Tuesday 16 July 2019

John Boland's week in TV: Big Mac takes centre court and a lesson in soccer punditry

 

Silver server: John McEnroe with wife Patty Smyth (left) and Sue Barker (right)
Silver server: John McEnroe with wife Patty Smyth (left) and Sue Barker (right)

John Boland

When it came to tennis, John McEnroe had nothing but "respect" for his great rival Jimmy Connors, but otherwise Connors was "the greatest a-hole that ever lived". Then he paused before adding, "but so am I".

He's not, though, and this was made abundantly clear throughout John McEnroe: Still Rockin' at 60 (BBC1), which was fronted by Sue Barker and screened on the eve of Wimbledon fortnight.

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I haven't enjoyed a celebrity profile so much in a long time. Yes, there was a hint of hagiography about it, but Barker is such a seasoned and sensible interviewer that she kept the whole thing grounded, and anyway her subject is so adept at self-deprecation that the hour just zipped along.

The tennis brat who became famous four decades ago for his on-court outbursts at umpires ("You CanNOT be serious!") grew up middle-class in the New York borough of Queens, his fierce ambition coming from parents whose attitude was "If you got to the final at Wimbledon, why didn't you win it?" It's difficult, he said, "when, whatever you do, it's not enough".

He played hard, finally winning against Björn Borg ("I love Björn Borg") and he partied hard, old pal Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders recalling that whenever he came to London "he always gave me a call" because "he thought I might have some pot. I wasn't a big pothead, but he was". And McEnroe himself observed that, unlike those athletes who seek performance-enhancement aids, "in our day we were using performance-detracting drugs".

Now, of course, he's become a much-loved Wimbledon pundit, both witty and knowledgeable and mischievous, too - standing on Centre Court this week and drolly thanking Barker for making him look good in the previous night's profile. But he seems a good guy, anyway, a lover of music and art and the creator of a tennis academy for children.

And he's clearly very close to his family - his rock musician wife and his daughters speaking of him with much fondness - and you got the sense that this means more to him than anything else. Meanwhile, enjoy him at Wimbledon, where he enlivens the coverage no end.

The FIFA Women's World Cup (RTÉ2/TG4/BBC1) has been enlivening, too. And all credit to the BBC, RTE and TG4 for electing to screen every single game, just as is routinely done with major male sporting events.

Up to now, women's sport, especially football and rugby, has been patronised, indeed scoffed at, by a male media establishment intent on belittlement, with only Serena Williams and a few other female athletes given any real respect.

But this World Cup has shown that not only is women's football just as skilful and exciting as men's, it also mostly eschews the histrionics (the diving, the writhing around, the tantrums, the monstrous egos) that so disfigure the male game, in which for every Lionel Messi there's a hundred overpaid posturing prats.

It's also shown up the wretched level of most male soccer punditry.

Earning £1.75m a year, Gary Lineker may be the highest paid BBC presenter, but Gabby Logan is just as good, while her women panellists during this tournament (all of them former players) have been far more articulate and interesting than most of Lineker's mumbling muppets.

So, too, with Darragh Maloney's RTÉ2 panel, again comprising women players who have genuine insights and who communicate them without any of the grandstanding to which some of RTÉ's revered male pundits subject the viewer.

Let's hope this tournament hasn't been a media one-off and that women's sport is finally on the way to getting the coverage it deserves.

Shown first on the film circuit, The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid (RTÉ1) came festooned with critical plaudits, but I found it so dreary as to seem interminable.

Clocking in at almost 90 minutes, Feargal Ward's film concerned a middle-aged farmer whose 72-acre property outside Leixlip adjoined the campus of American tech giant Intel, which wished to expand its operation. And so the IDA served a compulsory purchase order on the farmer, who kept insisting that his house and lands, which had been in his family for generations, were not for sale.

This was an interesting subject for a documentary, but the director opted to focus almost entirely on the farmer himself as he trudged around his land or sat in ramshackle rooms filled with old newspapers, VHS tapes of Dallas, pop LPs from the 1980s and various other bric-a-brac.

Crucially, there was no narrator and so the viewer learnt nothing about Reid's age, ­background or family circumstances and had to try to piece together (mainly, in my case, from the internet) the basic facts of his legal battle with the IDA, which seemingly he won on appeal to the Supreme Court, though where he got the money to pursue the case remained a mystery. The IDA representative and the legal people were played by actors, or at least I think they were, and there were bizarre set-ups featuring begowned and bewigged lawyers standing in fields and farmyards declaiming their verdicts.

Meanwhile, Reid remained just as unknowable at the end as at the start.

The Brexit Party's Nigel Farage wasn't amused by this week's episode of Year of the Rabbit (Channel 4). "That's Neil Fromage", said Inspector Rabbit (Matt Berry) of a soapbox speaker in Victorian London ranting about immigration. "He's got extreme views". Then Fromage was shot in the head by a mysterious sniper.

"Totally sick and frankly irresponsible", said Farage, and he should know.

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