The contrast between the lives of the boxers in “Fight School” and those portrayed in “Anatomy of A Scandal” could not be sharper
This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Back in the late 1980s I helped launch a young people’s magazine called Fairly Serious Monthly (FSM).
We were based at a youth centre by Old Street, in Islington, called the King’s Corner Project. The idea was simple — to create an open-access media project that would give contributors their first chance to be published. I was already a working journalist, but I knew the hardest hurdle was to break through the Catch-22 that made it almost impossible to be published unless you were already published. Our slogan was “Buy It, Read It, Write It”.
Our instinct was correct. Through the doors they poured, young would-be writers, reporters, artists, photographers, designers, even advertising sales people. Out there, where real people lived often gritty, hard-scrabble lives, there was a deep wellspring of creativity, just waiting for an arena where they could connect and let rip.
We produced six issues, even got them into WH Smith. Almost everyone worked for nothing, or rather for love and belief in the magazine. But we lacked working capital and, perhaps inevitably, we went broke. Still, we helped launch numerous careers. Justin Leighton, our picture editor, went on to become Nikon’s Press Photographer of the Year and is now highly sought after for his portraits of cars. Mark Piggott writes for numerous newspapers and magazines, including this one. Many more went on to become full-time journalists or entered the creative industries.
I was reminded of our artistic adventure and its proof that so much human potential remains untapped while watching Idris Elba’s Fight School, available on BBC iPlayer. Elba grew up in a rough part of east London and like many young men reached a crossroads where different potential paths beckoned. Kickboxing taught him discipline and focus.
Elba’s Fight School takes eight youngish people and puts them through boxing training for five months. The eventual aim is for the fighters to compete in the ring at London’s historic York Hall. Hundreds applied for a place on the programme, seeing the opportunity, correctly, as potentially life-changing — and a chance to confront, even banish their ghosts.
All of the recruits have struggled in their lives, facing issues including deep poverty, crime, self-esteem, bullying, mental health and simple lack of opportunities. The fighters live together in a stylish house in north London and their delight at their new surroundings is touching.
They include Jess from Wales, who is overweight and struggles to complete the first fi ve-kilometre run. Naeem, an 18-year-old from Oldham, has problems with focus and timekeeping. Finlay, from Hamilton, struggles with anger issues and has served time in prison. Zeb too is dealing with a very troubled past while Sophie, a single mother, is finding it hard to be separated from her daughter. After one of the contestants drops out, Katie joins from Northern Ireland.
Elba is an engaging presenter who holds the series together, encouraging, inspiring, demanding more and cajoling the team when needed. Understanding that the real blocks are mental as much as physical, he takes the team cold water swimming, rowing, free-fall abseiling and even gets them VIP tickets to his latest film premiere.
The downside of boxing does not get covered: we see the participants line up to get punched in the face — so as to learn not to turn away when a punch lands — but repeated blows to the head are a health hazard. Mild concussions can linger for weeks. The fighters all get in the ring quite quickly but thankfully none are knocked out, even in competitive sparring.
Each episode takes us into the fighters’ backstories, tracing their lives and the difficulties they have faced, sometimes involving severe personal trauma. These are recounted with sensitivity. What they all share is resilience, a determination to prove themselves, and the sheer joy that someone is listening and wants to give them a chance to show what they can achieve. The last episode, when several of the team finally step into the ring is enthralling, moving viewing.
The contrast between the lives of the boxers in Fight School and those portrayed in Anatomy of A Scandal could not be sharper. The storyline, based on a political thriller by Sarah Vaughan, unfolds among a fictional group of the hyper-privileged yah-yahs of our ruling elite.
There’s a decent twist at the end but not quite enough to redeem this missed opportunity
Rupert Friend plays James Whitehouse, a government minister who seems to have the perfect life: a stellar career, a gorgeous house, lovely children and a flawless wife in Sophie, played by Sienna Miller. Until it all comes tumbling down when Whitehouse’s assistant claims he raped her.
The storyline loops back to Oxford University, where Whitehouse and his friends were hideous, arrogant shits. It’s a shame that what could have been a highly topical exploration of sexism and the power imbalance between men and women in Westminster is reduced to queasy, over-detailed courtroom testimony about sexual assault.
Throughout the series Whitehouse, like his peers, is portrayed as a one-dimensional, ruthless careerist. There’s a decent twist at the end but not quite enough to redeem this missed opportunity. I’d love to see a sharp, insightful drama, with nuanced characters, about Britain’s old boy networks, how they exert their influence and what really unfolds in the corridors of power. This was not it.
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