Essays: This sporting life |
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This sporting life

THE WORDS of doom came early when England faced up to Italy in the European Football Championship (ITV). ‘England as yet haven’t really penetrated.’ Surely it could not be long before somebody asked: ‘Can England pierce the Italian wall of blue?’

‘Can England pierce the Italian wall of blue?’ somebody asked. At half time the experts knew what needed to be done. ‘Keep playing like we are. Push forward a little bit more.’ There could only be one end to the liturgy. ‘A shattering blow, Ron.’ But all hope was not lost. There was still the chance of a third-place play-off, if Easter Island beat West Germany 12-0. Meanwhile it was agreed that Several of Our Lads were As Good as Any in the World — a nice contrast to the way the Italians carried on when their azzurri were knocked out of the World Cup. Some of the more sober Italian newspapers had to run editorials assuring the boys that it was all right to come home.

But enough of football, which must by now be due to take a few weeks’ holiday from our screens in preparation for next season. Meanwhile there is tennis, currently winding up for its mercifully quick climax at Wimbledon. In the Crossley Carpets Tennis Trophy (ITV) Evonne Cawley, née Goolagong, found yet another way of losing to Chris Evert-Lloyd, née Evert. On a rival channel, John McEnroe took the Stella Artois Grass Court Championship (BBC2). Stella Artois, née Bloggs, must have been proud of her new champion. ‘He’s been,’ breathed a voice-over, ‘absolutely impeccable.’ Which probably means that he’s waiting for Wimbledon before he goes bananas.

Golf is the only sport that has snooker beaten as a television event. Mediocre golf is like mediocre anything else, but top-level golf is like chess in Cinerama, especially when Nicklaus is playing, as he was with bells on in the United States Open Golf Championship (BBC2), beamed live from New Jersey by satellite. In the past couple of years the Golden Bear has been showing signs of fallibility, thereby disturbing at least one of his admirers not a little. (I should explain at this point that I have an arrangement with Nicklaus whereby he plays my golf for me. Mario Andretti does my driving, and he, too, has lately been finishing out of the money. The only thing wrong with my system of vicarious universal sporting dominance is that my representatives grow old along with me).

But this time Nicklaus found his old touch, using it to win his fourth US Open and umpteenth major title. Not that his victory was a doddle. Aoki, in particular, showed no inclination to let the great man win in a walk. Of all the tests this mighty occasion made of Nicklaus’s character, perhaps the fiercest was that he had Aoki as his playing partner for four days. If Aoki had shown up each morning wearing a bandana around his head and come running at Nicklaus with a little sword, he might have been easier on the nerves. Instead he plugged away only two strokes behind, inscrutable as Yamamoto. One bogey from Nicklaus or one eagle from Aoki and the harbour would have been full of burning ships.

Harry Carpenter coped nobly with the tension. Every time there was a commercial break in America, the BBC switched us back to Harry in London, presumably acting on the twin assumptions that we would find Harry both less corrupting and more exciting. ‘It’s early yet to say he’s definitely won,’ Harry kept saying, thereby putting his analytical finger on the very thing that makes golf so interesting, namely that the game is never fully wrapped up until all the leading contenders are in the clubhouse.

Tony Jacklin sat with Harry. If Jacklin’s admiration for Nicklaus was not wholly free of envy, there was nothing mean about the envy — his generous praise of the champion did him credit. Nicklaus himself is never expansive, although when he birdied the 17th he allowed himself the indulgence of a smile, of which we were several times given a slow-motion replay, that we might study the dimples. Holding his Zero in a tight turn, Aoki saw white vortices form at the Bearcat’s wing-tips as it turned even tighter and disappeared behind him. Then he went down on fire into the sea.

Apart from which, not a lot happened on television. Wonder Woman (BBC1) moved to a new slot on Tuesday — her most convincing leap so far. Her super powers are strangely inconsistent. In the latest episode she had to climb on a horse in order to chase a horse. In previous episodes she would have done the job on foot. Perhaps her initial charge of supernatural energy is running down.

The same can’t be said of Spike Milligan, back again in Q9 (BBC2). He is no less inventive than ever, but he is no better organised either, so only about every third number comes off. Milligan finds certain things automatically funny which, when you think about them, are automatically funny, such as eating cheese and tomato sandwiches or impersonating a German officer. In this latter role he screams into a telephone: ‘Nein, nein, nein!’ The next thing you hear is a police car arriving. For several reasons this is not a joke that a German would easily get.

Wrecked by the ITV strike, Love Among the Artists (Granada) is now back on the rails. I shall watch it for John Stride, who speaks lines as they are meant to be spoken, but I am not sure that anyone wrote these particular lines as they were meant to be written. If Shaw had ever turned his own novel into a play he would have made the dialogue speakable.

Inside a Multinational (BBC2) came to an end, with Philpott quietly chuffed by the scale of operations in the North Sea. He is a good reporter, but on this occasion his job was made easy by a plushly rewarding subject. The rag trade, currently in the doldrums, is less inspiring. Nevertheless Thames Report (Thames) gave it a gripping going-over. Cameras were there to see small firms going bust. Why nobody cried was a puzzle. Perhaps the people involved — most of them Bangladeshi refugees with a lot of children — didn’t understand the word ‘liquidation.’

According to Panorama (BBC1), Pakistan is developing its own A-bomb, with Libya’s support. The thought of Zia and Gadafi sharing the title of First Kook to Get the Bomb was not comforting. Nor, if you needed entertainment, were there many British programmes to supply it. Luckily some of the American imports continue to be reliably diverting. Both Barney Miller (Thames) and Taxi (BBC1) are full of well crafted gags, while Lou Grant (Thames) is a pleasant cocktail of impeccable liberal sentiments and neatly written characterisation. When we’ve learned to do that sort of thing better we’ll have a right to sneer. Until then, whacko for US cultural imperialism.

The Observer, 22nd June 1980