Crusader Paul’s no dope but maybe he should lighten up

by John Boland

Near the outset of Rough Rider (RTE1), Kevin Kimmage recalled of sports journalist brother Paul that, when they were growing up, “he had a very vibrant sense of humour. I don’t think he has a very vibrant sense of humour anymore”.

Certainly on the evidence of this 90-minute documentary, you wouldn’t get much of a laugh out of him, a trait that’s to be observed in people who are on a mission to make the world a better place and who find the air much purer on the high moral ground.

Paul’s mission – which he’s been pursuing for more than two decades – is to clean up professional cycling and you’d imagine from this programme that he was a lone knight riding into battle against the forces of evil, when in fact other outstanding journalists, such as David Walsh, have been equally forthright and fearless in their uncovering of corruption in the sport.

The difference is that none of these other journalists have been quite so consumed by their crusading role, or indeed quite so personal about it, either – though Kimmage’s obsessiveness may have a lot to do with the fact that, as a former professional cyclist himself, he had also succumbed to the “temptation” of doping, a lapse that clearly appalled him.

Indeed, as he said in the film, which accompanied him as he covered last year’s Tour de France, he’s aware that many of his journalistic colleagues “think I’m a right pain in the ass, a self-righteous prick”, an instance of self-awareness that was somewhat undermined by the pride he seemed to take in this portrayal of himself.

Perhaps my resistance to this documentary (overlong at 90 minutes) was that – what with the coverage of this year’s Tour de France, not to mention the two recent films on Lance Armstrong – I was simply feeling all cycled out, but there was something about Kimmage’s dogged combativeness and moralising certainties that also wearied me.

“Hell will freeze over before I apologise,” he said of remarks he’d made about former cycling president Pat McQuaid and other officials.

“They like to hunt in packs,” he scornfully declared of other cycling journalists. “I prefer to be my own man.” This, however, “hasn’t endeared me to the fraternity.” He said this as if it were a badge of honour. Nor has it endeared him to former cycling friend Stephen Roche, with whom he fell out, seemingly because the 1987 Tour de France winner chose not to endorse or confirm the rightness of Kimmage’s crusade in the same way that Sean Kelly, who was “a giant” of the sport, did. And so Kimmage has removed Roche’s picture from the ‘Wall of Fame’ in his house. “It’s buried under a pile of shit,” he said dismissively.

At the film’s end, it was hard not to concur with Lance Armstrong’s former teammate Jonathan Vaughters, who observed that: “Paul’s got to look on the bright side once in a while – for his own good”.

There was no bright side to Children of Syria (BBC2), in which the Beeb’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucett spoke to six very young survivors of the four-year bloody conflict.

“Syria’s war is a war on childhood,” she said at the outset and this was confirmed by the six children she interviewed, all of whom had lost any sense of innocence or hope.

“I hate the future so much,” said 11-year-old Daad, whose family had been forced to flee their spacious house on the outskirts of Damascus and were now living in a back-street storeroom.

Another girl talked of having to kill and eat a cat to ward off starvation, while yet another spoke knowledgeably about types of bullets encountered in her daily life just as a child in a less ghastly situation might speak of types of flowers or birds or dolls.

“Many are learning to hate,” Doucett observed, and it was profoundly depressing to hear them spouting the prejudices and propaganda of their elders.

And the blasted urban landscapes in which they were filmed resembled those of a post-apocalyptic Mad Max movie, so that you felt just as despairing watching Doucett’s film as when learning of the latest round of child-slaughtering in Gaza.

Middle East atrocities also loom large in Hugo Blick’s series, The Honourable Woman (BBC2), which is now five episodes into its eight-week run and which has somehow attained the status of dramatic darling among the chattering classes across the water.

For myself, I’ve been finding it chillingly chic, as well as ponderous and self-important. Oh, and very slow, too, for a supposed thriller. Like everyone else, I admire Maggie Gyllenhaal’s mastery of a cut-glass English accent, though the effort of maintaining it does seem to straitjacket this always intriguing performer.

By contrast, Stephen Rea is unconstrained as a secret service executive. Indeed, if self-regarding camp is your thing, Rea’s mannered playing outdoes even Alec Guinness’s fey frolics as George Smiley.

Still, I’d prefer The Honourable Woman to Utopia (Channel 4), which is even more cold and chic and has an almost unfathomable plotline.

It’s also extremely nasty – scooped-out eyeballs in the first season, rabbits graphically butchered by children in this – and to those who defend the violence as cartoonish, I can only retort that I’m a grown-up whose taste for gratuitous bloodletting, whether comic-book or otherwise, belonged to my adolescent years.

400 millions musicans in China, that’s a fact

The title A Hundred Million Musicians (BBC4) referred to the number of people currently practising classical music in China – among them, more than 20 million children being taught how to play the piano.

Not all of them will turn out to be global superstar Lang Lang, who was among the interviewees marvelling at his country’s embrace of classical western composers whose work was formerly prohibited by the ghastly Mao.

This absboring film followed a scintillating Prom concert in which the China Philharmonic Orchestra gave an exhilarating account of Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition and a witty set of variations on God Save the Queen.

The promenaders roared their approval and the players smilingly took the applause as their due.

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