Whether talking about Twitter or Twixes, our incontinence knows no bounds

Rachel Cooke takes on BBC2's "Fat Season".

Welcome to the World of Weight Loss
The Men Who Made Us Thin
BBC2
 
I wonder why Vanessa Engle (Women, Jews, Walking With Dogs) felt moved to make a documentary about diet clubs (Welcome to the World of Weight Loss, 21 August). They seem to me to be far too easy a target for such a subtle and talented director. After all, it’s hardly news that the leaders of Weight Watchers or Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness Clubs infantilise their members, praising them loudly for every pound lost, handing them pathetic little certificates when they reach their target size. (“Well done, Ginny!” said the leader of the East Finchley branch of Slimming World to a woman who had just shared her horror at her discovery that pine - apple added to cottage cheese made it a whole lot more naughty. “So, can we give her a big round of applause, please?”).
 
Nor is it much of a revelation that women who are fat enough – or imagine they are fat enough – to join these Moonie-ish clubs are often desperately unhappy; contentment and a desire to be weighed in public appear to be mutually exclusive. And the tedium and stupidity of the jargon! We are talking “portion pots”, “treat days” and “brown foods”. Forty minutes in, I found myself looking forward for the first time ever to my twice-weekly bolt around the park. Beneath my backside – not small, exactly, but not the size of Jupiter, either – the sofa had begun to feel positively itchy.
 
Of course, even a worse-than-usual Engle film is still miles better than your average Channel 4 “shock doc” (the titles of which alone make me want to throw up). For all her beadiness, she is an inordinately kind filmmaker, non-judgemental and always able to connect with her interviewees. It must have been tempting to ask Joan and Sharon, two sisters with a Ghanaian background and an almost religious devotion to the diktats of Weight Watchers, why they insisted on spending their “treat day” at an all-you-caneat Chinese buffet (with the emphasis on “all-you-can-eat” rather than bean sprouts) but somehow she desisted. (Sharon, by the way, was still so vast she had to walk with a frame.) They were enjoying themselves and clearly Engle was reluctant to spoil their fun.
 
Over and over, she threw her subjects a life raft – or at least the odd water wing. In a huge, gleaming house in Dulwich, south London, a fortysomething Weight Watcher called Penelope took Engle through her extensive designer wardrobe: Alexander McQueen, Miu Miu, Stella McCartney. On my sofa, bottom shifting, I began to feel more restless. Penelope, who did not look at all fat to me, obviously just needed something more important to worry about than herself. Engle, though, was a little more generous. Did Penelope think her determination to drop a dress size or two was perhaps born of a fear of getting older? Looking grateful, Penelope conceded that this was doubtless the case.
 
BBC2 seems to be having something of a Fat Season at the moment. Earlier this month, it brought us podgy kids in India (they’re like podgy kids anywhere, except a little bit late to the party). This week, it was Engle’s programme and the third part of Jacques Peretti’s latest series, The Men Who Made Us Thin (Thursdays, 9pm). In documentary-making terms, Peretti is what you might get if you crossed Adam Curtis with Louis Theroux, by which I mean he is a something of a conspiracy theorist, always going on – whoo-ooh! – about cabals of scary men who take decisions “behind closed doors”, but also the kind of chap who smilingly accompanies a Swedish man to the loo so he can watch him empty the contents of his stomach by means of a long, plastic tube (in bariatric surgery circles, this, so we were told, is the very latest thing).
 
I am not sure I bought all of his thesis – I’m not convinced that it’s possible for people to be fat and healthy, let alone happy – but Peretti was surely on to something when he suggested that, quite soon, even people who want to lose just the odd few pounds will be asking their friendly local surgeon to shrink their stomachs, funds allowing.
 
This, alas, is the way the world is going. We would rather be controlled than control ourselves. Our incontinence, whether we are talking about Twitter or Twixes, simply knows no bounds.
Fat loss is getting more extreme. Photo: George Simhoni / Gallery Stock

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 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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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