This year everyone has been talking about the Senna documentary, including me. But while praise for Senna has come from F1 fans and non-fans alike, I have been more impressed by another sport documentary from this year — Bobby Fischer Against the World.
Chess may seem like an unlikely game to take to the big screen. But chess comes alive in this riveting documentary about one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century.
The term ‘flawed genius’ may be an overused cliche, but if it applies to anyone surely it is Bobby Fischer. The film tells the story of how a variety of factors contributed to a great man’s decline.
The centrepiece of the film is the famous 1972 World Chess Championship match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. The individual American took on the might of the Soviet chess system, which had dominated world chess for a quarter of century. This Cold War face-off had as much political significance as chess significance, as is cleverly illustrated through the use of archive news footage.
But the chess itself is never forgotten. The significant moments of the match are explained in a very vivid and accessible manner. I would guess that little or no chess knowledge is required in order to enjoy this film. The world’s most popular board game doesn’t have a sexy image, but after watching this film you wonder why.
But what stays with you is the tale of Fischer’s decline. This is where this film excels over Senna. It is a painfully honest assessment of the downsides of Bobby Fischer’s character. In the Senna hagiography, the driver’s flaws are only ever briefly brought up, and even then it is only to sweep them straight under the carpet.
In contrast, Bobby Fischer Against the World in unafraid to shine the torchlight on the enigma of the world’s greatest chess player who managed to alienate everyone he knew. At times it is painful and embarrassing to watch as a successful man becomes a delusional, anti-American, antisemitic and all-round offensive man.
In doing so, the film paints a genuinely complete picture of one of the 20th century’s most significant figures in sport. Senna, in contrast, only skims the surface.
I went to see Friends with Benefits a few weeks ago, and it was pretty awful. The highlight is one funny joke about iPads in the middle. The rest is just mush. No harm in that of course. But the great thing is that I saw it in Dundee, at the Odeon, which is about a ten minute drive away from the DCA.
It’s funny because I was only just thinking about how extraordinarily well-served by cinemas Dundee is. I live about a 40 minute walk away from three cinemas. Two are “mainstream”, and the other is the DCA, which usually shows films that the others wouldn’t. The DCA shows some films that I really like. While the two mainstream ones may not be in the “town centre”, at least they are there.
Where I used to live, in Kirkcaldy, no such luck. There is the Adam Smith Theatre, which shows a small selection of films that were on general release six months ago. Besides that, you had to go to Dunfermline, a half hour drive away, then drive to the outskirts of that to get to the nearest cinema.
Off the top of my head, I think I have seen six films at the cinema this year. Three of them were at the DCA; the other three were at the Odeon (one of these films was also shown at the DCA). Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe I’m just a snob. But the three I saw at the DCA were by far and away the better three.
I understand the arguments against the public subsidy for the DCA. But the idea that, if the DCA wasn’t there, a multiplex Odeon would magically sprout up in the city centre, is a tad fanciful.
Cinemas are rare beasts these days. It’s no conspiracy. It’s because commercially it doesn’t add up the way it used to because of changes in society (for the positive) over the past few decades. With this in mind, I have felt lucky to live somewhere with as many as three cinemas nearby.
After moving to Dundee a year ago, the DCA quickly became one of my favourite things about the city and I celebrate its existence. The great thing is that, for those who do not like what is shown at the DCA, there are two other cinemas that are just a stone’s throw away (even if they are not in the “town centre”).
I would hate for the most unique cinema of the three to go.
I am not an extreme railway enthusiast, although I do find railways quite interesting. I only knew that Steam existed when I happened to pass it on the train a few weeks earlier on a separate journey.
I decided I wanted to visit, and it was quite convenient that I managed to incorporate it into my holiday. It is very easy to get to by rail, being just a stone’s throw away from Swindon railway station.
The museum is very comprehensive. It is not just a collection of old trains. The very first thing you see when you enter is a mocked-up back office. I wandered into a small room to find myself walking in on a worker being given a row by his boss for turning up late for work! Quite amusing.
From there, you go on to learn about the processes of building a steam locomotive, step by step.
Then, finally, you are presented with the finished product. This is Caerphilly Castle.
This is just one example of the excellent way exhibits are presented at Steam. A staircase allows you to walk straight underneath the locomotive to give a view of the underside.
After that, there are exhibits about the building of the railway itself. You learn about the Box Tunnel, and the Great Western Railway’s original unusual, but superior, broad gauge.
This is perhaps the most fun part of the museum. There is an awesome train driving simulator, and games that demonstrate the difficult job signalmen had.
Then you pay a visit to a mock GWR railway station.
The station contains objects like clocks, benches and vending machines of the steam period. But the highlight for me was the brilliant silver-plated locomotive-shaped coffee pot.
This was used at Swindon railway station, which apparently was notorious for its awful refreshments. Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself complained about it, with audio of his complaint playing out in the mock railway station. The display describes it as a “foul brew”, but you cannot deny that it was gloriously presented.
After you have looked around the railway station, it is time to enter ‘Speed to the West’, which is all about the efforts made to attract tourists to use the Great Western Railway. Among the exhibits are old slot machines, which you can still try out for 20p.
“See your own country first,” one poster implores. “There is a great similarity between Cornwall and Italy in shape, climate and natural features.”
This was another highlight for me. I have a particular fascination with the visual identity and graphic design of railways.
It would have been really great if I could buy some prints of old GWR posters from the souvenir shop, but sadly they didn’t sell anything like this. I made do with a GWR keyring and three bottles of beer that were brewed by the Box Steam Brewery, based near the Box tunnel.
I also pressed a penny to emboss it with the GWR logo. I haven’t done that in years, but it is always quite a nice and inexpensive souvenir of a visit.
All-in-all I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Steam, and would highly recommend that you pay a visit if you happen to be in the Swindon area.
I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about the rioting at looting that has been taking place in parts of the UK. But I fully support the sentiment behind Operation Cup Of Tea, the “Anti-Riot” that took place on Facebook and Twitter at 8.30pm today.
If you follow Formula 1 online, it has been absolutely impossible to avoid the hype. Films about Formula 1 do not get made often. It is highly unusual for so much footage to have been prised out of Bernie Ecclestone. When you factor in that the film is about Ayrton Senna, a driver who has reached an almost legendary status, it was inevitable that this film would attract a lot of attention.
Moreover, the film has been met with near (although not quite) universal approval. Seasoned film critics and those with no interest in motorsport have lapped it up enthusiastically.
So it has been a painful wait. I was delighted to learn that it was being shown at my local cinema, so I took the first opportunity to watch it.
I found the film truly engrossing and hugely emotional. The story of Senna’s career — or at least one version of it — is very well told. Some of the footage, particularly of drivers’ briefings and the like, is absolutely astonishing.
The film’s treatment of Alain Prost has come under a lot of scrutiny. It is said that Prost is cast as the villain of the film. I was relieved that his treatment was not as bad as I had feared.
I actually felt that Prost comes across quite well in the film — though this may be for ideological reasons, and that I already understand the Prost–Senna rivalry. It is easy to see why, in a film that celebrates Senna’s approach, others may feel that Prost’s alternative approach to racing does not come across so well.
In fairness to the filmmakers, I think it does illustrate that the frosty tensions between Senna and Prost had thawed in the final months of Senna’s life. We see Senna embracing Prost on the podium at the 1993 Australian Grand Prix, Prost’s reaction to Senna’s fatal crash from the TF1 commentary box and Prost as a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral. A caption at the film’s climax also displays the fact that Prost is a trustee of the Ayrton Senna Foundation.
Important details skipped
However, I do feel that the film does not get across just how controversial Ayrton Senna was. The only time it is really tackled is in a relatively brief clip of Jackie Stewart’s famous interrogation of Senna’s dangerous driving.
I was also disappointed in how little of Senna’s career is actually covered. The film skips straight from karting into F1, then practically fast-forwards to the Prost–Senna rivalry, which is clearly the meat of the film. Thereafter, the 1992 and 1993 seasons get the briefest look in. In the process, the championship victories of Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost are belittled, particularly through the skilful vilification of the Williams car.
After the film had finished, I felt like only a handful of incidents had been covered. I was left feeling that only a superficial account of Senna’s career had been presented.
I can fully understand why this is so. There is a limit to what Bernie Ecclestone will allow. So the filmmakers are left with the quandry of how to sum up an amazing driver’s entire career in the time it takes to complete just one grand prix.
I also found myself being annoyed by tiny details that I felt detracted from the authenticity of the film. For instance, almost all of the source footage must have been shot in 4:3, but the film is in a different aspect ratio, meaning that all of the footage is cropped. When much of the footage is blurry enough as it is, this doesn’t help.
A significant proportion of the film also contains a blurred-out Globo DOG, with a new one superimposed on top of it (presumably to meet the requirements of the Brazilian broadcaster). Then there are the mock TV captions that crop up throughout the film.
These are small details, but I found them irritating me. To me, they detract from the cinematic mood.
When I read about the edits that have been made to some of the footage, particularly the sound, my eyebrows were raised. “They managed to change it, so it’s very authentic,” says Manish Pandey. It reminds me of a line from the Pulp song Bad Cover Version: “Electronically reprocessed to give a more lifelike effect.”
Intense and emotional
Having said that, the film is no less gripping as a result of all these niggles. I felt the grin across my face as I watched Senna’s awesome driving in the Toleman and the Lotus. The events of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend are well-handled and emotional to watch.
However, here it does once again feel that certain events are rushed through. Rubens Barrichello and Roland Ratzenberger are both only briefly introduced before their crashes are shown. Not much time is reserved to dwell upon these events, even though Ratzenberger’s death was, for me, the most emotional part of the film to watch.
Summing up Senna
All-in-all, Senna is a brilliant, emotional film packed with extraorindary footage and with a well-constructed story. But the time constraint, and (let’s face it) the requirement to make a film that would be commercially successful, did leave me feeling as though only the tip of the iceberg was considered.
In fact, for me, the Top Gear feature from last year summed up exactly what Senna was all about in only 13 minutes. It outlines exactly what made Senna so different to other drivers, and was not afraid to investigate his controversial racing style while also underlining his parodoxical concern for safety.
The Senna film sets out to do something different. So in this respect I was slightly disappointed in the fact that the film is a celebration of Senna’s career, and not a thorough factual account of it. However, as a celebration of Senna’s career, it is difficult to imagine how this film could be improved, beyond being longer. I am eagerly anticipating the DVD release.
In the early 1990s, the BBC ran a short-lived service called BBC Select. It was designed to deliver highly specialist programming to narrow audiences. The programmes were broadcast after BBC One or BBC Two had stopped broadcasting for the day.
This example demonstrates the sort of thing BBC Select did. This is a programme about the Disability Working Allowance.
BBC Select was notable for using scrambled broadcasts. Anyone who wanted to receive BBC Select broadcasts had to buy a set-top box that would decode the signal and set your video cassette recorder to record it.
This video shows the scrambling in action. You need to fast forward to around 5:25 in this video. Alternatively, you can wait patiently through the four minute long ident — typically over-the-top for the 1990s!
Is this the greatest theme tune ever? And have you ever heard the full version of it?
I bet many don’t know about the guitar break in the middle!
I reckon you could probably tell how old someone is by what pictures they associate the boing with. For me, it is a snooker ball going down a pocket — or that goalkeeper’s handstand save. Sadly I haven’t been able to find either of these on YouTube.
Here are a few of the title sequences from over the years.
Grandstand really ought to still be on TV for the theme tune alone. If you ever wondered why it is no longer on TV, here is the answer. It was killed forever by a weedy remix. They even removed the boing!
The terrible music is bad enough. But what is incredible is that almost everyone in the video is doing anything apart from watching Grandstand. They are in the gym, drinking coffee, playing pool, and even doing the shopping. But they are not on the couch watching five hours of sport (apart from the young family at the end, but that is totally implausible).
Needless to say, the remix didn’t last.
It was a rocky path to recovery. This one from 2004 is bad in the opposite way. There is too much happening, but the classic montage style is gone. Worst of all, the theme tune is being spoken over!
Here is the beginning of the final episode of Grandstand, from 2007.
On Sunday, motorsport fans around the world will be tuning in to watch one of the sport’s most prestigious events, the Indianapolis 500. The following day will be the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Indianapolis 500, the first running of this famous race.
Marking the centenery, Ralph Kramer’s book Indianapolis 500: A Century of Excitement attempts to sum up 100 years of history in one book. A formidable task.
The results are mixed. It is difficult to imagine that such an accessible and full history of the Indianapolis 500 is available elsewhere. But at the same time, it’s hard to escape the feeling that detail has been sacrificed for the sake of brevity. This book is more towards the ‘coffee table’ end of the spectrum.
You progress through the book at a breakneck pace, as fast as Arie Luyendyk. Each decade has its own chapter. While the bitesize approach is certainly appreciated, I would have liked to see the book have an extra 100 or so pages in order to provide a more comprehensive history.
I also find that the text sometimes gets bogged down in technical aspects of the cars. While this is often interesting, some of it goes straight over my head, particularly in aspects of the earlier cars that bear little resemblance to anything found in a modern-day race car. This side of the book failed to get my pulse racing.
Exacerbating this, there is little about the racing itself in the earlier chapters covering the first few decades. Perhaps it is not well recorded in general, as this improves in the later chapters that cover more recent decades.
But the book comes alive with the wealth of photographs, cuttings and factual interludes. There are comfortably square inches dedicated to photographs than to text, giving this book the approachable feel of a scrapbook.
However, this does make reading the text itself rather more difficult than it needs to be. Sentences are cut midway, sometimes with multiple pages of photographs to wade through before you can read the end of the sentence. But if a picture paints 1,000 words, it is a small price to pay. The photographs of the cars, drivers, spectators and circuit do much more to convey the evolution of the race over the past 100 years than any text could.
Also scattered through the book are profiles of notable figures through the Indianapolis 500’s history. Again, these suffer from being rather too brief.
Following the chapter about the 2000s, the book is rounded off with a photograph of each and every Indy 500-winning car, with a short blurb explaining the subsequent fate of each car. This provides a neat at-a-glance overview of 100 years of motorsport heritage. That is the best way to approach this book — as an at-a-glance overview.
All-in-all, this book should be commended for attempting to cover 100 years of history in one book. It is a decent attempt, and what exists is quite enlightening. But it is impossible to do full justice to the full century. I was left wanting more depth.
Having said that, there is no denying that it is quite special to flick through this book and browse through the great photographs from the past. The breezy approach makes this a very accessible and relaxing read.