TV blog: Whites v Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation

Benjie Goodhart / 24 November 2016

A look back at an extraordinary football match in 1979, plus MPs behind closed doors and the rest of this week’s TV highlights.

Whites v Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation, Sunday 27th November, 9pm, BBC Two

In 1979, an extraordinary, historic football match took place at the Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion. And believe me, it’s not often that happens. It was a testimonial for a long-since forgotten player, Lee Cantello. Testimonials are ways to raise money for players who have had long careers, which is a relief – it’s always a concern to know how these poor, impoverished souls will keep the wolves from the door.

Anyway, testimonials are normally rather bland affairs where two teams play out a meaningless, friendly match in front of a few thousand sleepy fans. Not this one. This one made the national news. Because this one was whites against blacks. Whites v blacks is pretty routine when you’re discussing shirt colours. Or chess. But the skin colour of the players? Suddenly, that’s a pretty big thing.

This riveting one-off documentary sees lifelong West Brom fan Adrian Chiles talking to some of the principal protagonists involved that day, and discussing the febrile atmosphere that surrounded race relations in the 1970s. What begins as an investigation into a bizarre historical footnote becomes a rumination on the chronic racism that blighted the UK forty years ago.

Among those interviewed are Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, West Brom greats and trailblazers for black players in English football. Along with Laurie Cunningham, they were nicknamed the Three Degrees. The prodigiously-gifted Cunningham was killed in a car crash in Spain aged 33. Chiles meets his family, and later on his ex-girlfriend, who tells an extraordinary story of an encounter with racists in Birmingham.

Also taking part that day were Bob Hazell (who became a hero of mine when he moved to QPR, and played in the first game I ever attended) and George Berry. Even four decades later, the vile chants from the terraces still ring in their ears, and still carry a sting.

Chiles also speaks to the next generation of black players, in the form of Dion Dublin and Ian Wright, for whom life was much easier. Progress, it seems, came to football – maybe was even driven by football. It’s difficult to tell your kid to hate a black man when he has a poster of Laurie Cunningham on his wall. But the battle isn’t entirely won. Depressing interviews with Jason Roberts and Les Ferdinand reveal that racism has not been consigned to the dustbin of history.

And what of the match itself? At the end of the film, Chiles brings together some of the protagonists for a reunion, and shows them some long forgotten footage, in a moving end to a powerful, well-crafted and thoughtful film.

MPs: Behind Closed Doors, Monday 28th November, 9pm, Channel 5

A political documentary on Channel 5? Like, not involving traffic cops or bailiffs or pointing and staring at the underclass, but an actual documentary involving politicians? On Channel 5? And nobody is even expected to dance, or complete any insect-themed challenges, or live in a house with a former Hollyoaks actor and someone from TOWIE? Whatever next? BBC Parliament showing Geordie Shore?

Obviously, a programme like this on Channel 5 is as rare as unicorn droppings, so I had to give it a watch. The theme of the programme was MPs and their weekly surgeries, where they meet their constituents and listen to their problems. The MPs involved were Nick Clegg, in Sheffield, Naz Shah, in Bradford, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, in Somerset. The problems they dealt with ranged from troubled children to nightmare neighbours, cataclysmic benefit cuts to the legalisation of cannabis.

All three MPs have a reasonably high profile, so it was quite a coup to get them involved in the show – particularly Rees-Mogg, who I have a sneaking suspicion has never watched TV in his life. I was at school with him at the age of eight, and he gave off the distinct impression of being a 47-year-old Victorian man trapped in the body of a 20th-century schoolboy.

It’s a shame, then, that this access isn’t rewarded with a more ambitious film. It is by no means bad, but it would be nice to be taken out of the confines of the constituency surgery to follow some of the stories in more depth. Almost exactly a year ago, the documentary This is Tottenham took David Lammy’s constituency surgery as a starting point, and followed the stories and personalities involved. I suspect the makers of this programme would have liked to have done the same, but were prevented from doing so by the twin restraints of time and money.

That’s not to say that this isn’t worth a watch. It most definitely is – if only to remind us that, contrary to received opinion, our politicians aren’t all amoral freeloaders with their hands in the till. All three MPs featured come across as sensitive, compassionate and decent, and it is truly a remarkable and beautiful thing to see democracy in action in such a direct way. Every single one of us can go and visit our MP to discuss our concerns. That’s pretty special.

Finally, and almost unbearably, the film is dedicated to Jo Cox MP, so brutally murdered in the summer serving the people of her constituency, trying to help people, to make the world a better place one case at a time.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 26th November

The Brits Who Designed the Modern World, 9:30pm, BBC Two: Arts reporter Brenda Emmanus marks the opening of Kensington’s new Design Museum by profiling ten of the most celebrated British designers and examining how they’ve changed the world. I bet I’m a Celebrity, over on ITV,  is quaking in its boots…

Sunday 27th November 

The Mayflower Pilgrims: Behind the Myth, 8pm, BBC Two: Drama documentary recounting what happened on the fateful voyage across the Atlantic that led to the founding of a nation.

Escape to the Chateau 1/3: Dick Strawbridge and Angel Adoree continue the renovations of their glorious French chateau. If I had his name, and owned a chateau, I’d build a moat and insist people crossed it on something called Dick’s Drawbridge.

Tuesday 29th November

Rillington Place, 9pm, BBC One: Tim Roth and Samantha Morton bring a stellar quality to the tawdry and disturbing real life events involving Reg Christie and his wife Ethel in Notting Hill in the 1940s and 50s.

Life on the Psych Ward, 9pm, Channel 4: If you don’t want the unpleasant and disturbing material on BBC One, you could always opt for the unpleasant and disturbing material on Channel 4, with this documentary in a mental health facility full of men who have committed violent crimes.

Wednesday 30th November

Kids on the Edge, 10pm, Channel 4: More cheery fare from C4, this time looking at girls prone to self-harm and even attempting suicide, and how they are treated.

Thursday 1st December

Who Do You Think You Are, 8pm, BBC One: Amanda Holden discovers a tale of a Napoleonic-era cross-Channel romance, and a moving tale involving her grandfather. Yikes. The woman who cries when someone sings a ballad on Britain’s Got Talent will probably be hospitalised with dehydration after this.

Friday 2nd December

Alan Carr’s Happy Hour, 8pm, Channel 4: New series, that was meant to start last week (look, Channel 4, just pick a slot for your programmes and stick to it!) With the jovial Carr at the helm, this mixture of chat, comedy and music should be good fun.

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