Football’s excesses reaching fever pitch

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

If I were Spurs manager Juande Ramos I’d have been tempted to give long-time Newcastle United supporter and Manchester United fetishist Dimitar Berbatov the sack months ago. Unfortunately for Spurs that would have potentially meant shelling out millions of pounds in ‘compensation’. Berbatov’s unwillingness to muck in and do his bit for the club that plucked him from the German league in 2006 has been one of many increasingly sour episodes in English football this summer – the other notable case being Cristiano Ronaldo’s slavish tantrums at not being allowed to break free of his bondage at Old Trafford and join Real Madrid. The only mildly amusing aspect to the ongoing Berbatov and Ronaldo controversies was being able to watch Alex Ferguson’s face turn a different shade of crimson and purple each day as he bemoaned the bullying tactics of Real Madrid who, once intent on getting their man, are as persistent and obsessive as Robert Graysmith was in his pursuit of the ‘Zodiac’ killer.

Berbatov spent the summer prowling the perimeter fence of White Hart Lane, dreaming of an escape to pastures anew in Manchester where the likes of Garry Birtles and Neil Webb carved out a niche as also-rans after leaving fine careers behind them. Both of course furthered their profiles (more in terms of girth than stock) at Old Trafford, but hardly set the footballing world alight. Things have changed now and Berbatov’s addition to Manchester United’s electrifying array of talent is enough to make any neutral fan salivate.

Yet it is the attitude of these players – Ronaldo and Berbatov – that typify the excesses of the English game in the first decade of the ‘noughties’. Indeed it is telling that a major football publication only this month predicted that the long-term impact of this era will be fondly remembered only marginally more than the 1970s which was rather surprisingly judged to be English football’s darkest era.

While there are still a few stragglers who seem to realise how privileged they are to be getting paid astronomical wages for playing the sport they profess to love, there are many more players who are fanatically gorging on the bulging pots of gold that clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid can put in front of their snouts.

Something of the Corinthian spirit of football as a sport that can be enjoyed both by the spectator and the player has disappeared. Ticket prices increase as supporter’s wages remain static or fall. While the FA may celebrate the contribution of Manchester United to the rich legacy of English football, they might do well to remember that it was that very club, during its heading days in the late 1990s and early millennia that disrespected the FA Cup in order to do a whistle-stop promotional tour.

As things stand, the top-heavy top four in the English league continue to feed off the lower Premier league teams. In turn teams such as Spurs harvest youthful talents from Football League teams for paltry amounts of compensation at tribunals – just ask Crystal Palace fans – and the whole repetitive cycle depressingly continues.

Source: Belfast News Letter, August 2008

New Troubles film reflects importance of television drama

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

The filming of the forthcoming BBC drama ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ began in Belfast last month. Written by Guy Hibbert and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) the work will star local actors Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt. It purports to be a fictional tale based on the memories of the real events surrounding the murder of 20 year old Catholic James Griffen in 1975 by the UVF. The film is said to tell the story from the perspective of both the victim’s brother (Nesbitt) who as an 11 year old witnessed the murder and the gunman (Neeson), himself a teenager at the time. Patrick Spence, the current head of Drama for BBC Northern Ireland told the BBC NI website that ‘Northern Ireland is a society emerging from conflict. We wanted to develop and produce a single film, which, in a responsible way, marks part of that transition.’

While ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ may be regarded as an attempt to represent a Northern Irish society coming to terms with the legacy of the Troubles, it might also be said that it demonstrates a gradual acceptance that the conflict, which has informed day to day life in so many ways for the past 40 years, is now a topic which can be used as a reference point for a new and rich vessel of local television drama.

In recent decades there has been a rich pool of local writers and actors who have succeeded in having their work transmitted. For example Gary Mitchell’s excellent play ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ was shown by the BBC, and the classic ‘Billy Plays’ which starred a young Kenneth Brannagh lived on to become a trilogy after its first instalment initially aired as part of the excellent ‘Play For Today’ series. In both works the Troubles loomed large, inviting various narratives that are both unique to this country and applicable elsewhere.

In other parts of the UK screen writers have been unafraid to confront the negative aspects of their respective societies. Indeed some of the best English drama in recent years has relied on the issues that have characterised the changes experienced in that country; post-industrial decline, racism and the effects of Thatcherism flavoured excellent episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s work such as the dystopian ‘Cracker’ and more recently, the underrated ‘The Street’ where the simple pleasures of day to day life are staged against a backdrop of impending social and economic pressures.

Northern Ireland is coming out of the worst of its negative history, yet reservations about the recent past and the reality of a society that in parts is still very much divided and violent make for a combustible mix; similar in tempo if not context to the issues that have consumed McGovern’s imagination.

From initial reports ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ looks to be a promising addition to what has, throughout the UK in the past 35 years, been a uniquely regional brand of television drama. Yet it would be a mistake to close the book on Troubles-related drama thereafter. A cursory glance at Susan McKay’s latest offering, ‘Bear in Mind These Dead’ or the hefty ‘Lost Lives’ suggest that the past 40 years have produced many stories that demand to be told whether that be in private or – in the case of ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ – communicated to a wider audience through television drama. If classic British television drama has demonstrated anything throughout its rich history it is that ordinary people’s stories are compelling, and in the case of Northern Ireland’s quest for a lasting peace – valuable.

Source: Belfast News Letter, June 2008

Just Another Saturday in the City?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

With little or no fanfare the BBC recently gave permission for a series of critically acclaimed but rarely seen instalments of its much lauded ‘Play For Today’ series to be released on DVD. For those of us under a certain age who have relied on any means possible to view many of these classic television dramas, the opportunity to finally get to see lovingly restored screen adaptations of Glaswegian playwright Peter McDougall’s excellent ‘Just Another Saturday’ (1975) and ‘Just A Boy’s Game’ (1979) is a real treat. In its golden age ‘Play For Today’ was an important base for exciting and dynamic social commentary which tackled many controversial issues throughout the 1970s and early 1980s; one of the most high profile examples being the original adaptation for the BBC of Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’ (1977) with its scathing indictment of the borstal system. Given last year’s suggestion by Peter Hain that there should be an increase in local television drama in Northern Ireland, the release of Peter McDougall’s ‘Play For Today’ collection on a modern format should provide an encouraging template for any aspiring local dramatists and directors who feel that they can provide a reflection of contemporary Northern Irish society. Although McDougall’s work is based in a different era, its situation on Scotland’s west coast means that it has a deep emotional and cultural resonance for a modern Belfast which, as has been demonstrated by Peter Shirlow and Brendan Murtagh in their recent work ‘Belfast – Segregation, Violence and the City’ is still very much a divided city. Therefore underneath the blithe depiction of non-strife that has been projected by ‘The Hole in the Wall Gang’ and others there is a bleaker side to our society and one that perhaps needs to be transmitted into the wider public’s consciousness, and what better medium than local televisual drama?

McDougall’s work, directed by John Mackenzie for television is filmed in a grainy documentary style – in part due to its shoe-string budget. It is often impossible for an engaged viewer to distinguish drama from reality and that style is what gives it much of its power on the small screen. Among these recent DVD releases the most high profile and perhaps most pertinent for Northern Irish viewers would have to be ‘Just Another Saturday’, supposedly originally written by McDougall at the behest of ‘Z Cars’ star Colin Welland whose London house he happened to be painting. Inspiringly McDougall had apparently never read a book, never mind written a drama script yet he was able to draw on his real-life experiences; those of working in the shipyards and being a drum major in the Orange parades in Glasgow (an activity which is shared by John McNeil, the main protagonist in ‘Just Another Saturday’) to create a series of stirring social commentaries. In a similar manner to local playwright Sam Thompson who wrote about sectarianism and bigotry in the Belfast shipyards, McDougall captured Glasgow, a similar city, in the midst of crises. The shipyards which like Belfast had provided so much employment to manual workers in the surrounding areas were in decline. The constitutional status of Scotland was under considerable debate, sectarianism was a societal and institutional malady and the Northern Irish conflict was spiralling out of control across the Irish Sea (Graham Walker provided an erudite analysis of some of these themes in his 1995 book ‘Intimate Strangers – Political and Cultural Interaction Between Scotland and Ulster in Modern Times’). Indeed, having been filmed in 1975 ‘Just Another Saturday’ was, like ‘Scum’ deemed so controversial at the time that its broadcast was put back for some years. Apparently during its production the head of the Glasgow police force banned its creation on seeing the script, predicting that the piece would cause social disorder during its filming and eventual screening.

In many ways the themes played out in ‘Just Another Saturday’ were relevant to the Ulster situation in the 1970s and are perhaps still just as pertinent for Belfast in the year 2007. While things are improving incrementally, it is hardly yet a cultural Xanadu. Although there are some who seem to bask in this notion, the flipside of this perceived utopia is that there has actually been a persistent decline in many communities in Belfast and beyond which have yet to taste the benefits of the ‘peace process’. Belfast playwright Gary Mitchell, who despite having his play ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ televised, has often encountered trouble in attempting to get his message across and is a dramatist who in a similar fashion to McDougall has constantly tried to project through an artistic medium the intense problems facing working class communities – in Mitchell’s case Protestant communities in Belfast as they come out of the protracted conflict. McDougall and Mitchell, while possibly unaware of each other, undoubtedly share a common narrative in that both have successfully critiqued their respective similar backgrounds and the inherent machismo, violence and divisive institutions that have dogged them and their communities, especially in a shared experience of post-industrial decline. Indeed the central characters in Mitchell’s ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ and McDougall’s ‘Just Another Saturday’ are faced with contextually similar though circumstantially incongruent choices about their destiny and identity. For Kyle in Mitchell’s play the narrowed definition of his role as a post-ceasefire Loyalist paramilitary have come to bear along with the political and economic pressures of that role (John Hill – ‘Cinema and Northern Ireland – Film, Culture and Politics). For John McNeil, the young drum major in McDougall’s play it is a matter of coming to terms with his previously concrete convictions about Orange pageantry which has been abused by Rab Williamson, who was up until the Saturday in question something of a role model for McNeil. The institutions of paramilitarism and Orangeism, which are respectively central in the urban communities written about in ‘As The Beast Sleeps’ and ‘Just Another Saturday’ come in for unflattering scrutiny in each writers’ works.

No matter what our individual opinions on the institutions subjected to analysis in these works are, it is vital that a new generation has the opportunity to appreciate Peter McDougall and John Mackenzie’s classic work from the 1970s. In ‘Just Another Saturday’ and ‘Just A Boy’s Game’ we get glimpses of social ailments – violence, bigotry and misogyny – that are still sadly prevalent on both sides of the divided city in Belfast. Perhaps if someone acts upon Peter Hain’s advice about the importance of local television drama they’ll first take a took at these DVDs, Gary Mitchell’s work and tomes similar to it in the Nationalist community and aim to give a balanced view of a society which has yet to fully transform.

Source: Fortnight Magazine, December 2007

Will it be hard to feel nostalgic about England’s current footballing elite?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

By now there will be either royal blue or red and white ribbons draped over the European Cup. The English media will proudly boast that UEFA’s showpiece final bore witness to a tussle between the top two Premier League sides for the right to be Europe’s elite. Yet something will feel slightly amiss for those who are nostalgic about English football’s rich history, and in particular the for the real glory days of English club sides.

Throughout the recent domestic league season Manchester United have correctly won plaudits by serving up their characteristically perfect blend of strong-willed defensive shut-outs and majestic attacking flair while Chelsea have, on the other hand, produced doggedly determined essays in pure grit that might only have attracted the odd dour-faced fan of Italian football which had all self-flagellators tuning in to Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons throughout the 1990s.

For all the flair and panache that those presently at the pinnacle of English football are possessed of, it still doesn’t feel like the ‘all-English’ protagonists are actually all that English. Fans of the Premier League should rightfully feel proud that Ronaldo, Tevez, Essien and Ballack have graced their stadiums over the past nine months, yet something of the buccaneering spirit that made top-flight football in England such a joy to watch has been replaced by a diluted version of the game that puts one in mind of the theatrics of, say, the WWF wrestlers of the 1980s. The demand for success at the big English clubs puts one, perhaps cynically, in mind of an essentially all-European rather than all-English European final.

Understandably the current pedigree athletes that compromise the majority of the players at United and Chelsea need protection from the pitfalls of unnecessary injury – the pitch at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium was, at the time of writing, causing some concern – yet it does make one pine for an era when bumpy surfaces were just one of the many challenges that professional footballers had to rise to on their travels. The worst that any team had to endure in the recent Premier League season was Wigan’s pitch at the JJB Stadium which admittedly, by mid-winter, looked like the cast of The Wicker Man had reunited and attempted a daily recreation of the May Day festival procession on it (though the playing surface was eventually relaid for United’s final day, title-winning visit).

The rumblings of discontent about playing surfaces over this past season in particular bring to mind a stark contrast in footballing cultures – the Nottingham Forest team which, under the curation of the genius Brian Clough, dominated Europe in 1979 and 1980 with their brand of free-flowing attractive attacking football yet had to endure continental and domestic pitches which were more akin to potato fields than bowling greens along the way.

I fancy that the highly paid current crop would struggle to adapt to the playing surfaces that faced Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Aston Villa when these sides thrived throughout English football’s heady days of the late Seventies and early Eighties. No matter how good or bad last night’s final was, and despite the fact that Liverpool have twice got to the final along with Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea over the past three years, it’s hard to imagine anyone becoming misty-eyed and nostalgic for the new glory days of English football in Europe: 2005-2008.

Source: Belfast News Letter, May 2008

Are there limits in comedy?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

A new film, Three and Out, starring former The Office actor Mackenzie Crook has fallen foul of ASLEF – the train driver’s union; the reason being that there is a perception that the film makes light of the very serious issue surrounding people committing suicide on railway lines and the effect that this has on drivers.

The comedic merits of the film are unimportant, but when Crook was challenged on the red carpet by a protestor about the content of the film and the real life implications for train drivers who had been affected by the issue it raised an important question about comedy and its possible limits.

Comedians have argued that it is their job to push the envelope and, like the court jesters of yesteryear, speak about the kind of issues that others are too timid to confront. It is interesting then when the often abstract ‘artistic license’ nature of comedy is confronted head on by the real subject, or those closely related to that reality. After Crook had told the protestor to reserve judgement until he had viewed the new film, the protestor offered to accompany him to the premiere. According to reports in the media Crook fudged the awkward proposal by telling the protestor that he didn’t think that would be allowed.

Comedy has played an important role in what is becoming an increasingly hysterical society in which people have become closer than ever before thanks to new media and social networking sites. This has had both its positives and negatives. The furore that surrounded the Brass Eye ‘paedogeddon’ special in 2001 was a tactful and positive contribution in that it admonished people’s hypocrisy in general and the irresponsible behaviour behind a certain red top’s ‘name and shame’ campaign in particular. Similarly the brilliant English comedian Stewart Lee subverted audiences around the United Kingdom in 2005, including one in Belfast, when during a routine about suicide bombers and the post-September 11th global trauma he asked the paying public to give a retrospective round of applause for the IRA. Some people were disgusted by the joke, failing to recognise that the butt of the joke was in fact the IRA – ‘decent British terrorists’ according to Lee.

The present culture is one where people seem to relish being offended. Comedy is inevitably all about perspective and choice. While one person may find a certain routine hilarious another may find it grossly offensive and vice versa. One wonders if the members of ASLEF, while of course valid in their objections to the film, have as individuals found humour in similar dark subjects that had not affected them personally. Three and Out may not find its place in cinema history but the footnote that has accompanied its release in London has re-opened a debate that will surely continue at various points for hundreds of years.

Source: Belfast News Letter, April 2008

Brown’s ‘patriotic oath’ won’t solve Britain’s identity crisis

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

The cool reception of Lord Goldsmith’s recent report, commissioned by Gordon Brown, which advised that school-leavers should be encouraged to swear an oath of allegiance to Queen and country proves that traditional notions of Britishness are antiquated and in need of an overhaul.

At a time in Britain’s modern history when the phrase ‘disunited kingdom’ has never been more appropriate the weakness of Brown’s idea is summed up by the Labour Peer Baroness Kennedy who referred to it as ‘puerile…an empty gesture’. While Goldsmith has reassured people that there is no crisis of national identity, there is certainly evidence of an anti-social behavioural crisis. It is almost impossible to engage with the written or broadcast media on a daily basis without hearing about ‘feral youths’ roaming the streets of a society which could be mistaken for the setting of an Anthony Burgess novel.

Yet Brown’s proposed oath, the citizenship ceremonies for school-leavers and the introduction of a British national day to coincide with the 2012 Olympics all conjure up analogies with a book which is held in as much reverence in popular culture as Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – George Orwell’s 1984 and its Ministry of Love. While Britain has thankfully managed to avoid lurching into a similar totalitarian nightmare it is talk of these kinds of proposals from Governments that make people feel increasingly uneasy about the freedom they have to express their individual identities.

Although not explicitly stated, Goldsmith seemingly hopes to wean young people off the ‘ultraviolence’ that has become so rampant in modern society by encouraging them to become decent British citizens. Would it be going too far to suggest that perhaps the perceived denigration of Labour’s original political values by the current crop has played its part in contributing to the apathetic attitude among many young people in the United Kingdom? By leaving the white working class without a rational political voice in an ethnically changing Britain, people living in areas such as East London and Yorkshire have become fodder for the political ambitions of the British National Party; a political organisation that has always used and added to people’s dystopia for its own repugnant manifesto. Labour could be mopping up a mess of its own making.

Perhaps rather than whipping people into their respective corners, the Government would be better advised to make sense of and celebrate the cultural diversity which exists in modern Britain. It would be better to educate people about why the character of their country is changing rather than encourage them to indulge in knee-jerk posturing that has more than a whiff of an imperial past that many people would rather leave well behind them. Citizenship and moral fibre are important traits for a country but they can’t be taught through barely disguised channels of nationalism. Rather than attempting to recapture the collective national spirit of post-war ‘austerity Britain’ it may be more useful for Brown to draw up plans for a modern nation with complimenting, rather than competing, identities.

Source: Belfast News Letter, March 2008

Day-Lewis’s craft is a notch above current celebrity culture

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

With the advent of this year’s Academy Awards being greeted with a comparatively muted level of fanfare, it was perhaps ironic that one of the film industry’s most cherished sons finally gained a second Oscar in the considerably low-key affair. Daniel Day-Lewis was awarded Best Actor for his role as Daniel Plainview; the protagonist of There Will Be Blood which is based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil! It was a mere 18 years between his current accolade and the one he received for his portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot.

What has set Day-Lewis apart during this time has been his trenchant refusal to muddle through the mainstream and appeal to the ‘norm’ of celebrity culture which has seen nonentities rise rapidly to the summit. From his fondness for unfashionable Millwall FC to his shoe-making hiatus in Florence following his role in The Boxer, Day-Lewis has fashioned a mystique that means he can operate on his own terms. It is perhaps partly this refusal to play the game that outrageously saw him leave the Academy Awards empty-handed following his excellent roles as Bill Cutting in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and Gerry Conlon in In The Name of the Father. Indeed it was the latter film, directed by Jim Sheridan, which suitably bridged the gap between the sublime (Alan Clarke’s Elephant) and the ridiculous (Nothing Personal) in the ever-expanding canon of celluloid depictions of the Northern Irish conflict.

In a similar vein to other great ‘Anglo-Irish’ figures such as Morrissey it is his enigma that has made him so appealing. Whereas many other famous British actors have come to the age of 50 with a flabby repertoire of money-making films on their CV, Day-Lewis has chosen only roles in which he can fully immerse himself without having to suffer accusations of being a charlatan. It is arguable then whether any award can do justice to the skill and craft which Day-Lewis has been possessed of through his career. Award ceremonies have now become so common across the cultural spheres of music, film, television and art that their over-inflation of celebrity ego contributes little other than a meandering addition to the television schedules. Even the viewing public has seemingly lost its appetite for events such as the Oscars, with viewing figures in America this year falling to their lowest since 1974 when the ratings system that is currently in place began. There have been suggestions that this was due to the critical if not commercial success of the fare on offer, with another excellent but moody film, No Country For Old Men winning four awards.

Surely if one thing can be realised from this year’s non-event it is the stark comparison between the graft of Daniel Day-Lewis who started out in theatre school and worked hard to become the respected actor that he is today, and the inexorable rise of nobodies who are treated by the media as ubiquitous figureheads for a dull mainstream where critical facilities among cultural consumers seem to be at an all-time low. In such a climate it is at least a moral victory to see somebody like Day-Lewis, who has proved vexing for many of those who willingly accommodate and celebrate quick-fix stardom, win out. And judging by his career thus far, he would probably enjoy the fact that it was done with the minimum of fuss.

Source: Belfast News Letter, February 2008