Oh dear! I watched Everest On The Track, the documentary of Roger Bannister and the four-minute Mile on BBC4 the other night with mounting interest, thinking that here we finally have a piece about sport, putting it into a political and historical context – with its preamble about World War Two and its potential for the collapse of civilisation as we knew it – that is going to give some real insight into the role of sport in society as a determinant of values and a bedrock of social significance when it, ie sport has often been decried as being bereft of both.
But then it all went wrong. I’m not going to rehearse the arguments here, but I’ll append some past articles at the bottom, in which I expatiate on the questionable circumstances which led to the first sub-four-minute Mile, because that is something that this documentary signally failed to do. There is not a single word of dissent, and there should have been, for it to have been a properly critical piece of work in the rounded sense.
‘Everest’ is a thoroughly professional documentary – well-shot and edited, with high production values, tailored for US television, with its natural breaks and imposing intertitles every few minutes; and there is some excellent testimony from an impressive list of commentators beginning, believe it or not, with mygoodself contributing, as my former lady texted me to say, ‘your Hitchcock moment’.
There are some endearing anecdotes from Bannister himself, such as winning a schools’ cross country three times in succession which should have resulted in him keeping the huge trophy that was awarded annually. But, of course the school makes up a new rule on the spot, and all he gets is a tiny replica. As the tee-shirt advises, ‘Don’t Grow Up – It’s a Trick’.
And there’s some great historical footage. It’s always nice to be reminded that the young Queen Elizabeth II was a bit of a babe (maybe that’s why she didn’t like Lady Di?), and if you’ve never seen her consort, the now volubly embarrassing Phil the Greek in a Roman toga in a school play, seek out the photo – he’s incredibly handsome. And as for the three principals, Bannister and his pacemakers, Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, I loved the last one’s comment about Franz Stampfl, the Austrian who coached them towards the monumental feat… “Franz never stopped talking”. In other words, the typical inspirational coach!
There are a few too many talking heads for my liking – that’s what radio is for; and there is a little too much post-hoc rationalisation, but that’s inevitable in a retrospective piece, and the story goes round and round in ever-decreasing circles until, equally inevitably it disappears up its own fundament. But I would certainly urge anyone to watch it, while suspending critical faculties (it’s available for UK viewers on iplayer for the next month).
Yet there is a saving grace. Sir Roger himself, sadly suffering from Parkinson’s disease, is too intelligent and too much of a gent to be taken in by all this idle and uncritical adulation. He gets the telling last word, with which I am in wholesale agreement. “As I have said, winning Olympic races is more important than the Four-Minute Mile. It so happens that the rest of the world thinks otherwise”.
As Sir Roger and me know, the rest of the world is wrong!