Gilbey on Film: beyond Harry Potter

Treacle Jr is exactly the kind of British film that needs government support.

I don't know what the Prime Minister's plans are this weekend but should he find himself in receipt of a few idle hours I would urge him to hotfoot it over to a branch of the excellent Picturehouse cinema chain in either Clapham or Greenwich. There he can see the superb new film Treacle Jr, which explores the friendship between an incorrigible (and often comically unintelligible) Irish goofball (Aiden Gillen) and a lanky out-of-towner (Tom Fisher) who is sleeping rough after deserting his wife and child.

I know Mr Cameron takes a keen interest in new British films -- he's quite the cineaste, having expressed enthusiasm recently for The King's Speech. (Never let it be said he doesn't go out on a limb in his tastes.) Oh, the delicious and unselfconscious irony in celebrating a success that would not have happened as it did without the UK Film Council, which Cameron's government then killed off in an act of staggering short-sightedness and philistinism.

That said, what looked like a clueless bit of axe-swinging did begin to assume a certain obscure logic once I listened to a news item this week about St Basil's Cathedral and heard for the first time the story of how Ivan the Terrible was rumoured to have gouged out the eyes of the architects after the cathedral was completed, so that they might never again create something of comparable splendour. Could The King's Speech be to St Basil's Cathedral as David Cameron is to Ivan the Terrible?

But back to Treacle Jr. The Prime Minister will doubtless be aware that Jamie Thraves, the film's writer-director, found acclaim eleven years ago with his debut feature, The Low Down. That picture was an atmospheric tale of aimless twentysomethings haunting the streets, pubs and walk-ups of Dalston, east London. Treacle Jr is shot through with some of the same amorphousness and melancholia, as well as the earlier film's attentive use of locations (south London this time) to nourish characterisation. In Gillen's eye-catching, lapel-grabbing, jaw-jabbering performance, Treacle Jr also features the sort of scene-stealing work on which voters can seize helpfully come awards time. Fisher is also excellent in the much quieter part, effectively the straight man to Gillen's tomfoolery.

I only bring the Prime Minister into all this because it just so happens that Treacle Jr is being released on the same day as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (which I reviewed last week). That's two British films, both admirable pieces of work in their own ways, situated at opposite ends of the budgetary spectrum. One will have a release supported by limitless publicity and advertising before opening with a screen count well into triple figures, as one would expect from a major studio's blockbuster-to-end-them-all. The other is arriving on two screens, with more to come if it proves a success -- which is why, if you are intending to see the movie (and you should), then it's imperative you go this weekend to guarantee it doesn't drop off the circuit.

Cameron could really do his bit for the UK film industry here. It's all very well championing the Harry Potter films, as he did late last year. That's the easy bit. The franchise is already popular and cherished, and it has provided extended employment for hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Cameron's support of it brought to mind Giles Smith's analysis (in his book Lost in Music) of a pre-1997 Tony Blair's admission of musical preference:

[A]sked in an interview what kind of pop music he liked . . . Mr Blair came up with REM, Seal and Annie Lennox . . . If the party had commissioned an expensive advertising agency to spend seven months in collaboration with a public relations firm researching this declaration, it's hard to believe they would have come up with anything so beautifully poised. REM, Seal and Annie Lennox: an American rock group and two British singers, one black male, one white female, with fingers in pop, soul and dance, an ample musical spread, economically achieved . . . Note how the balance tips in favour of the British artists, to avoid the suggestion that Mr Blair might be somehow in thrall to American culture.

Smith goes on to identify the tinge of the mainstream and the modern in Blair's choices (which went on the record pre-Britpop); these suggest implicitly that the future PM was no dinosaur, and no elitist either. Would that Cameron were so sophisticated. All he does is plump for the blindingly obvious, the populist choice that not only needs no leg-up from him but which no potential voter could respond to with belligerence or bewilderment: no Middle Englander, if such a creature still exists beyond the grounds of Hogwarts, would be heard exclaiming "Harry who?" or "Why on earth didn't he promise a generous stipend to Terence Davies?"

Cameron could rehabilitate himself now by coming out in support of Treacle Jr, which would show not only an enthusiasm for vitality in British cinema, but an ideological consistency on his part. After all, what could be more resourceful, go-getting and Big Society-esque than re-mortgaging your own house to make a film? That's exactly what Thraves did to raise the majority of Treacle Jr's £30,000 budget (as he tells Time Out here).

The one very real danger in soliciting Cameron's endorsement is that it could deter audiences from seeing a film they would otherwise have greatly enjoyed and admired. Anyone who was young in the 1980s will remember Margaret Thatcher praising the band Thrashing Doves on Saturday morning television. Chris Briggs, head of A&R at the group's record label, put it best: "What worse thing could happen to a young band than having Thatcher tell the nation's youngsters they were jolly good?"

"Treacle Jr" is released on Friday. To find one-off screenings of Treacle Jr accompanied by Q&A sessions, go to www.nbcq.co.uk

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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