Sunday, 31 January 2010

BrokenTV’s THTSOT 00s: Numbers 12 and 11

A double update!

imageLittle-known media fact: Osbourne’s Big Book Of Lazy Television Commercial Stereotypes is referred to constantly by every advertising agency in the land. Sure, they’ll try and claim the book doesn’t even exist, and some idiot is making the whole thing up, but they’re lying, it does. In the book, there’s a chapter on “Advertising to Men”, which begins with a list of hackneyed and obvious male character traits. Not so the ‘creatives’ that we’ve come to know and love from hugely popular shows like The Persuasionists [SUB: please check] can avoid these clichés, you understand, it’s so they ensure as many as possible are crammed into every adverting spot they produce. The list is a handy time saver for them, as it gives them lots of extra time to go on YouTube, looking for ideas to steal.

Anyway, on the list, in between “Men always go to the pub in groups of three” and “Men are rubbish at everyday household tasks if their wife or girlfriend is watching” is the maxim that “Men place way too much importance on the sport called ‘football’”. Now, you may well scoff at that last one – a bit too banal, surely (not us, we are genuinely trying to watch Arsenal-Man United on our second monitor and Ghana-Egypt on TV at the same time as writing this), but BBC Two documentary series Frontline Football really does highlight the importance of The World’s Greatest Sport.

Frontline Football was a follow-up to 2004 BBC Four series Holidays In The Danger Zone, where BBC reporter and journalist Ben Anderson, along with Simon Reeve, visited nations such as North Korea, Iran, Libya, Cambodia, and assorted other dangerous locales. Frontline Football was presented by Anderson alone, with each of the four episodes looking at a single qualifying match for the 2006 World Cup, between one or more conflict-strewn nations. While two of the programmes saw Anderson travel with the teams themselves (DR Congo and Palestine), two followed the supporters of the teams involved (Colombia, and both sets of fans for the first meeting between Bosnia and Serbia since the war in Former Yugoslavia).

While the episodes following the supporters were hugely interesting, as you’d expect, the two episodes closely following the teams themselves were truly remarkable. The episode following the Palestine national team, and their build up to a match against Iraq, told of the struggle the players go through to even compete at a competitive level. With the few remaining patches of ground suitable for training likely to be bombed on a daily basis, and with the team unable to even train together because of travel restrictions, team organisers were left with a near insurmountable task to even complete their qualifying campaign at all. With many players barred from leaving the country – a problem made worse by the team’s ‘home’ matches taking place in Qatar due to security concerns – organisers resorted to advertising on the internet, seeking players with Palestine heritage from overseas. This leads to a team including players from Lebanon, Kuwait, Chile and beyond taking to the field in an empty stadium for the match, a team including Morad Fareed, a New York-based lawyer with Palestinian parents who pays all his own expenses, just for the chance of representing their country.

A fascinating story in itself, but it was the opening episode of the series that really sticks in our memory. This followed the “Democratic” Republic of Congo national team in their build-up to a vital qualifying match with South Africa. While most of the Congolese team were based in the war-torn country itself, living in impoverished conditions and fearful for the lives of themselves and their families, one team member, Lomana LuaLua was playing for Portsmouth in the Premiership, and had paid for their training equipment for his from his own pocket. The promise of possibly being spotted by a scout from a European club was enough to give the home-based players extra drive and incentive to perform, in the hope that they might soon be able to take their families to a new, safer life, and their cause was helped by the appointment of experienced French manager Claude LeRoy.

LeRoy was another interesting character in this tale – a one-time Cambridge United manager who looks uncannily like a Gallic doppelganger of Timothy Spall, he remained resolutely upbeat in the face of the many problems facing his team. One part of the documentary saw LeRoy convince the authorities that with no suitable training pitches in DR Congo itself, the team’s chances would be improved if they could travel to a training camp in France, allowing them to prepare for their must-win match against South Africa without distraction. All seemed to be going well, but at the conclusion of a training match against a local non-league side, two players promptly decided to do a runner – without any of their possessions, wearing only their kit and boots. The Congolese authorities back home were so incensed by this – LeRoy had promised them this wouldn’t happen – they demanded the remainder of the team return immediately, leaving the luckless LeRoy to pay the hotel bill with his own credit card.

A world away from the glossy, moneyed, high definition sponsored by Barclays Premier League, Frontline Football is a programme that can be enjoyed by even the most fervent soccersceptic. Indeed, throughout the entire series, there are only short scenes of football matches actually taking place. This is a documentary series showing the people involved in the sport, showing what they go through just to be able to take part in the sport, both as players, managers and supporters, and what they will go through to represent their nation.

While the series doesn’t seem to have been released on DVD, two episodes are available on YouTube and Google Video:

Palestine vs Iraq (YouTube, multipart)
Bosnia vs Serbia (YouTube, multipart) (Google Video, in one part)



We'd argue that the biggest development in British television over the last decade has been the launch of BBC Four. Rising from the ashes of well-meaning but underperforming (and buried at the arse-end of the ‘documentaries’ section of the Sky Digital EPG where no-one would think of looking for it) BBC Knowledge, BBC Four has been, as you'll know, home to innumerable factual programmes of interest, but if the channel has a flagship documentary strand, it's Time Shift.

Whereas most documentary series take on more weighty subjects (take your pick: JFK, Nazis, sharks, how Nazi sharks plotted to kill JFK), Time Shift looks at the history of topics that haven't been covered dozens of times elsewhere. The history of the British pub, long-wiped BBC programmes, supermarkets, British computer games, Red Robbo, Nigel Kneale, Malcolm Muggeridge or Jack Rosenthal have all been given the Time Shift treatment. At the time of writing this, we're eagerly looking forward to a programme on cryptic crosswords. Cryptic crosswords! It's an hour long! That's a wonderful thing.

Slightly annoyingly, the strand seems to be undersold by the BBC of late. The BBC Four website no longer creates support pages for new Time Shift programmes, and many listings guides don't even mention which programmes carry the Time Shift branding, but it is still there, carrying on the good work, almost unseen, rarely promoted (the BBC website mentions the strand is now on it’s ninth series, though we don’t think we’ve ever seen it promoted as an actual series), always interesting. Long may it continue.


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