Can We Have a Referee?

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Two summers ago, I wrote a blog (VAR Out!, 26 July 2018) reacting to the introduction of the Video Assistant Referee system in that year’s World Cup finals which, as the title implies, was highly critical of the technology and how it was being used. Now that we have the technology in use in our own Premier League and have endured over half a season of the problems it has brought, it is time to revisit the subject. This has been stewing in my brain for some time, but this last Saturday’s Match of the Day brought matters to a head, so here we go (‘ere we go, ‘ere we go!).

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Pretty much all the objections I had to VAR during the 2018 World Cup, as I expressed in my earlier blog, still apply, but now there are so many more! Its introduction and (mis-) application in the Premier League has been an unmitigated disaster, leading to chants of “it’s not football any more” and mass walk-outs by exasperated fans.

 

I will go into more detail about the problems below, but first it is worth considering how we got to this point in the first place. I blame the practice of interviewing managers after each game. It is now an integral part of the coverage and can be highly entertaining, but it adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of what we have seen and yet has had an impact way beyond its uselessness. You must remember that the manager being interviewed has only one audience member in mind when reflecting on a game: not the fans, not the TV audience, not the journalists or pundits – just the owner of his club, who employs him and pays his enormous salary. He is not, of course, going to reveal tactical details to the world and his rivals, so his replies are, inevitably, cliché-ridden and utterly predictable.

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One phrase which we hear ad nauseam particularly gets my goat and illustrates my thesis: “this is a difficult place to come”. It is the multi-purpose excuse: if the team has won, it has done well against the odds; if it has drawn, then any failure that may represent is understandable; if it has lost, well, “it’s a difficult place” (and the owner has to understand that). But “difficult” is a comparative term – linguistic logic dictates that if there are difficult things in any particular field of endeavour, there must also be some easy things. So, if there are “difficult” football grounds to visit, there must be some “easy” ones somewhere. If I had my way, every reporter interviewing football managers should counter the utterance of “this is a difficult place to come to” with the question “where are the easy places?”. There would be no answer of course – there are no easy games and that would be a dreadful hostage to fortune. Imagine trying to explain to an owner why his team had lost at a place you had described as an easy place to go to. But it may help to eradicate this awful platitude.

 

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy this part of the coverage and some managers are well worth listening to – Mourinho or Klopp of the current incumbents and, going back a distance, the legendary Brian Clough – but this is not because of the interest value of what they 963FE38A-FAB7-43D2-AE4D-03641275DAA2_4_5005_chave to say, but rather the entertainment value of how they say it. But how did we get from interviewing managers to VAR.? Well, it’s not difficult to see it. In the pre-VAR days, one of the greatest excuses a manager could have for his team’s failure was refereeing error. If video replays showed that his team had suffered an injustice, he would inevitably call for the introduction of technology to rectify such a fault (and simultaneously distract attention from talking about his team’s failure). On the other hand, the opposing manager would not have seen it or watched it back – Arsene Wenger was the finest exponent of the chutzpah required to deliver a line like this. Inevitably, every manager was at some point driven to call for the use of technology rather than admit to his team’s failings and the journalists amplified the clamour. “Guardiola demands introduction of video technology” screamed the headline – repeated every Sunday or Monday with a different manager’s name until the pressure to do so became irresistible. And so we got VAR. And now it gets the blame from the same mouths which demanded it.

 

If you don’t believe my thesis check out one of Gary Lineker’s observations on Saturday’s MOTD (22ndFebruary). After the highlights of the Burnley game he contrasted the differing “opinions” of Jose Mourinho and Sean Dyche concerning the absence of key C0F1D67F-B7CC-40E4-9FD1-9893BABB8FA2_4_5005_cstrikers through injury. Mourinho had lamented the absence of his stars whereas Dyche had seen it as an opportunity for their replacements to shine. But the reason for this difference of approach was not hard to find – Mourinho’s team had lost; Dyche’s team had won. If the results had been reversed, I can guarantee you the “opinions” would have been as well.

 

But the main focus of Saturday’s show was the continuing dissatisfaction with VAR. Previously, marginal offside decisions had been the main cause of complaint, but penalty decisions, particularly where handball is involved, have also been causing disquiet and there is increasing unease about VAR’s role in judging the severity of challenges which may or may not be worthy of red cards. On Saturday, all of these came to boiling point, with two matches showing controversies or discrepancies on marginal handball decisions (Burnley v Bournemouth and Leicester v Man City) and another two on potential red-card incidents (Chelsea v Spurs and Sheffield United v Brighton). We even had the spectacle of Frank Lampard complaining about the obvious clarity of the Lo Celso stamp on Alderweireld, while Jose Mourinho, who was about a yard away from the incident, had neither seen it at the time nor bothered to watch a replay. Replays had, however, shown that he clearly attempted to get the game moving again quickly in order that the incident should not impact the game.

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Most of the discussions on football programmes, particularly MOTD, has centred on how VAR could be altered to make it work. My own view is that it should be used in much the same way as cricket uses the review – emphasising the primacy of the “umpire’s call” and only reversing it if the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming (or “clear and obvious” as the original intention of VAR was stated). In terms of offside, there would need to be clear daylight between attacker and defender, either way, for an on-field decision to be reversed. Yes, this would lead to technically offside goals being allowed 5DA9FF93-BC9E-4742-9AF1-5FB33356A0DD_4_5005_c(and the opposite), but so be it, just as when the ball is shown to have (probably) been hitting the outside of leg stump a denied lbw is still denied because it was the umpire’s decision. The technology is just not reliable enough for some of the forensically marginal decisions we have had. The same should go for handball decisions, but here the change of law is as responsible for the problems as the VAR technology. Also, as with cricket, VAR usage could be limited to a number of challenges allowed to each side during a game.

 

But basically, I’m not really interested in making VAR work – I’d rather it was scrapped altogether. The erosion of spontaneity I cited in my earlier blog is a big part of the reason, but Saturday’s MOTD contained the worst example of its usage yet and the best argument for getting rid of it, when Bournemouth were denied an excellent equalising goal because of a marginal and highly debatable handball decision in the other penalty area moments earlier. That marginal (and, in my view, wrong) VAR decision caused the score to alter by two goals and finished the game. The Bournemouth fans should have walked out en-masse at that point, but they had travelled the length of the country to see their team and deserved so much better. It is no good saying (as managers often do) that a goal would not have happened if a decision elsewhere on the pitch, a throw-in decision or whatever, had gone a different way. The team has to defend a situation which will occur many times in a game, such as a corner, whether an error has been made in the build-up or not.

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I do, of course, have another reason for wanting rid of VAR. I love watching Premier League football, especially on MOTD, but can afford to be relatively dispassionate because my own team is not involved (yet!). However, Brentford are pushing for promotion to the Premier League this season, so it could become an issue for me. I regularly return home on a Saturday (and this last weekend was no exception) complaining that the referee was a wanker, but I recognise that referees have a hard job and are actually fulfilling a useful social function in being the focus of the discontent, which is as important as the joy of being a football fan. But to have that discontent caused by the structure of the game itself would, I imagine, be too much to bear. So, please let’s get rid of VAR and have our beloved football back.

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Come on you Bees!

Ten TV Programmes that “Made Me”

A few weeks ago, I was tagged to take part in one of those Facebook games where you have to create a cultural list over 10 days. It may be favourite books, it may be films or other things. In this case it was the TV programmes which “made me” – which I interpreted as being those with the greatest influence on my life, rather than my all-time top ten. I chose to take a chronological approach, spreading the choices fairly evenly across the decades, and explained my choice in each case. I am reproducing my posts below as I wrote them, partly because they make a reasonably coherent narrative, but mainly because there is so little currently on TV that I want to blog about, so I might as well re-cycle something I’ve already written. My first blog on this site, 11 months ago, was about last year’s “glorious summer” of great TV shows. This summer, by contrast, is a drought, both literally and televisually, so let me take you back through time instead…..

Day 1

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It’s November 23rd 1963 and the 10-year-old me is really at a loose end. Somebody important was shot in America yesterday and all my favourite Friday night programmes, even Bootsie and Snudge, were cancelled! Things aren’t much better today, but there’s a new programme starting at teatime which looks intriguing, so I’ll give it a go. That new programme, Doctor Who, expanded my imagination like nothing on television had done before. There was mystery and menace in every dark corner of the monochrome screen. I was hooked for the rest of the sixties, through the Hartnell and Troughton years (I still think Troughton is the best Doctor, though Capaldi came close). I rather drifted away from it after that, but then it became a professional concern when, as the BBC’s TV Archivist, I became involved in the search for missing episodes in the 1980s (with some success, including some of the earliest dalek episodes). And, of course, I’ve been a fan since it was revived by Russell T.Davies earlier this century. It is one of three titles on my list first transmitted in 1963/4 which have been with me throughout my life and are still going strong. I will post about the second one tomorrow but leave the third (which is very dear to me) until the end of my list.

Day 2

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Today’s choice is my TV equivalent of comfort food – a programme which I have watched (and occasionally fallen asleep in front of) most Saturday nights since I first caught the football bug in the mid-sixties (and that’s “soccer” to my American friends!). It’s a bug I have never shaken off – in fact, the infection becomes more severe with every passing year. Through it all, MOTD has been a constant – the familiar theme tune, the presenters (Kenneth, David, Jimmy, Des and Gary), the commentators (Motty), the pundits (Hansen, Shearer) the “goal of the month” competition. The quality of the coverage has developed, but the format stays much the same. It’s officially the longest running football programme in the world. My favourite period? – probably the seventies, when it was the closing part of the legendary BBC1 Saturday night schedule. My favourite edition? – has to be the one when the Bees led the show thanks to an FA Cup upset over Premier League opposition. I just can’t wait until we reach the Premier League (as we will) and feature every week!

Day 3

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Today, “It’sssss…….” – the big one! The one programme which I would say “made me” more than any other. If I was doing this by importance rather than chronologically, this would be top. Just as so much of our language contains phrases and sayings that originate in Shakespeare, so barely a day goes by without my regular discourse containing something that can be traced back to Python, whether in conversation or commenting on Facebook. You may have noticed – maybe not. But it doesn’t stop there. My entire world outlook is influenced by this show – my general air of flippancy, of not taking anything too seriously, of always immediately looking for the funny side of any situation, the cheerful atheism, the always looking on the bright side. It hit me at exactly the right time, between reaching the end of my school days and going on to university. I was never one for going on street demos, but I did take part in a mass “silly walk” through the streets of Oxford. I had been a big TV comedy fan throughout the sixties, especially things like Not Only, But Also, but this was on a whole new level. At times, I laughed so much it was painful, and so much of it still gives that reaction. The first season was a revelation from the start, but the gradual development of the stream of consciousness style throughout that run is what made it so compelling. If I have a favourite sketch it may be the argument, which is pure poetry, as well as being one of the many Cleese/Palin highlights. So, time’s up….No it isn’t!

Day 4

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So, it’s late 1973 and I am into the final year of my degree in Modern History – there are some wonderful lectures by the great historian AJP Taylor on the Second World War. But then a mammoth TV documentary series arrives which presents the same serious history in a way that is so much more compelling and direct than any book or lecture could be. I’d like to tell you that, in that moment, I resolved to spend a life’s career working in film and television archives, but it wouldn’t be true. Nevertheless, the seed was sown and after I had embarked on that course some five years later, I never lost any opportunity to cite TheWorld at War as an inspiration. It remains the beacon in terms of the use of archive material – research, selection, correct presentation and attribution – something which became a bit of a professional obsession to me, to the extent that I would bore my fellow Peabody jurors to tears over it in later years. It was the work of many fine historians, writers and producers, but the guiding hand was that of a TV hero of mine – Jeremy Isaacs, who ran the programme department of Thames TV, one of our major commercial broadcasters, as though it were a PSB and then invented the ethos of Channel 4. I was fortunate to be the organiser of a 75th birthday tribute to him at the National Film Theatre in 2007 and spent many fascinating hours with him selecting and editing the clips for that event. The pitch-perfect narration by Olivier, the haunting score by Carl Davis – everything is right about TheWorld at War.

Day 5

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There had to be a Dennis Potter on my list. Yes, The Singing Detective is his masterpiece, but Pennies from Heaven is arguably the greater leap of imagination as to what could be done with a TV drama series and it does mean more to me personally. It was transmitted just a couple of weeks after I joined the BBC in 1978. I had immediately begun to take a closer interest than previously in the BBC’s output (after all, this was the material I was now handling every day) and a new Potter was a big event. I was mesmerised and immensely proud that I now worked for an organisation which could produce such a thing. I was pretty obsessed with exploring the art of film at the time, to the exclusion of most else, but here was a studio-based TV drama which could engage me, entertain me and make me think just as much, if not more, than the greatest cinema. The use of popular songs of the thirties, mimed by the actors to express the characters’ thoughts and hopes or as an ironic commentary on the narrative was revolutionary and never bettered. Thought for today: “Though things may not look bright, they’ll all turn out alright, if I keep painting the clouds with sunshine”.

Day 6

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I’ll say it up front. For me, this is the greatest TV drama series of them all. Some people will tell you it is a film – made on 35mm by a film director, Edgar Reitz – and, indeed, I first saw it in a cinema. But it was co-produced by TV companies, WDR and SFB of (then) West Germany and is clearly designed for television presentation in 11 parts of irregular length – the shortest under an hour, the longest almost two and a half – and, in that respect, it anticipates by 30 years the sort of thing now being produced for streaming platforms. Reitz went on to make 2 sequel series, a prequel and some spin-offs, but none of them matched the ambition and historical sweep of the original. Telling the story of a village in the Hunsruck from 1918 to the early 1980s, it is basically German history in the turbulent 20th century in microcosm, seen through the eyes of a number of ordinary families. There are elements of soap opera about it, which is partly what makes it so effective. Who will survive the war? How much did ordinary Germans know (or care) about the crimes of the Nazis? How did technological advances like radio, telephones, motorways and TV affect their lives? The trivial is given the same attention as the momentous, and the weight of memory accumulates. Some characters are played by several actors, others by the same one through the whole series, but you get closely involved with them all.

Day 7

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Having reached the period of my life when the assessment of the significance of television programmes was my professional concern, it becomes harder to isolate individual titles which had a particular effect on my attitudes, not because there are too few, but because there are too many. I choose The Royle Family because it pioneered the metamorphosis of the sitcom into the half-hour comedy/drama. It dispensed with the studio audience and the laughter track, even though it hardly ever left the single set – the front room of a Manchester terraced house – and relied on the brilliance of its writing and characterisation to capture you, to make you laugh, and sometimes to make you cry. Many of the programmes I most treasure from the last two decades owe it a debt – from Getting On and the work of Stefan Golaszewski to Fleabagand Detectorists. At a time when TV drama was reaching a new plateau by becoming cinematic, these programmes (and their US equivalents from Louie to One Mississippi), by virtue of their duration, expanded the dramatic and comedic possibilities of a purely televisual form. And, of course, the Royles constantly referenced TV itself because watching TV was what they were doing most of the time, just like those of us watching them. Post-modernism, my arse!

Day 8

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Today’s choice is for my daughter Hanna as well as myself. One of the joys of having a daughter with learning disabilities is the extended childhood, with the result that I have been watching programmes for kids for much longer than most parents – not only that, but many of the same things again, again, again – so that I have come to appreciate how well-crafted and subtle the best of them are. I have reached the stage when I am keenly anticipating the next offering from that crazy genius Andrew Davenport, but my two favourites have to be Charlie and Lola and Peppa Pig. I chose Peppa because, whereas Charlie and Lola has wonderful visuals and music, Peppa has the better humour, which is firmly aimed at the kids but with the occasional wink towards the adult audience. It doesn’t moralise – just presents family and school life though animated animals. There’s even the occasional political satire, such as the school’s International Day, when Madame Gazelle (brilliant name) gets the children to dress up as different nationalities to promote peace and harmony, but they end up arguing over access to the sandpit. The voiceover artists include the Welsh contingent from Absolutely, Morwenna Banks and John Sparkes, plus the familiar tones of Brian Blessed, Andy Hamilton and others. And if I were to be asked which TV character I most identify with it would have to be Daddy Pig – a genial everyman constantly out of his depth and something of a British equivalent to Homer Simpson. I didn’t expect such a programme to become a big part of my life at this stage, but ultimately everybody loves jumping up and down in muddy puddles.

Day 9

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So, there I was, six or seven years from the end of my career in television archiving/curation and drifting along happily towards retirement, doing much the same as I had for the last 25 years, when something wonderful happened. I was invited to join the Peabody Board of Jurors. Not only did this involve engaging with American TV in much, much greater depth than I had before, but also enhancing my critical approach in order to participate in the rigorous and exhilarating board discussions. It also coincided with an explosion of creativity in US output, both drama and documentary, driven by cable and online platforms. So, I got to see masses of marvellous programmes, many of which I either followed thereafter or caught up with in full, and The Leftovers has to be my favourite of them all. In the same way as another favourite recent drama, the French series Les Revenants, The Leftovers uses a supernatural event to explore questions of grief, love, relationships, spirituality and the search for meaning in a meaningless universe. It appeals to atheists like me and believers alike because there are no answers but lots of questions, asked in the most strikingly imaginative and dramatic way possible. Max Richter’s score is outstanding and the acting and direction uniformly brilliant. The ending, appropriately after three series, is overwhelming and open to multiple interpretation, but I choose to let the mystery be.

Day 10

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This is the only thing I could have as my final choice. It reaches back to where I started (Seven Up was transmitted in 1964), but it justifies its place at the end of my chronology because it also represents the future – 63 Up is due to air next spring and I really can’t wait. To say this is a programme that “made” me doesn’t quite get it: it is me, just as it is countless others of my generation. Like a short-period comet, it returns every seven years and each return is more momentous than the last. I can find points of identification with every one of the participants, and they are only three years younger than me, so seeing their lives develop in parallel with my own and against the backdrop of the same social, political and technological changes, and regularly looking back on how they got to where they are, is an incredibly moving experience. Leaving seven years between each catch-up is a stroke of genius, because they can get back to normal lives away from the media spotlight (though their fame has impacted in some ways on some of them). We know there has been the first death among the group since the last visit, so it may start to get a little painful, but Michael Apted is the perfect intermediary – I wish him extreme longevity, so that he can go on making the series. I am very proud to have been part of the Peabody Board which gave the series an institutional award (the same year, coincidentally, that my first choice, DoctorWho, was similarly honoured). The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is British television’s greatest achievement.

So, there you have it – three dramas, two comedies, two docs, two children’s programmes and one sports show to sum up TV’s influence on my life.