Finding Jack Charlton, BBC2, iPlayer

This documentary is a difficult watch. At times I wondered whether it should have ever seen the light of day. At times I wondered if it really fulfilled its aims. At times I wondered if its dual strands of career retrospective and encouraging us to learn more about the debilitating effects of dementia really sat well together. At the end of the ninety minutes I was filled by a profound sense of sadness that one of England’s (and, I should say, the Republic of Ireland’s) footballing greats should be depicted in this manner.

Was I being self-indulgent? Who was I to question to decision of Jack’s wife and children to allow this profoundly moving film to be made? After all, I didn’t have to watch it.

Jack Charlton, who died only a few months after the documentary was shot, was one of the great characters of football in the final forty years of the 20th century. Outspoken, opinionated and set in his ways, he truly was from a different mould and a different era to today’s pampered football professionals. Hailing from the mining town of Ashington in the North East he came up the hard way. He spent a lifetime proving people wrong and winning people round. He did it at Leeds, with England, and then gloriously with the Republic of Ireland’s national team. “Go home Union Jack”, they shouted when he was appointed. By the time he left the job ten years later in 1996 he was the nearest thing to country had to a living saint, apart from Mary Robinson, obviously. He led the Republic of Ireland to two consecutive World Cup Finals leading to some heroic performances against teams which they shouldn’t have, in any normal circumstances, come close to beating. He achieved it by recruiting players who knew what it was to play as a team. They didn’t play attractive football. It was very much hoof it up the pitch. There weren’t many Fancy Dan players in Jack Charlton’s teams. They intimidated the opposition. They left their mark. And it worked.

This film did a great job in showing what Jack Charlton was like as both a player and manager. But it was heartbreaking to see Jack watching previous Irish games on an iPad and clearly not even recognising himself on the screen. There was the odd flash of recognition, but that was it. Otherwise, it was just a blank look. At times you could almost hear his brain trying to whir into gear, but things never quite clicked. I had this experience with a close relative myself, who was in the early stages of dementia. It was heart-breaking to witness. It was as if someone had got into his brain and put the dimmer switch on.

The documentary also explores the troubled relationship Jackie had with his younger and more talented brother, Bobby. Bobby eclipsed Jackie as a player, although of course they both played in the 1966 World Cup winning England team. But Bobby played 106 times for his country, compared to Jackie’s 35 appearances. Bobby was for many years England’s record goalscorer, notching up 49 goals over more than a decade wearing the shirt of the three lions. But as a manager, Bobby was a failure. Jack wasn’t massively successful as a club manager, but his record with the Republic of Ireland spoke for itself. A family feud grew to the point where the two brothers weren’t on speaking terms. When Jack died in July last year, there had been no sign of the divide healing. Only three months later, brother Bobby was also diagnosed with dementia.

Bobby and Jack were both powerful headers of the ball. And in their era, footballs were very different from those of 2021. Can their dementia be linked to heading? It’s a massive issue for football to address. The Daily Mail has long led a campaign for the dangers of heading a football to be taken more seriously. Finally, the administrators of the game itself are also waking up to the idea that many footballers’ brains may well have been damaged in this way. The question is, what to do about it.

I’ll leave you with this anecdote from the fim. Picture the scene. Jack’s wife Pat is with him in their home. On the wall hung his certificate of honorary Irish citizenship. They were looking at some of the fan mail that he still received most days from Irish people just wanting to express their thanks. Pat remarks: “They think a lot of you in Ireland, don’t they?” Jack sits, trying to form a reply in his mind. After what seemed an eternity, he murmurs: “I have no idea”. If that doesn’t break your heart, nothing will.

A proud, ebullient picture of a man, reduced to a husk. That’s what dementia does. It is the most cruel of diseases.

Covid Confidential podcast, BBC Sounds

The great joy of making a podcast is that it can be whatever you want it to be. The BBC has had a tendency to think its podcasts must be ersatz-radio programmes, with all the production quality and tone of what appears on its normal radio channels. Brexitcast/Newscast partly put paid to that, and Covid Confidential certainly continues that trend. Presented by political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, it seeks to tell the story of Covid through five different moments in the crisis, using on and off the record interviews with people involved in developing government strategy. Sounds a bit dry, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s the complete opposite.

Most of us have found the last year very trying to one degree or another. If I was still in publishing I would be very reluctant to publish a book on the Covid crisis on the basis that I don’t think people are very interested in reliving the experience. People want to move on, and not dwell on all the awfulness of the last twelve months. When I saw that Covid Confidential had been made, even I was a little reluctant to listen to its two thirty minute long episodes. I am, however, glad that I relented and downloaded them.

Laura has her long term producer Paul Twinn alongside her as they give some behind the scenes colour of their involvement in some of the big moments of the last year. They lay bare the chaotic nature of their dual existence, and how they came to be at the centre of the unfolding dramas. It’s not just about them, though, it’s about how decisions were arrived at, the conflict within government, the reluctance of the Prime Minister to close down the country until the last minute. It’s about the way the politicians came to the decisions they did, having weighed up the scientific and economic evidence laid in front of them. It’s about the awful, dawning realisation in mid March of what was about to hit us. It’s about the agonies that both politicians and scientists have been through, realising that they made wrong decisions. In all it’s a very human story.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, were the only politicians to give on the record interviews, but Starmer in particular might as well not have bothered given he told us nothing we didn’t know already. Hancock was a little (but not a lot) better, especially when his voice broke when recounting the story of the moment he learned that the vaccines worked. A true Eureka moment.

This podcast will never air on Radio 4. Or 5 Live. This is a pity because it deserves a wider audience than it will inevitably get on BBC Sounds or other podcast platforms. The chatty nature of the podcast ought to give it a much wider appeal than you’d expect from a political podcast, but how do you convey that in a marketing campaign without it appearing to be yet another dumbed down BBC programme designed to appeal to the ‘yoof’ market?