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It's not the most auspicious of beginnings. BBC2's latest football series, Kicking And Screaming, opens with an intro sequence of Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs meeting Munch's The Scream, soundtracked by some hellish harmonica-playing bastard offspring of an inhuman mating between The Spinners and Roger Whittaker, and moves quickly on to James Bolam narrating Vidal Sassoon as he inexplicably likens George Best to Marcel Marceau. As the viewer reels in bafflement and an unidentifiable slight queasiness, this opening knockdown is swiftly followed up with a devastating flurry of kidney punches from a succession of blue-rinsed maidens and crusty old Etonian gentlemen recalling, with terrifying enthusiasm, the good old days when boys would engage in huge mob-handed sweaty tussles on the playing fields of public schools in a game with no obvious rules and little clear point other than to prepare a new generation for their impending slaughter in forthcoming bloody European wars.

Then, footage of what actually appears to be a bloody European war, pans out to reveal the genteel streets of Lerwick in the Orkney Islands on New Year's Day, in the throes of a centuries-old tradition called the Ba' Game, where the men of roughly conscription age in the town divide along street lines into two sides (the 'Uppies' and the 'Doonies') and take part in a massive street brawl lasting the entire day, the object of which is to deliver a ball from the somewhere in the middle of this seething mass of humanity to one or other 'goals' at either end of the normally sleepy community.

"I've got a lot of 'Doonie' friends in the town, but not today", says an 'Uppie' woman straight to camera, and you can tell she means it.

Perhaps disappointingly, the programme's out-of-control-on-Es-and-wizz assault on comprehension relents somewhat at this point, and things calm down into a rather more conventional historical documentary exploring the origins of 'soccer' in, mostly, England. (Indeed, in many ways the whole series mirrors from an English point of view a wonderful BBC Scotland effort of a few years back called 'Only A Game?', which dealt perceptively with the sport from the Caledonian perspective and further examined the whole of its psychological relationship with, and effect on, the Scottish people.) Here, in fact, comes the first revelation of the series - did you know that the name 'soccer' comes from an abbreviation of 'Association', as used by a pupil of the Charterhouse public school to distinguish this new type of football from 'rugger'? I certainly didn't.

There's much else of interest in the first episode - we hear of the earliest days of football hooliganism, with wrecked trains and drunken debauchery (from both fans and players) leaving a trail of debris all the way back to the first dawn of the 20th Century, and of the days when the real men of the game were expected to play on even with nails in their boots. We hear how the British team in the first ever world championships slept on the steps of Milan cathedral on the night before their first match, but still managed to win the trophy, only to leave it on the train on the way home and have it sent on by an honest French railway worker.

And we see utterly conclusive and incontrovertible evidence, in rare 1966 colour footage, that Geoff Hurst's extra-time thunderbolt from the edge of the six-yard box crashed down off the underside of the crossbar, struck the goal-line dead in the middle and bounced out again, casting new light on the masterful psychology employed by Roger Hunt as he turned away, hand raised in acclaim, from a rebound that was almost certainly sailing over his head and away from its place in the destiny of an English game that was under mortal threat from the kind of media pressure, in the face of the then-new and dispiriting challenge to Anglo-Saxon supremacy from the developing football nations of the world, that we think we only invented in the last 20 years or so.

To be honest, the rest of the series struggles to keep up the searing pace set by the first programme, and while Tommy Lawton's recollection of the entire Wolves team doped up to their glazed eyeballs on monkey glands as they thrashed him and his Chelsea colleagues 7-1 in a 1938 league match (episode 2) and some glorious early examples of the art of TV commentary in episode 3, as England experience their first home defeat to Continental opposition in the 6-3 humiliation against Hungary in 1953 ("If he can turn on tricks like that, we ought to have him in the music hall" thunders the man from the BBC on Ferenc Puskas, before observing on the two sides' unbeaten runs that "So one record has to go today - unless of course, it's a draw"), make for fine entertainment, it's all rather less gripping than the earlier succession of revealing stories from wizened old men with shining eyes about the game's birth pangs and formative seasons, when players were little more than lifelong slaves of the clubs who employed them.

Also, there's little after episode 1 to interest fans of any of the other three home nations, as the wide-ranging remit displayed at first narrows dramatically to encompass nothing west of Bristol or north of Newcastle, except in one memorable interview with Scotland's Denis Law on the aftermath of the 1966 World Cup Final (to which the whole of the third programme is devoted), when he says, flatly and with a clear air of genuine gloom, that "I thought it was the end of the world."

Still, for the odd glimpses of Matt Busby, Stanley Matthews and Bert Trautmann, as well as some truly astonishing crowd scenes from the 20s and 30s it's well worth tuning in at around 9.47 for the next six Mondays (to make sure you don't have to see that off-putting intro). And no, Vidal Sassoon never does get to come back and tell us exactly what the hell he was talking about.

*Kicking And Screaming, 9.45pm, Monday 16th October, BBC2

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