Muscling their way into old age

If Thomas Hardy had been prone to bouts of midnight bodybuilding instead of scribbling he might have once stared at his wizened form in a shady mirror and sighed, as he did in During Wind and Rain, “Ah no, the years, the years!” Sadly, there were no poets taking part in One Life: Bodybuilding Pensioners (BBC One), but the same gloomy sentiments and intrinsic fear of human transience haunted those who did like a nagging spectre.

“I’m 65, and I feel like I’m 21!” said the lanky Ted with a tremulous grimace of self delusion. He was followed by a troop of seminaked septuagenarians who sported tense bulging muscles and a poignant desire to circumvent the ageing process. “Bodybuilding,” announced 74-year-old Jackie Lee, a stringy Californian weightlifter wearing creepy Baby Doll ribbons, blonde curls and a wild Taser-faced expression, “is the elixir of youth!” She wasn’t fooling anyone.

The documentary, of course, was prerigged for ridicule. Cathy, for instance, an ageing female bodybuilder with a slightly simian demeanour, was caught grilling her slimmer, smaller husband Mike on her femininity quotient. “I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of looking masculine. Isn’t that right, Mike?” Cut to Mike, lost for words, and clearly thinking, “Does silverback gorilla mean masculine?”

Similarly we were shown the 78-year-old Carl, practising his freestyle routine, which included granddad-style moon-walking, break-dancing and some awkward leg manoeuvres that looked as if they were in danger of becoming, literally, hip-popping. Finally, there was Bill and Jane, a leather-skinned couple with fluorescent teeth and wind-tunnel smiles, who announced with egregious idiocy: “The biggest thing we are fighting, all of us, on this planet, is the law of gravity.” What?!

And yet, for all its slapdash cynicism and lazy journalism (nothing was revealed about the biographies of those involved), the show had moments of serene and painful insight. One of these involved Bernie, a 60-year-old who ate 22lb (10kg) of chicken breasts a week to maintain his admittedly impressive Schwarzeneggerian physique. The diet, however, plus his tough training schedule had left Bernie lethargic and sexually enervated. He was pictured, chest shaven, hair dyed and body oiled, sitting beside his concerned wife Linda, on his couch, wrapped in a duvet cover and staring blankly ahead in a near-catatonic stupor.

It wasn’t bodybuilding’s finest hour. But ah no, the years, the years.

Meanwhile, the second part of Michael Cockerell’s Blair: The Inside Story (BBC Two) proved that a prestigious documentary series doesn’t always begin with the best wine. Whereas the opening episode was all glib observations and potpourri style, here at last we were presented with precisely what was sorely missed from such a highly authored documentary: namely, a polemic.

In this case it was the fascinating and deeply dramatic idea that Tony Blair had been transformed from a peace-loving candidate to a warmongering Prime Minister by the intoxicating allure of military victory. Thus footage of teary-eyed Kosovan refugees reaching out to a visiting and strangely Messiah-like Blair were intercut with choice bites from the likes of the defence chief Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, who revealed Blair’s increasing acceptance of British casualties as the price to be paid for vanquishing evil around the globe (from the Balkans to Sierra Leone to Afghanistan to Iraq).

As always with Blair, there was a certain tragic resonance to his own self-deceit. His constant coopting of moral righteousness in speeches and interviews, cleverly collated here, seemed to reach parodic proportions. He claimed to be doing the “right” thing so often, and against such overwhelming international sentiment, that the word ultimately became meaningless.

The attempt by Cockerell, however, to conflate Blair’s military misadventures with some deranged evangelical mission from God was misplaced and amateurish. Blair’s religious evocations, seen here in context, seemed more like frantic political opportunism than a declaration of quasi-spiritual intent. Plus Cockerell’s obsequious cajoling of Blair on the same subject, captured in past interviews, left the distinct impression that he was, if only for a moment, “doing a Bashir” on Blair. Which isn’t very nice. Or professional.

Originally posted 2016-01-25 20:08:11.

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