A Game for Morons, by Morons
Surely there cannot be a better time, if you're a real sports lover, than the start of the year, which offers up the Darts World Championships at Lakeside in Essex and then, in quick succession, the Snooker Masters championship at Wembley.
Come on. Can anyone think of a better example of two great sporting events occurring so close to each other? No. No one can. The French Tennis Open and the final of the football European Cup occur quite close to each other, I think, but seriously, let's not start comparing football (a nice enough game, if you're into that sort of thing) and darts (the sport of kings). Football would never recover.
Darts -- for our American cousins, people of other nationalities and sheer heathens who don't know or appreciate darts -- is a game for morons, by morons. It consists of throwing arrows at a board. No one in their right mind would dream of taking it up professionally - and yet, if anyone with passable hand-to-eye coordination were to take it up tomorrow, they could be a champion in two years' time; it's not hard. Darts champions are ugly and boring. The game is incredibly stupid, being the game that is least likely to see any variation in play or playing styles from one round to the next. Men simply throw the arrows at the board and try and get a high score. To finish a round, you have to hit a double score. That's it. But it's SO EXCITING to watch on television, and I always welcome the week or so of darts on the BBC at the start of the year, not least because I receive text messages from dozens of friends who also revel in the stupidity and tackiness of darts, which all read, "Darts, Keith!" (a quote from Martin Amis's non-fiction collection Visiting Mrs Nabokov, which features an essay skewering the game). Martin Amis also once wrote, "There is no equivalent in darts to the wrong-footing cross-court top-spin backhand half-volley." Indeed. And thank god.
The genius of darts is its loudness, its brashness, its brazen inanity. I love it. I love to play it (every now and then when I'm drunk in a pub), I love to watch it (once a year). This is how it goes: the players come out to a huge cacophony of cock-rock and braying crowds, lurching out of their dressing rooms like stoned, incompetent boxers. (It's only very recently, I believe, that darts organizers wised up and stopped their players drinking while playing) The players have drab names like Martin Adams, or Martin Philips, and so to boost their style a bit and give themselves more sass, they all pick a terrible nickname for themselves: Martin Adams is known as 'Wolfie' because he once howled after a win, and Ted Hankey is known as 'The Count' because back in the days when he had hair, he used to comb it backwards. When my flatmate and I used to have a darts board in our house (which, bee tee double u, is not conducive to getting a full security deposit back from your landlords when you depart), we were known as 'The Undertaker' and 'The Librarian.' Martin Adams, who won the championship this year for a third time, wears spectacles that have not been available in shops for over 20 years, has the overall appearance of a clinically depressive pub landlord, and, like everyone else in the game, is ever swaddled in polyester so grim that you instantly fear for the invention, one day, of smellavision. Darts wives are the grimmest females ever to clench a fist on TV, and I don't want to talk or think about darts Mums.
The darts commentators are the best: Bobby George in particular, the cockney geezer whose voice gurgles from the memory of a billion cigarettes and a billion pints of tar-like ale; who glints, under the cheap spotlights, with his unfathomably horrid gold chains and rings; whose sorry thinning hair is wattled back in a great big daub of Dapper Dan, is the main attraction of the game. To people who take darts seriously, Bobby George is a legend; to people who, like me, love to laugh at darts and yet grudgingly love it, he is also a legend. Bobby George once straight-facedly uttered this least incisive line of commentary, about a player's winning technique: "'e beats yer - and ven 'e bullies yer." Cue much kerfuffling and snorting at the BBC, where there's always a hilariously stuffy and misplaced anchorman on hand to interact awkwardly with the darts aficionados.
This year's tournament wasn't a classic, chiefly because Ted 'The Count' Hankey and Tony 'The Silverback' O'Shea got knocked out early on, and darts lives and dies by its 'characters.' But I appreciated the performance of young Dean 'No Nickname Yet' Winstanley in making it to the final. Winstanley is 29 years old, and to think, looking at his jowly orange face and dyed hair, that he is a year younger than me, could drive me to tears if I thought about it too much. Let's move on.
Was there ever a series so boring as 'Zen'? I tried watching it -- for you, dear reader! For you! -- but I found it so relentlessly, painstakingly, heartbreakingly tedious that on occasions I had to fast-forward through it looking for deaths and sex scenes. I'm sorry.
Here is the gist of 'Zen' (the television show that's so boring that I longed for Cher and Christina Aguilere to show up in supporting roles as their characters from Burlesque): Rufus Sewell's voice and body star as Aurelio Zen, a curiously English-accented Italian detective in Rome who goes about drinking espressi and talking with Princess Diana eyes to stupidly glamorous women who are invariably deeply enmeshed in some murky crime plot he has to solve. Lots of other characters have an Italian accent, but Rufus Sewell hasn't bothered with that, and nor have a sizable proportion of other actors, who fanny around saying things like, "Tell that to Marco, I saw him by the Coliseum yesterday evening!" At one point, Rufus Sewell said, "I can't believe you're marrying that old fart Pietro" to his ex-wife, and I thought, no, neither can I: she's blatantly English, they're clearly in a studio, they have zero chemistry, and if he were a real person why wouldn't he say 'fuckhead' or 'twat' instead of 'fart'? The whole thing is so laboured, and is saddled with such a terrible confusion of tone (trying to be a suave Italian schmooze-a-chic fest, yet riddled with mockney actors doing their best Guy Ritchie) that it's really impossible to give a solitary toss what the hell happens.
Also, what in the name of jumping Jesosaphat is going on with Rufus Sewell right now? I suppose it's about 20 years since 'Middlemarch,' so he's had time to go down the drain, but where once he was a bit louche and dangerous-seeming, he now just seems a little bit ratty and weird-looking, with large bulging eyes set like onyx stones atop cavernous cheeks either side of two great flaring nostrils; he looks like Freddie Mercury's square accountant brother (Teddy Mercury, let's call him), who possibly has a dirty little secret he wants to tell you. I don't know; it may be that he's still good-looking and I can't see it. But his voice is definitely really weak. Honestly, this all adds up to a performance that's seriously lacking in any sort of chutzpah. He doesn't even seem to be that much of a maverick! Why wasn't he angrily clearing papers off someone's desk? Boring.
I just wanted to add a few words about 'Episodes,' which I know Dustin covered already, to give an English perspective. Or, you know, just my perspective. Briefly, for those two of you who don't know already, it's about Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan playing writers whose plans to adapt their British TV show in the States go awry when they're forced to make lots of changes and give the main role to Matt LeBlanc.
So far, so OK, as far as premises go. Except no, it's not OK, damn you! I hate the smugness of the suggestion that the English people might be so arty and principled in the face of a crooked, cash-obsessed American studio, instead of the reality, which is that British people cannot wait to get on television in the States (land of great television) because of all the money, fame and steady work that that brings. The programme that Greig and Mangan's characters were bringing in sounded woeful, and it looked to me like the studio made a good call in wanting Matt LeBlanc rather than Richard Griffiths (whose reading of the part stank, with his American accent and without) in the main role.
There was some niceness here, and a couple of good moments (mostly by the executives at the studio), but I just feel that this comedy of displacement doesn't work. We all know all about Beverly Hills and Hollywood and HBO, and all British people in the know spend their time watching 'Community' and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' and 'The Wire,' and English people are actually very good at adapting to the States, so why does the difficult and crazy world of television seem so foreign to these two schlubs? It just didn't ring true. I might keep watching to see if it gets better, but at the moment I must say that it's letting the British half of its show down one heck of a lot.
Caspar Salmon does not have an especially high or feminine voice, but people in call centres keep calling him 'Madam' on the phone.