The Test, Amazon Prime

Sunderland Till I Die, Amazon Prime

Fly on the wall sporting documentaries have become a bit of a thing with the advent of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Scroll through their offerings and you’ll find them in all sporting genres, the most prevalent subject being football.

I’m a sucker for them, especially those relating to football clubs. The key to their success is not that they need to concentrate on the celebrity players, but they tell a story. Two of the best series in recent years were Being Liverpool, which charted Brendan Rogers’ first season in charge of the club, and Class of ’92 – Out of their League, which charted the rise of Salford City FC under the ownership of Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and then David Beckham. They both told very human stories, coupled with the odd moment of controversy and embarrassment.

Following these successes, Amazon Prime in particular commissioned a whole host more, following the fortunes of Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and, er, Leeds United under the maverick Marcelo Bielsa.

Strangely, none of them worked apart from the last one. The big clubs just weren’t that interesting. The players seemed like monochrome characters compared to the larger than life figures in the lower leagues. Perhaps they were too aware of their “brands” and the damage that one sentence out of place can cause.

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended that I watch The Test, a fly on the wall about the Australian cricket team in the aftermath of the ball tampering scandal. He warned me to be very afraid that it could make me like Justin Langer. Doubtful, I thought, but I’ll give it a go.

I was transfixed. It really was warts and all. The cameras followed the team for more than a year, capturing all the highs and the many lows.

If you ask me which sporting team I dislike most, the Australian cricket team would rank fairly highly. Rude, pig ignorant (albeit talented) sledgers is how I thought of them. Watch this series, though, and you see a group of individuals who care deeply about their sport, their team and their country.

There are many tears, as well. You don’t ever think “‘what a wuss”. You cry with them. And yes, not only did I gain a sneaking regard for Justin Langer. I also ended up liking Steve Smith and understanding better the uniquely Australian concept of “mateship”.  If you’re a cricket fan, watch it. You’ll love it – and probably watch all eight episodes back to back, as I did.

By way of contrast, the second series of Sunderland Till I Die was a bit of a disappointment – it had echoes of second album syndrome. The first series, from 2018 was a joy. Funny, entertaining and human, it told a story of a club fighting relegation and ending up dropping down a division. The players were relatable, and you learned a lot about how football clubs are run.

The second series relied far more on the new owners of the club, with the players almost relegated (see what I did there) to a secondary role. The series told the story of the club’s ultimately unsuccessful fight to be promoted from League 1. It didn’t go well, although it was difficult to understand why, given the players they had at their disposal.

What came across was the naivety of the new owners. They meant well, but they seemed like plucky goldfish in a sea of sharks. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, it just wasn’t as good as the first series. Mind you, I always look for Sunderland’s results now, in a way that I didn’t before. And I guess that’s why clubs decide to cooperate with TV companies. It helps recruit a new generation of fans, not just in this country but across the world.

Angie Greaves on Smooth Drivetime

Angie Greaves has one of those voices which is perfect for radio. She reminds me of a presenter on Radio Broadland who I used to listen to when I was at university called Mary Jane Cullen. She presented overnights and had one of those mellifluous voices which sounded like treacle oozing out of the radio. Greaves starts her show with 40 minutes of non-stop music – all songs that the listeners will be familiar with, and which provide a welcome respite from a diet of constant news on coronavirus. In fact, I suspect Smooth has become a bit of a refuge for those who want to escape from the trials of lockdown. Greaves has been around the radio bloc a bit, starting out on Capital Drivetime in 1986, having been discovered by Kid Jensen. She went on to present on Spectrum, Jazz FM and LBC before becoming a staple on Magic for thirteen years. She’s an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Women with Balls podcast 

From The Spectator stable of podcasts, Deputy political editor Katy Balls interviews a leading personality each week, the only thing is, they are not allowed to have a Y chromosome. Fair enough. She certainly attracts a high class of guests and recent episodes have featured Joan Collins, Karen Pierce and Lynn Barber as well as a whole host of female politicians.

The key to a successful interview podcast is that you even listen to the episodes you think you might find boring and you listen to the end anyway. Katy Balls is a political nerd – nothing wrong with that, I can assure you from personal experience – but she has a great talent of turning her hand to subjects way outside her comfort zone. Her most recent episode with Ruby Wax was a superb example. OK, Ruby Wax doesn’t know how to give a bad interview, but the twist in the tale here is that Balls was interviewing her mother-in-law to be. Two more different characters you couldn’t hope to meet. It was riveting.