It’s the point!

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In 1993, my then-partner Stuart Maconie and I had a meeting in a loud Chinatown pub that’s since changed its name and become a gay bar (actually, maybe it was always a gay bar but we didn’t notice) with a gigantic, enterprising young television writer and an also-fairly-tall, equally enterprising comic actor, both in their early, postgraduate 20s. (We were both nearer to 30.) They had an idea for a radio show in which Stuart and I would play our broadcasting selves, or versions of our broadcasting selves, and the comic actor – whose name we took to be David Williams, but which he’d just changed to Walliams to avoid a clash at Equity – would play a parade of people who called in. It was a genial meeting. We were keen. We liked the men. They seemed to like us. The idea never went to the next stage, and other meetings and projects got in the way for all four of us. At the time, Stuart and I were most excited about having met the writer, Richard, who we discovered was the younger brother of Suede’s bassist Mat Osman. Mat was very much the famous Osman in 1993, and Stuart and I knew Suede well. Look! (Mat isn’t in this photo, but you get the gist of our familiarity with the younger, cooler, arseless gentlemen of Britain’s most happening band.)

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We crossed paths with the less famous, non-bass-playing Osman a year or so later, when we were put up for an audition by our new showbiz agent. This took place at the production company Heyland International, who made the computer game show GamesMaster and were looking for two new presenters for a similar but nightly show called GamesWorld. Richard worked there as a researcher – his first proper job in TV, I have since learned. If we took his presence as a lucky charm, we were wrong to do so. We gave it our best shot, commentating on some gameplay, but even though Stuart and I loved playing on the NES in my flat, we were out of depth.

All of which makes me feel a lot older, and dovetails nicely into an appreciation of Pointless, the BBC daytime quiz show that has recently passed its 1,000th edition and leaves all other daytime quiz shows in the dust. While surely nobody could object to the ease with which Alexander (“Xander”) Armstrong has slipped into the role of quiz show host, it is the high regard and public profile Pointless has bestowed upon Richard Osman that is its most important and unexpected achievement. He was, after all, a backroom boy at Endemol UK, the production company which conceived the format and according to origins fable only filled in as co-presenter in a demo for the BBC. (Execs liked him so much, they commissioned him into the format. Had he not been, he would still be one of the six who can lay claim to the format.) Quiz show hosts are traditionally drawn from the pool of recognisable entertainment figures, usually comic – think of Bob Monkhouse, Terry Wogan, Les Dawson, Bruce Forsyth, Lily Savage, Chris Tarrant, Bradley Walsh and even, latterly, Mark Williams and Mark Benton – but in the case of Pointless, a star has been born.

I have my Mum and Dad to thank for getting me hooked on Pointless. Each time I go back to Northampton to visit them and stay overnight, I willingly succumb to their routine of catching up with their favourite shows, which includes Pointless, The Chase and Only Connect, but it’s the former that proved the revelation. Its low-key geniality is deceptive; this is a true test of general knowledge in pairs and singly that’s about so much more than getting the “right” answer. While the early rounds, which eliminate two out of the four opening pairs of pals, siblings, relatives and partners, can be built around a straightforward binary right-or-wrong answer to the clue, anagram or picture, the best are those that offer up a potential pool of answers, such as US Presidents whose surname comes alphabetically between Bush and Reagan. The “pointless” part is the pivot – indeed, its “point”; whatever the composition of each round (or “pass”), the more obscure your answer, the less points you notch up.

I have been attached to Pointless for a long time now – although I cannot claim to have been in at the ground floor (a claim I cannot make for The Great British Bake Off, or Masterchef: The Professionals either, but both became staples once I saw the light) – and once you’re in, there are repeats and Celebrities editions to catch up with. It’s the gift that goes on giving. While it’s fun to see the celebrities paired up in themed shows, it’s the civilian shows that really describe the comfort and joy of the format. As the world gets darker – and I can’t remember a time since the 80s when it felt so irredeemably insane – Pointless becomes ever more of a beacon.

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It’s eight affable people who, whether academic or self-taught, take sufficient note of the world around them to take an educated guess at some assorted subjects (“Words” “Famous People” “Countries”), be they celebrities or non-celebrities – and in fact, the non-celebrities are nearly always more impressive, if not, in the case of sportspeople, more competitive. (Rhona Cameron is one of very few celebs to actually embarrass themselves on the show by being too triumphant, and for failing to stay on her mark.) When Pointless began, in 2009, the world was a much happier place. As events have ground grimly on in the intervening years, its place in the world seems ever more vital to our sanity. Even after a hard day at the coalface of sanity in the face of almost insurmountable vulgarity, avarice and violence, Pointless calms the nerves. The banter between Armstrong and Osman – warm, spontaneous, genuine, without malice – is a balm for a broken world.

The duo are co-hosting this year’s Radio Times Covers Party next week. After the ceremony, I shall be accosting that young researcher in person and volunteering for the next Pointless Celebrities with a radio theme. I got two pointless answers in the final last night – cast members of the film Rush.

If only Osman and Armstrong could co-host Earth.

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True crime

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Some late news just in. It took 27 years for the truth to be affirmed by a second inquest that the 96 people who died at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 were “unlawfully killed,” and that their senseless deaths resulted from a grossly negligent South Yorkshire police force, a failure of ambulance services to fulfil their duty of care (as well as poor design of the stadium). Not a single football supporter was to blame. The verdict, which sent a palpable wave of relief through the whole of Liverpool and was justly celebrated, led to immediate calls for action regarding the police cover-up identified by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. South Yorkshire Police chief constable David Crompton was suspended, and lawsuits are now pending.

I remember the day vividly, watching the horror unfold on live TV at a friend’s house (he was a Nottingham Forest fan), and I remember outrage at the tabloid reports. I also remember watching Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough in December 1996. It was wisely repeated on ITV at the weekend and it’s as powerful today as it was then, 20 years away from justice.

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I interviewed McGovern, something of a fan, in 1997, on location for series one of The Lakes in Glenridding, Ullswater. We ate scampi and chips in a pub, and enjoyed the clocking-off buzz of afternoon beer. Having written somewhere in the region of 80-100 episodes of Brookside, McGovern told me that he fell out with the Merseyside mandarins over a storyline he’d proposed set around Hillsborough’s first anniversary, in which Tracey Corkhill organises a public burning of the Sun. He said that one of the show’s producers, whom he described as “a bourgeois feminist”, wouldn’t buy it. So McGovern walked. He would subsequently find two outlets for his obsession with Hillsborough: the 1994 episode of Cracker, To Be A Somebody, starring an unknown Robert Carlysle as Albie Kinsella, seeking bloody payback for the tragedy at Leppings Lane; and, more head-on, the Hillsborough dramatisation itself.

I wrote: “To underestimate the impact of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Leppings Lane in 1989 on McGovern’s outlook on this country, is to undermine the man himself.” He warmed to the theme over a second pint: “What happens when an influential sector of society has total contempt for another sector, and nobody supports them? You think, My God, what have I been believing in all my life? These are my comrades, people I grew up with, held in total contempt, and treated like animals, herded into a pen and squashed to death.” (He even described Robbie Coltrane’s Fitz from Cracker as “post-Hillsborough man.”)

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Hillsborough, the “docudrama” (demeaning term), still resonates loudly with the same sense of wounded, bereaved injustice that turned to relief and affirmation last Tuesday. The two most recognisable actors in it were McGovern trustees from Brookside and Cracker, Ricky Tomlinson and Christopher Eccleston as John Glover and Trevor Hicks respectively, although McGovern fans will also have known Mark Womack (as Eddie Spearritt) from Hearts and Minds. The rest of the cast were less recognisable, which added to the verité effect. This was not a star vehicle, although watching it again now, you’re basically looking at the future casts of Clocking Off and Shameless; so many people making such an impact in small roles and securing careers. It’s packed with believable, emotional acting performances, chief among them Eccleston’s controlled anger, Tomlinson’s collapse into grief, Annabelle Apsion’s almost unbearable refusal to accept the truth as Jenni Hicks, and Maurice Roeves implacable but fallible as Chief Superintendent Duckenfield. Interesting, too, to see Tony Pitts, future stalwart of Red Riding and Peaky Blinders, as a fresh-faced PC in the control booth, and a young Stephen Walters as the tragic Ian Glover (then: Growler off Brookie; now: Dickensian, Outlander, The Village).

It may be McGovern’s finest hour, and it has a lot of hours to compete with. The clarity with which the build-up to catastrophe is paced; the decision when to let the screen go blank, and when to home in on the grief and despair; the power of simple instructions in the infrastructure of self-interest and cover-up, such as the officer telling younger constables not to put any of it in their notebooks (and one defying his order, saying, “Put everything in”). Director Charles McDougall, who went to the US and has recently directed episodes of The Good Wife and House Of Cards, manages to make the disaster itself as tense as a thriller and yet repellent at the same time – you can hardly bear to watch – and captures the moments of humanity in the immediate aftermath with minimal melodrama. This is really happening, before our very eyes.

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Hillsborough is available to view for 28 days. If you watched it at the time, please do watch it again; if you didn’t, or are too young to remember the day itself, please put aside preconceptions about HD and sit down with it. (Actually, the grainy ’90s look assists in its newsreel-like verisimilitude.) You won’t forget it in a hurry. I remember it as clearly as when I first saw it 20 years ago. If ITV Drama seems to be going through another renaissance at the moment, Granada was in a purple patch in the 90s, with Gub Neal and Nicola Schindler producing Cracker, Hillsborough, Band Of Gold and Prime Suspect. (Her Red Productions would subsequently make Clocking Off, which arguably made more stars than Skins.)

Like Fitz, we are all “post-Hillsborough,” but what McGovern meant by that in 1997, it no longer means in 2016.

Check the guy’s track record

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The People Vs OJ Simpson (FX; showing here on BBC2) comes under the anthology title American Crime Story, itself spun off from the anthology title American Horror Story, the ingeniously regenerative device of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk that has given us the thoroughly unpleasant Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show and Hotel (I watched all of the first three with glee, but bailed on Freak Show and have boycotted Hotel because Lady Gaga seems to be in it). Despite the wily, self-aggrandising rebrand, The People Vs OJ Simpson is a horror story as well as a crime story. Murphy and Falchuk treat those two impostors just the same. In their eyes, all stories are camp. This would remain the case if they launched American Sports Story, or American Accounting Story. And I hope they do.

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I know the OJ saga is in the public domain (and I remember the highlights of the legal circus from the time), but I have taken an unusual path with The People Vs OJ: I bought the book. I became instantly smitten with the show: its heightened tone, its showboat casting, its fixed setting at eleven. And after two episodes (there are ten), I sent off for Jeffery Toobin’s The Run Of His Life, published in 1997, which seems to reign as the definitive article. Five episodes in now, and I’ve finished reading it, unable to put it down. Way more than a court transcript, it does what the New Yorker does, which is to say: humanise reams of information. (Toobin began his story covering the trial for the New Yorker, and quickly became part of it, when police detective Mark Fuhrman sued defence lawyer Bob Shapiro, Toobin and the magazine over a leak.)

I usually make a point of not reading books that are going to be made into films. Indeed, I’ve been evangelical about it in the past. But I read Room by Emma Donaghue specifically because I knew it was coming out as a film, and I was glad I did. Even though it meant I knew where the story was going when I subsequently saw it, I felt that the experience of reading it (told from the point of view of the captive five year old son) was improved by having no pre-warning. I started reading High-Rise by JG Ballard in advance of the film, too, and in doing so, I better understand why the film didn’t quite work: it’s JG Ballard’s fault! Reading The Run Of His Life has been entirely different. We all know the outcome. We watched it on the news in 1995. Toobin’s book is predicated on the understanding that we know the ending, and that the ending is a grotesque travesty of justice; that OJ Simpson did murder Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in cold blood.

The book was safe to read. But having now read it, I am getting so much more out of the TV show. I know that it’s based on fact. It’s a matter of record. Sure, it’s exaggerated for effect – in real life, Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran’s legal team did not file into Judge Ito’s courtroom in slow motion on the day that they discovered that the prosecution had strategically added Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden to the team, nor did they do so to the lowdown mid-90s G-funk tune Black Superman – but it’s factually accurate, it’s on the books (it was on Court TV, if you cared to watch it, and lived in America). Any surgical enhancement by the writers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, D. V. DeVincentis, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky and Joe Robert Cole is rooted in fact. Except maybe the retro-fitted bits featuring the Kardashians. But the case is open and shut. If I hadn’t read the book, I might not have believed what went on actually went on.

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It’s a cliché, but you couldn’t make it up. When prosecutor William Hodgman (Christian Clemenson) has a panic attack and faints in court, as a viewer, you’re assuming this must be made up. It’s dramatised for effect, but it pretty much happened. There it is on page 259 of Toobin’s account: “Hodgman noticed a strange feeling in his chest … a tightening … the sensation didn’t go away … paramedics were called.” That the actual trial descended into grave farce is a gift. I can’t wait for the black glove. I can’t wait for prosecutor Marcia Clark’s mid-trial haircut, according to Toobin “a much-admired transformation that landed her hairdresser on Oprah.” (Sarah Paulson is my favourite among a stellar cast – I’ve seen pictures of Clark and the resemblance is sound, although it’s reading about her on the page that paints the clearest picture and Paulson has worked it all into her performance.)

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Dramatising “actual events” is a common thread on modern TV, true crime is so fashionable people will even listen to it on a podcast, never mind on glossy cable TV, and actors seem to spend most of their careers now doing “karaoke” turns as real people. But we all accept  artistic licence, otherwise you’re literally just watching great actors read out transcripts. The skill, I think, with The People Vs OJ, is in organising the material in such a way that it slots neatly into ten episodes. See how they used the famous white Bronco chase to tease us from episode one into episode two (“The Bronco’s gone!” gulps David Schwimmer’s pathetic Robert Kardashian, a line that only works if we know exactly where the Bronco has gone and is going). Episode five ends with an imagined vignette of Furhman listening to what sounds like Wagner while admiring an Iron Cross among his collection of Nazi memorabilia. This was a cheaper trick – like a cliffhanger from Dallas – but it works as television. And this is fabulous television.

Just let me know when American Gardening Story starts and I’ll be there.