Peter White and Ed Reardon presented a spoof version of You and Yours. Photo: BBC Pictures
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Character Invasion: Radio 4 comedy at its worst

It started inauspiciously with the never remotely amusing Big Bird as the subject of Tweet of the Day.

Character Invasion
BBC Radio 4

Radio 4’s “Character Invasion” day (29 March), celebrating “great characters, past and present”, started inauspiciously with the never remotely amusing Big Bird as the subject of Tweet of the Day (5.58am). Dawn French delivered the Today programme’s Thought for the Day as the vicar of Dibley (7am), pointing out that Jesus was born in a stable rather than a Premier Inn (“The poor is where it’s at”). It was Radio 4 comedy at its worst: somehow there was always the whiff of Jeremy Hardy in the background, hooting at his own jokes.

Many of the characters being talked about had not been created by the BBC. For example, Hamlet: “He’s a lunatic,” concluded the actor Jamie Parker (Hamlet, 24-28 March, 2.15pm). But many had made their debut on Radio 4, not least Alan Partridge, a continually nation-tickling phenomenon discussed by a notably gracious Steve Coogan on the Today programme. “You look around you and you think, ‘Gosh!’” he said. “Is life imitating art or is art imitating life?” Success suits Coogan. Since his Bafta win and Oscar nod for Philomena, even his hair – greying, swept-back waves – is almost presidential.

The most striking moment of the Character Invasion strand actually took place a day earlier: it was Peter White taking a walk through a shopping centre with the saturnine writer Ed Reardon, pretending it was a special edition of the consumer complaints programme You & Yours (28 March, 12pm), once known among BBC staff as Moans & Moaners. Is it just me or is it not discombobulating when presenters or newscasters pitch up in movies or TV dramas playing themselves and turn out to be brilliant at acting? How seamlessly they slip into the spirit of it? Every time! Even Jenni Murray was at it on W1A, pretending to grill Hugh Bonneville without a hint of awkwardness. And here was the usually straight-up, get-the-thieving-bastards White, chatting with Reardon with all the largesse and ease of a chuckling plutocrat, a model of capability. Peter White as Suleiman the Magnificent. That’s more character than I can take.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times