Ready to rumble: Ali and Foreman in the famous 1974 fight. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Lords of the ring: reliving Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle”

A running commentary by Ricky Hatton and fellow boxers to mark the 40th anniversary of the super-fight, in what turned out to be a brilliantly conceived and delivered programme

 

Reliving the Rumble
BBC Radio 5 Live

“Eyes open – look! His eyes are always open, looking, looking . . .” Ricky Hatton is watching a film of Muhammad Ali’s and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle” with his fellow boxers Carl Froch and David Haye, all giving a running commentary to mark the 40th anniversary of the super-fight, in what turned out to be a brilliantly conceived and delivered programme (30 October, 7.30pm).

We are all familiar with the rhythms and tones of this type of commentary – usually that most ubiquitous of extras on DVDs of everything from old movies to celebrated football matches. It’s sometimes a drag and sometimes interesting, if you can be arsed. (I think it’s never been better than when Jack Nicholson settles into critiquing a favourite role of his, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, evidently sinking deep into an armchair for the duration and lighting a massive cigar. “Excuse me, ma’am, can you tell me where . . .” goes the opening line on-screen. “First words,” comments Nicholson in that familiarly low-pulsed voice, bursting with pride.)

On BBC Radio 5 Live, unusually quickly it’s clear that it doesn’t matter remotely that it’s all voice and no image. To see Ali pasting a bewildered Foreman clear as day, you merely have to sit very still and listen. Easy to do, because the three men speaking are impeccable at filtering what they are looking at: meticulously descriptive, personal. Says Haye: “He throws his right hand almost as if it’s his left hand. I think to myself, why can’t I do that? Because I don’t have the speed.” Hatton is particularly good at the second-by-second sketch: “A quick one-two-bang-bang, then uses his forehand to just nudge him and then gets that right hand to one-two and then pushes with his palm to shift . . .” Froch is awed but always careful to explain why. “Yep, there it is, that shot. It makes you breathe heavy. It makes you tired. Suicide. Suicide mission going on here.” Riveting.

And what became clear is that boxing suits this sort of analysis possibly better than any other sport, even tennis, because it is all decisions, all choices – no ball randomly hitting a knee here and stopping the thinking. Powerfully smart stuff. I’d listen again in a flash. 

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 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Show Hide image

Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue