I watched Rory McIlroy win the Open Golf last weekend (it was on Sky, so there was no Peter Allis and his reminiscences of clubhouse banter past; to my surprise, I missed him). What sportspersons need is ANF — attraction to non-fans. You might be a great admirer of, say, Ashley Cole, but his ANF-rating is near zero. Whereas David Beckham and George Best are way up there, appealing even to people who hate football. We try to like Andy Murray, but his ANF is poor, whereas Roger Federer is a near-perfect ten. Muhammad Ali had a terrific ANF, something no other boxer can approach.
Colin Montgomerie, who was commentating in the Peter Allis slot for Sky, has a low ANF, whereas the new US Open champion has it in spades, being young, good-looking, resourceful, seemingly modest, and blessed with a talent that appears to defy nature. This quality goes beyond sport and becomes magic. You feel that if his ball landed in a tree, McIlroy’s next shot would land within two feet of the hole. Miracles, that’s what television likes.
And miracles are what it didn’t get with Penn & Teller: Fool Us (ITV1, Friday). Sometimes television executives bewilder me. They’re like the people who play that pub game Richard Boston described. You have a beer mug filled to within an inch of the top, stand with your back to the bar and flip a coin over your shoulder. Then top it up with whatever you hit. Boston said the game ended in his pub when someone had to add liquor from a bottle of whelks.
That’s how they must have put together this show, at random, but with only one inch of beer and lots of whelk juice. ‘Gentlemen, in Penn & Teller we have booked probably the greatest magic act in the world. Penn Jillette is also a funny, commanding and experienced MC. So let’s get someone else to MC for him — how about Jonathan Ross! He can tell his trademark jokes, such as “Backstage someone made my watch completely disappear. But I found it again — on eBay!”’ That’ll get ’em going!
‘And instead of having Penn & Teller perform their astounding illusions, we’ll get amateur magicians from around the country. They can do creaky, old-fashioned turns involving magic cabinets, silk scarves and card tricks. Oh, and we could give P&T one short trick at the end…’
(Gosh, card tricks are dull, like recorder recitals. You admire the hours of practice, but wonder why they bothered. If the magician produces your chosen card out of, say, a pocket, it comes from another pack. And they use special decks, tapered by around half a millimetre, so if the card goes in correctly, it’s easy to find by feel.)
I interviewed Penn once and he pointed out that you can produce any illusion on television. So nobody believes what they see, and the magician can only hold their interest by demonstrating how the trick is performed. This makes their show far more fascinating than the usual vanishing ladies and intertwined rings. So of course we had no explanations. Too much whelk juice, not enough beer.
Over to satellite TV and the wonderful Secret War: the Spymistress and the French Fiasco on the Yesterday channel (Monday). The true story of Vera Atkins, who worked for the Special Operations Executive and who sent dozens of young women to their death in occupied France, was as enigmatic and baffling as a plot by John le Carré. The tale turned on a missing security check that was ignored; was this just carelessness, or proof that Atkins was working for the other side as part of a deal to get her own relatives to safety? She clearly felt guilty because she meticulously investigated the death of all her missing girls — it turned out three were injected with carbolic acid and then burned alive by the Germans.
I’d have liked the show even more if it hadn’t been for the loud, jarring, intrusive music which would have worked well for another remake of Psycho but here just detracted from an intensely compelling narrative.
Fake or Fortune (BBC1, Sunday) turned out to be far better than its game-show title implied. Fiona Bruce was investigating the best of France — the work of Monet — and the worst — ignorant, lazy and offensive bureaucracy. An English former naval officer has a Monet landscape, which the Wildenstein Institute in Paris — the only accepted Monet authority — has refused to acknowledge. And still does, in spite of the complete proof assembled by Fiona’s team.
Daniel Wildenstein believes that to overturn his father’s judgment would be to dishonour his name. So a 100 per cent certain Monet is not a Monet at all. Only in France.