TV UK, 27 September

Reality chariot racing and human interest football.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

Recreating an ancient Roman chariot race for TV sounds like a terrific idea. What could be more entertaining than watching people risking their lives hurtling around a track at breakneck speed in the wake of huge slavering animals?

But Chariot Race (Channel 4, last Monday) managed to blow it by employing the infuriating conventions of reality TV. Instead of simply presenting us with the race in all its glory, the producers decided that what we would really be interested in was the process of putting the event together. The result was an immensely unsatisfactory blend of travel show, docusoap and ‘real-life history’ programme (1).

First we were shown a picturesque estate in Spain, and told that ‘for the next two weeks’ this would be the project’s base, where the contestants would struggle against the clock to learn how to drive horses. Arbitrary deadlines are a favourite device in this genre, making a virtue of what is presumably a financial necessity.

Then we were introduced to would-be charioteers (a motley selection of thrill-seeking numbskulls), their wily old trainer (straight out of one of those films about the veteran coach who has to train a failing football/basketball/baseball team to beat the champions and save their town/factory/pub), and the resident historian (with books and everything).

Nuggets of information about real ancient Roman charioteers were interspersed with ‘reality’ nonsense about the personality clashes among the contestants, as their pieces to camera became more and more self-indulgent and annoying. However authentic the race might have been, the personalities involved were anything but.

Proper documentary maker Bernard Clark has suggested that reality TV is a contradiction in terms and a dead end, and that TV’s redemption lies in live sport (2). Since chariot racing seems to be a bit of a stretch, it seems natural to turn to football. Following what was generally acknowledged to be the worst World Cup in history this summer, all eyes are on the new UEFA Champions’ League campaign.

As I have argued before though (3), football on TV can be very boring if you don’t particularly care who wins. I suppose that’s why programmes like There’s Only One George Best (BBC1, last Wednesday) try to provide football with a human interest element. Oddly, the humans in ‘human interest’ always seem to be bored housewives. Speaking of which, I am slightly curious about the dark stain on David Beckham’s shirt at Leverkusen on Tuesday – is he on Vick’s?

A little more usefully, Futbol Mundial (Sky Sports 1, Wednesdays at 9.30pm) provides background information on the history, the rivalries and the players involved in leagues around the world. I watched the first half of Liverpool versus Basle on Wednesday night, which was pretty action-packed. But the real fascination was in witnessing Michael Owen’s continuing goal drought. Undoubtedly a little knowledge of the personal stakes can brighten the game.

Tellingly though, Arsenal’s victory in Eindhoven on Wednesday was dropped from ITV1 so as not to disrupt Coronation Street. Housewives know the difference between a real soap opera and a fake one. Football, like chariot racing, is better left to the diehards.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

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(1) Other examples of this naff genre include The Trench, The 1900s House and The Frontier House. See TV UK, 11 July

(2) Clark makes this suggestion in Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(3) TV UK, 9 March 2001

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Topics Politics


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