Sealed with a kiss

Our theatre blogger reflects on last week's big production at Westminster Abbey.

"Help me," read a friend's email at 9am on Friday, "I think I'm a monarchist after all!" My suggestion was to take a deep breath; it would pass. As a desultory anti-royalist I sat down to "enjoy" the wedding with a protective armoury of irony and scare quotes. Oh, it was to be so very post-modern. As a theatre-watcher I was almost honour-bound to study the performance qua theatrical event (multi-media, site-specific, promenade, street theatre). After all, though you may well wish otherwise, you don't get audiences of two billion for your average production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.

But it wasn't long before I was also fearing for my own default republican principles. What a show! What - what? - was that catch in the throat as I watched the two princes, in their "let's pretend" costumes, emerge from Clarence House? Nausea, I diagnosed, hopefully. But no, there was something powerfully affective about this gig, even before the leading lady came on. The last time I'd looked - really looked - at these two men was nearly 14 years ago, as they'd trailed their mother's coffin: two Lost Boys. There was a connective tug of sorts. A tenuous one, perhaps, but we connect where we can.

Like many good plays, this plot is darkly absorbing. It's a fairy tale, all right, in the Grimm and violent Mitteleuropean tradition, where Little Red Riding Hood is eaten, Sleeping Beauty is raped, and the Queen in Snow White is forced to dance to her death in red-hot shoes. German fairy tales (and the Saxe-Coburg yarn is no exception) don't end with happily ever after, but with something altogether more pragmatic, along the lines of "and they are still living here today, unless they have died". In this case, the fairy princess was long dead, though the memory of her puffed-up nuptials would lend a minor chord to the celebrations.

On, then - with sympathies fatally stirred - to the theatre itself. Westminster Abbey, the seat of Royal power since 1066 and all that, designed with shock and awe in mind and now charmingly "greened" for the event. Okay, the extras were an insalubrious bunch, and a tad over-decorated, but the leading lady adjudged her costume just right (in danger only of being stealthily upstaged by the supporting actress), and was perfectly composed under those beetling brows. The HD close-ups revealed just enough of her dry-mouthed nerves.

I faded in and out of the service, well used to cherry picking in churches; volume up for the music (we do trumpets very well) volume down, or even off, for the prayerful bits. And then triumphal rides through London, and she still waves like a normal person, really waving, not a codified, etiolated stump of a wave.

And what, if anything, did it all mean? Well, it means what you want it to. A celebrity hairdresser is quoted as saying it signifies the end of straightening irons, and the era of the heated roller. We will appropriate it to our own ends, as we always do. But for those who long ago lost faith in religion, we perhaps retain a hard-wired partiality to ritual, driven by the needy reptilian brain. Which probably explains the enduring appeal of theatre: we have a chemical craving to watch the shamans do their stuff.

It's also about shared experience, and perhaps it doesn't really matter what the event is. The more arbitrary, anachronistic and anomalous the better. For one day, most eyes were trained on the same thing, rather like in the prosaic near past, when, in another degenerate rite, we all watched the same telly of an evening. Rationally we may agree with Diderot that we will never be free until the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest, but the responses of "the masses" surely have less to do with the power of the monarchy than the power of this collective experience, and the associated payoffs from the limbic system.

Collective memory will bind the event up together with the holiday, the unseasonably fine weather, an extended festive, estival Easter. And through all the storm of symbols and semiotics, at its heart were two human beings, not ciphers, who seem to know and love each other, and with whom for all the world I would not swap places.

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism