous grief.

Of course the overwhelming and important cost of the crash was the human one, with so many young men dead. Their families and girlfriends and mates were robbed of their lives prematurely. As a drama United undoubtedly tells that tale. It often seems callous, stupid and emotionally ignorant to talk of the cost to the game of football. I call myself a football fan but much of the time the game leaves me unmoved. I do not live and breathe the game, I no longer care greatly as I used to as a child when one of my favoured teams does poorly. It takes a great occasion or an unusually interesting story, or an exciting match with beautiful passages of play, to truly ignite my interest these days. But there certainly was a significant cost to the game of football after the Munich crash, and it was a cost that mattered almost as much as the loss of their lives. United tells that story too.

It mattered that such a great and talented team was almost completely wiped out, because it mattered to them. It would have mattered to those that died and it mattered to those left behind. It mattered to the fans that mourned them and even the people that knew them. It’s too easy to talk with nostalgia of how football used to be, with starting elevens as opposed to giant squads and meagre salaries and basic training pitches; the modern game is too often ignorantly slated as excessive junk. Watching United though you can see the appeal of that nostalgia, of an old school approach brimming with romance, you can understand those who knew it firsthand ranting and raving at the money making machine that’s replaced it.

Nowadays you wouldn’t get Tennant’s character, a first team coach, ringing round top flight clubs begging for players in the aftermath of a disaster so that the locals could see a game and to maintain the winning philosophy of a club. It just wouldn’t be possible. Or necessary. You wouldn’t get a fairytale quite as magical as the one that swept a ramshackle team, comprised of youngsters and amateur unknowns, to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley just months after the crash.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching United. I might have been predisposed to an outpouring of emotion because United stirred up a long since cooled love in me for the beautiful game. But I defy anyone not to be moved by such excellent acting, such accurate portrayals of grief and commitment and passion. I have been reminded by United that anything, be it art, table tennis or cartoons, that takes you out of yourself and absorbs you, helping you to forget pain and grief completely just for a moment, is a worthwhile and admirable activity. Something worth fighting for.

The Royal Wedding is more likely to make me vomit than get teary but I know it would be more acceptable to sob down the pub over the achievements of football greats than the nuptials of a posh Prince. So when the women are welling up at the sight of a dress or a bouquet, tell them you’re not dead inside you’d just rather save your sympathy and admiration for real royalty.

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Reading and Writing Challenge Month – Days 5, 6 and 7


What’s the old saying; one step forward and two steps back? After finally making progress by finishing The Day of the Triffids (and easily answering a question on its opening line from University Challenge this evening as a result) I then went to see a friend for the weekend and did no reading whatsoever. I took an assortment of books, I intended to read and she intended to revise, but neither of us succeeded. I could hardly be rude could I? This is my excuse I know. But the break, not from this challenge but from life, did me good. So in reality this post could be entitled simply Day 7.

To make matters worse I haven’t devoted today solely to reading. Distracted by writing I haven’t actually read a great deal. However I do feel that I have a plan of action and that I made some considerable strides in terms of understanding today. I finally read Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog in its entirety, along with an introduction to a collection of his stories by Richard Ford. I’ve also read some more of Haruki Murakami’s short stories and I plan to read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice before I sleep tonight. Lady Chatterley is on the back burner for the time being, but next on my list, whilst I get my head around different short story writers and hopefully attempt an article on them this Wednesday.

Reading the introduction to Chekhov’s stories really helped me appreciate the unique value and insight of short stories compared to novels. Much like essays they can single out a particular issue or aspect of existence for closer inspection. Chekhov’s writing was economical and concise in making its points, something I need to begin to hone. His stories also reveal life’s hidden truths that we’re sometime reluctant to acknowledge, often from mundane events and goings on. I shall hold back the rest of my musings for another time.

I also recalled a Ray Bradbury short story from The Martian Chronicles that I’m going to re-read, as it’s another example of a type of short story and something else they can do.

Tomorrow night I’m going to attempt serious physical exercise for the first time in ages. I shall be a shattered and broken man. Hopefully my eyes will still be able to read. Until then I suppose.

No need for excessive force? Wii might as well not bother then


Proper funny people, that is to say comedians, often take the ordinary and un-funny happenings of everyday life, apply their own particular, wry comic twist and sit back satisfied as rows of audience members dissolve in laughter. I imagine that for them the knowledge that they took a dull occurrence which wasn’t at all humorous and made it so, simply by looking at it through their own bulging, witty eyes is the ultimate fulfilment of their “art”. I however have always been fairly satisfied with spotting something undeniably hilarious and jabbing a finger in the general direction of such an event, usually accompanying the gesture with subtle shouts such as “Oh my God that’s so funny!” or simply a worrying, wobbly intake of breath and my lips just about gasping “HA!”.

Take the apparently newsworthy and 100% true story of “Wii-type games linked to sprains” provided by the BBC today and the laugh out loud details that ensue upon closer inspection. The article begins by insisting the Nintendo Wii and other such motion sensitive games technology had started to produce its own “brand of player injuries”. By “own brand” we can assume that they mean someone has actually bothered to confirm what we all suspected; fat, unfit people buy the Wii, thrash around with it in their living rooms for a while and claim it to be exercise and the odd unlucky sod does himself a catastrophically embarrassing You’ve Been Framed style injury to himself in the process. To have your concealed fantasies of amusing, lardy louts unintentionally vandalising their own whopping plasma screens and yelping like puppies dangled from the Empire State building after pulling a muscle returning Mario’s serve, or something, is pretty damn funny in itself. But then you pause and consider the authority behind the article.

The BBC says that “doctors”, yes those highly trained professionals admired and trusted by society, have reported on this. They have not merely met a few times to discuss it or had a small handful of them examine the issue, but convened a ruddy conference in San Francisco on the subject! Or alternatively forced the information upon an unsuspecting, unrelated gathering. The enthusiastic medical professionals tasked with the job of investigating this “phenomenon”, apparently consulted the USA’s “National Electronic Injury Surveillance System”. I mean seriously? This database actually shows that in a five year period 696 video game related injuries occurred, of which, disappointingly, only 92 were caused by a Wii- type motion device. I say disappointingly because the other injuries are things such as chronic thumb ache in overzealous, spotty adolescents hunched over a button mashing session of Gears of War or Call of Duty. The Wii injuries have a more harmful and admit it, therefore more comic potential.

At this point I am reminded of my childhood and adults trying to impress caution on me whilst I wielded some sort of sharp object excitedly. “Careful, you could take someone’s eye out with that!” they would whine. Someone else’s, not my own. And so to the funniest sentence of this weird piece of news…

Wild swings of the console’s remote also accounted for dozens of “bystander injuries”.

Now come on that is funny right? Imagine all the possible scenarios; a husband who has just about talked his wife into a game of Wii tennis inadvertently smashing her in the face, a tottering old nan accidentally swiping away her opponent’s walking stick, sending them sprawling across the coffee table, GAME, SET, MATCH! But then I read to the end of the article. Most “victims” of bystander injuries are under 10 years old. I’ve never been a fan of the Wii anyway when I have tried it. It always struck me that it got away with poor quality games, nothing more than cartoons, in comparison to other consoles because of its gimmicky, futuristic tech. Now I have even more reason to shun it. Quite apart from the fact there is no need to get over excited for the controller to respond, you can just as effectively flick your wrist from the sofa as dive around the lounge, it was fun to lose control and pretend. Now “excessive” force is out of the question in case it becomes child abuse, which just isn’t permitted to be funny. Great.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-11455144