The Giant’s Last Stand

Roald Dahl, outside Bow Street Magistrates, September, 1988.

Roald Dahl always had a gift for grab openings; dark, portentous first lines that yanked his young audiences by their shirt-collars, leaving them powerless to do anything other than nervously read on. (‘Until he was four, James had led a happy life.’) Introducing himself to me over the phone one lunchtime in May 1988 he was as macabre and arresting as ever.

 “This is Roald Dahl,” he announced in his imperious, fork-bending bass.  “I’ve just witnessed the most appalling incident in Hyde Park and I want you to report it.”

 By the late 1980s Dahl’s status as one of the world’s favourite living children’s writer was secure. Anarchic, fantastical stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG and The Twits were firm favourites with children around the world. That year Hollywood was at work on a movie version of his best-selling book The Witches, starring Anjelica Huston. So, given that the entertainment world was my journalistic beat back then, it would be fair to say he immediately had my attention.

 Dahl proceeded to describe what had happened an hour or so earlier that day while he’d been walking along the picturesque Serpentine in the central London park with his wife Felicity.

 It had been the noise that had alerted them: first the screeching of tyres, the slamming of doors, then raised voices, a flurry of swearing and the crackle of walkie-talkies. Then the loud barking of a dog. A curious Dahl saw the commotion was coming from the direction of three vehicles parked on the kerbside. One was a battered looking white van, the other two – a car and a van – bore police markings. Pinned up against the unmarked van they made out the figure of a man, enveloped in a semi-circle of six or seven uniformed police officers, one of whom was restraining a large, German Shepherd. Even from a distance Dahl could see the driver was offering some kind of protest. He could also see that he was black.

 Moving closer Dahl watched the scene take a sinister turn. He saw the dog handler let his animal jump up at the terrified prisoner. “They turned the dog on him, there was no reason for it whatsoever,” he told me. When the captive man tried to defend himself, lashing out at the dog, the officers started raining down punches. The beating continued even when the man collapsed to the floor. Eventually the, by now bloodied, figure was unceremoniously tossed into the back of the police van.

 Even down the telephone, I remember the mix of distress and barely repressed anger in Dahl’s voice.

 “I tried to ask them what he’d done but they just ignored me,” he said. “I stepped in, asked for their name and numbers and told them what they’d done was outrageous but I was just told to mind my own business.”


Minding his own business was not something Roald Dahl tended to do, particularly when – rather like one of The Witches picking up on the distinctive whiff of a child  – he sniffed injustice.

His distrust and distaste for authority figures coloured the view of the world he presented in his children’s stories. As the literary critic Mark West, who interviewed Dahl at length about the roots of his writing, explained: “In almost all of Dahl’s fiction–whether it be intended for children or for adults — authoritarian figures, social institutions, and societal norms are ridiculed or at least undermined.”

 Dahl himself had hinted at the key to this in his autobiographical book, Boy, published just four years earlier, in 1984. He wrote how, having already been traumatised as a three-year-old by the loss of his older sister and father, he was sent away to boarding schools in Wales and England at the age of nine. The account of his peripatetic education was dominated by his recollections of a succession of beatings he suffered, in some cases on totally false charges. His hatred of authoritarian injustice never left him.

 The sight of a black man being attacked in broad daylight for seemingly no reason would have brought those memories to the forefront of his mind once more. Hence the subsequent events and a little-known episode that, in the final throes of his life, shone a small but revealing light on the flawed but formidable character of a literary giant.


After my conversation with Dahl, I wrote the story and the brief piece ran on the inside pages the next morning. (Its lack of prominence says much about British society in the 1980s. Three years later, in California, the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD, would become a seminal moment in the troubled history of US race relations. In the UK, an attack on a black man by the Met Police in broad daylight was worthy of a few paragraphs on an inside news page.)

 The story didn’t go un-noticed in the offices of Goodmans, a small firm of West London solicitors. The previous evening a solicitor there had been asked to visit a client, a 27-year-old plasterer from an estate in White City, Augustus Errol Barton, under arrest at Gerald Road police station in central London.

 Barton told his solicitors he had been driving from a job in central London when he had been flagged down in Hyde Park by a policeman. He’d protested when the officer claimed to he was in violation of a bail order. Before he knew it a posse of policemen had converged on the scene and he’d been bundled into a van and driven to nearby Gerald Road police station where he had been charged with two offences, resisting arrest and assaulting a police dog.

 Goodmans knew there were several reasons why Barton’s protestations of innocence would almost certainly fall on deaf ears when it came to court.

 For a start, it was the late 1980s, even bleaker than usual times for young black men in London. Police were no longer allowed to use the notorious ‘sus’ laws to stop and interrogate people – or more usually black people – they suspected of crime at will. But the air of mutual antagonism between the Met and the city’s black population was at its height. In particular, the murder of PC Keith Blakelock on the Broadwater Farm in Tottenham in September 1985, had left relations between the Metropolitan Police and the capital’s black community poisonously charged. A little over a year earlier, in March 1987, an innocent man, Winston Silcott, had controversially been charged with the murder, sparking protests that were still continuing at the time.

 To make matters worse, Barton had a history. He had served three months after being found guilty of assaulting a policeman a year or so earlier. 

 In normal circumstances, it was an open and shut case in the most chillingly literal sense: it would open at the local prosecuting court, Bow Street, and Barton, would be shut away for a long time, his life, probably, ruined.

 Roald Dahl’s account of the attack offered a chink of hope.

Would he be willing to testify?

Arrests on the streets of London, 1985.

 The files have been long since shredded, so it is unclear who contacted who first and how the connection was initially made. I have a memory of someone at Goodmans contacting me. I had, through a colleague, obtained a phone number for Dahl at his home in the village of Great Missenden, Hertfordshire and may have passed it on. Alternatively Goodmans may have tried to reach Dahl through his agent or publisher. Given his combative nature, he may even have been trying to reach them at the same time. However contact was made, the firm’s senior partner, Jane Goodman remembered vividly the phone conversation she had one evening in her west London office. “I was working late and the phone rang. It was Roald Dahl,” she said when I spoke to her a few years ago. “I thought he was a bit of a chauvinist actually. He said something like ‘I would have thought you’d be at home cooking your husband’s dinner’.” His determination to help Barton was unmistakeable, however. “It was to his credit,” Mrs Goodman recalled. “He was adamant that he wanted to be involved in the defence.”

 The man selected to defend Barton was Edward Quist-Arcton, a sharp, combative south African counsel, one of the few black barristers practicing in London at the time. Quist-Arcton accompanied Barton for his remand proceedings at Bow Street Magistrates on May 20th, 1988. Barton was formally accused of assaulting a police officer and kicking a police dog. He was remanded on bail until September 8th. The proceedings were brief, a routine flurry of legalistic shorthand and diary dates. Until the end, that is. If Quist-Arcton’s intention was to ratchet up the interest in the case he succeeded. The next morning’s newspapers all reported that Barton told the court “he would call Roald Dahl the author as a witness”.

When the case came to Bow Street Magistrates in September that year, the Press gallery was crammed full in anticipation of  Dahl’s appearance.

 The hearing was spread over two days. The prosecution led off, calling to the witness stand a phalanx of officers involved in the incident. They argued that Barton had been driving with an out-of-date tax disc and a broken headlight. When they checked his car over the radio their station – erroneously, they admitted – told them he had an outstanding warrant for another offence. They’d tried to arrest him and he had physically assaulted them.

 The officers were united in denying that anyone had landed a single blow on Barton. “At no time did I see any officer kick or punch”, the van driver, PC Stephen Jenkin told the court. The police dog handler at the scene, PC Douglas Tulloch, also denied that the dog had been used to attack Barton. Instead he had begun kicking out at it for no reason.

 Quist-Arcton didn’t deny Barton had kicked the dog. But he suggested the decision to bring the dog in was “a deliberately provocative move”. The dog was “leaping up” and “trying to get at him”. Given this, his client had no option but to protect himself, he argued.

 The prosecution case took up most of the first day’s proceedings. When the court resumed the following day, Quist-Arcton wasted no time in calling his prime witness.

 When Dahl entered the court room the first thing that hit me and everyone else there was his sheer, physical presence. He was 72 by then and in declining health. His six feet six inch frame was slightly stooped; he was wearing a baggy jacket and woollen tie and the few strands of electrified hair that protruded from his balding head looked as if they had been squiggled on by his long-time illustrating partner, Quentin Blake. But it still seemed like the crowded court room at Bow Street Magistrates was too small for him. As he began his testimony, Dahls’ voice – so grave and sonorous it seemed to make even the air vibrate –  left no one in doubt he was a serious witness. The evidence he produced was devastating.

 Quist-Arcton made sure his star witness’ anti-authoritarian streak didn’t offend the Magistrate. Prompted by the barrister’s questioning, he said he had always supported the police. What he’d seen in Hyde Park, however, was behaviour that no one could condone.

 Guided by Quist-Arcton, Dahl then began painstakingly describing how he’d arrived on the scene as Barton was confronted by the policemen and the dog. He said he’d watched in horror as five officers formed a semi-circle around Barton who was backed up against a van and handcuffed. Reverting to the language of the amateur boxing ring, Dahl then told the court how he saw one of the officers start  “delivering straight lefts” into his face.

 “When the punches were being delivered, he was trying desperately to protect his face with his handcuffed arms by raising them,” Dahl said.

 As the punches rained in, Dahl said he snapped. “Another punch was delivered to this extremely bloody face and I shouted: ‘What has he done for heaven’s sake?’.”

 He said his protests were ignored as the beating continued. “After another punch or two the man sank slowly to the ground, almost certainly unconscious, but I cannot vouch for that,” Dahl said. “Immediately four or five policemen pounced on top of him and a rather repulsive melee took place, a sort of punching and kicking of an object beneath them.”

 Finally, as Barton lay limp and bloodied on the floor he was picked up. With a flourish fit for a scene from one of his books, Dahl said they threw him into the van like a “sack of cement”.

 I can vividly recall the blood draining from the faces of the policemen present as Dahl spoke. They must have known their testimonies were being publicly ridiculed by the giant figure in the witness box. Yet, like everyone else in court, they seemed quietly mesmerised by Dahl.

 Closing his testimony Dahl, who served with distinction in the RAF in north Africa during World War II, told the magistrate the feelings the attack had provoked were as deep and emotional as he had ever felt in his life.

 “I have been through the war and seen some nasty things but still don’t feel that I have ever seen anything quite as nasty as this. I thought I was probably in South Africa or somewhere.” he said. (This was 1988, the emotive era of Biko and Soweto, of Nelson Mandela still incarcerated on Robben Island.)

Dahl was shot down in Africa as a pilot in 1940.

 The Magistrates’ decision must have been an easy one. Dahl’s defence was eloquent, emotive and dignified. Above all it rang true. In comparison, the case for the prosecution seemed shifty and suspiciously over-choreographed. One look at the policemen’s faces during Dahl testimony would have told the members of the bench all they needed to know.

 Within minutes the court announced that both cases against Barton were dismissed.

 The reaction to the verdict was low key. There were no Hollywood air-punches, no spontaneous outbursts or applause, merely an acceptance of justice having been done, or more to the point a grave injustice having been avoided.

 Whatever emotions were flowing around the courtroom, Errol Barton didn’t seem to grasp the magnitude of what had happened.  I have a memory of Barton briefly shaking Dahl’s hand after the proceedings were over. But he seemed slightly baffled by what had occurred.

 “He was not a particularly literate person, I doubt he read much. I don’t think he quite comprehended how marvellous it was to have someone of that stature giving evidence on his behalf,” his solicitor, Mrs Goodman, told me.

  Dahl and Felicity made a quick exit, heading back to their home at Gipsy Cottage in Great Missenden. I spoke to him briefly again outside court but telephoned him later that evening at home for a lengthier, post mortem. There was no triumphalism, more a sadness that such a thing could happen.

 I couldn’t help thinking that if it had been one of his children’s books, the policemen would have been turned to dust. Or perhaps transformed into dogs themselves.  “I was just glad to be of help,” he said, resisting the temptation to develop his testimony in court. “I think I should leave it there.”

 The Crown Prosecution Service may have had grounds to appeal, but the publicity surrounding the case and the damning picture it painted of the Met at work put paid to that.  “The CPS had to drop the case afterwards,” Mrs Goodman recalled.

 If anything it was Barton who had the best opportunity to take matters a stage further. “I told him he should get another solicitor and sue. I don’t do civil cases,” Mrs Goodman recalled. “But he didn’t do anything about it.”

 Today such a case would have become a cause celebre. The combination of a Rodney King or George Floyd-style beating and a world famous author would have been irresistible in the era of 24 hour news and social media. But back then it was quickly forgotten. Errol Barton slipped back into obscurity as a plasterer in the White City area, while Dahl returned to completing two new books, The Vicar of Nibbleswick and a cookery book with Felicity.

He died two years later, in December 1990, aged 74, after developing a rare form of anaemia. His role in keeping Errol Barton from a lengthy prison sentence merited no mention at all in his obituaries. It was perhaps understandable. Compared with the long list of – sometimes heroic, occasionally controversial – achievements in his long and colourful life, it seemed almost inconsequential. An entirely forgettable footnote. But should it remain that way?

In the thirty years since his passing, while the world’s affection for his books has shown no sign of abating, his personal reputation has been tainted by tales of his cruelty, almost child-like irascibility and, most damaging of all, his flagrant anti-semitism. In December 2020, his family took the extraordinary step of issuing an apology, acknowledging historic remarks denigrating Jews. His widow and children were clear that “those prejudiced remarks are incomprehensible to us and stand in marked contrast to the man we knew and to the values at the heart of Roald Dahl’s stories”. They argued, in his defence, they represented Dahl “at his absolute worst”.

 It is why this largely-unheralded episode two years before his death intrigues me. Was this Dahl at his absolute best? Does he deserve acknowledgment for averting what would have almost certainly have been another outrageous miscarriage of justice against a black man in London at that time? Does it justify a re-assessment, perhaps even in a partial re-habilitation of our view of the real Roald Dahl? Yes and no. First of all, was it really so heroic? Any decent person would have done the same thing, wouldn’t they? Maybe. It took considerable courage to confront and contradict the evidence of half a dozen police officers in court. I’m not sure many people would have attempted it, even those possessed of egos the size of Dahl. Of course there’s a chance it could have been all about that – his ego. He may just have seen it as a piece of self-publicity. But then why didn’t he ever talk about it again? That doesn’t ring true either. More persuasive, to me, at least, is the argument that it presented an opportunity to rail one last time at authority, to put the boot into the police in the same way the thuggish men in uniform had kicked and punched Errol Barton in Hyde Park. That was totally in character. He was an equal opportunities trouble-maker, a rattler of establishment cages. He couldn’t resist. The fact he saved a man from jail made it all the more justifiable – and appealing.

Of course that man, Errol Barton may provide a clue as to how it should be contextualised, how it fits into the biographical picture we carry forward of Roald Dahl. How did they interact before and after the court case? What did he make of the grand figure in the witness box that day at Bow Street Magistrates? What impact did his acquittal that day have on his life? He is, it seems, still working in White City, but is an elusive character. I have tried unsuccessfully to trace him. Edward Quist-Arcton would, of course, have been central too but he died tragically at a young age. But in the meantime I have begun writing a drama about the incident and the collision of unlikely characters at its heart. It hasn’t revealed its full shape yet but it will, of course, be book-ended by the dramatic scenes that occurred in Hyde Park and then later at Bow Street Magistrates in 1988. Its most telling moment may come in its postscript, two years after the event – and Dahl’s passing.

At the author’s funeral in 1990, there was a reading of his favourite poem, a verse from Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, and in particular its famous lines: 

“Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” 

When he witnessed the assault on Errol Barton, Dahl had not known that the close of his own day was drawing near. Yet the injustice he saw ignited a flame that burned and raved within him well beyond that day. It continued to rage until his impassioned testimony in court. It had felt less like the dying of the light and more like a giant’s last stand. I will never forget it.

Copyright Garry Jenkins, July 2021

A Link in a Chain: Memories of the 2012 London Olympics

A piece I wrote for The Radio Times back during the unforgettable summer of 2012, when I volunteered as a ‘Games Maker’ at the London Olympics.

It was 9.48pm inside a tunnel at London’s Olympic Stadium when I got perhaps the worst-timed tap on the shoulder of my life.
It was the second Sunday night of the Games and, along with the 80,000 crowd in the floodlit arena outside, 20 million BBC TV viewers and around 2 billion people worldwide, I was getting ready to watch the most anticipated event of the Games, Usain Bolt’s attempt to defend his 100 metres title.
The race was due to start in two minutes time, at 9.50pm precisely so – along with scores of other journalists and media people in the so-called ‘mixed zone’ where athletes are interviewed – I’d engineered a prime spot to watch the race on a giant monitor close to the track. Which is why the tap on the shoulder – and more importantly the message that accompanied it – was, on the face of it, about as welcome as a right hook from Nicola Adams.
“Mate, I can’t find anyone else, can you head off and do the press conference for the final of the women’s triple jump?,” asked one of the senior members of the Olympic News Service (ONS) to which I’d been assigned as a volunteer or Games Maker. 
“Sure,” I said, releasing my position to a grateful American hack and heading away from the track sensing that I’d made a schoolboy error in standing so close to the ONS office.
The atmosphere within the mixed zone can be manic so the near empty press conference room I entered was an oasis of calm in comparison. Apart from two Kazakh journalists excitedly waiting to interview their gold medallist, Olga Rypakova, the room was as barren as, well, the Kazakh steppes in Winter.
I managed to catch Bolt’s miraculous win on a monitor in the corner. Then, as the rest of the stadium screamed itself hoarse at the great showman’s lap of honour, I sat down and dwelled for a moment on what a profound experience these Olympics had become for me. 
To begin with it had brought me a rather warming dose of deja vu. It was twenty five years since I’d been a reporter on national newspapers. My life since then has generally been led far from the front line of journalism. Not that this was precisely Aleppo, but I was on a deadline needing to accurately report the conference then file a report within minutes. It felt good to reconnect with the sharp end of the profession that is in my blood.
But I was also reminded of what a privilege it was to witness the Olympics in such an up close and personal way. I couldn’t really complain about missing out on Bolt’s 100 metres. On several other occasions already, I’d been positioned in the stadium alongside the television broadcasters whose interviews I eavesdropped in search of juicy quotes for the ONS. The likes of the BBC, NBC and Eurosport, of course, have the very best seats in the house, so I’d been trackside for Jessica Ennis imperious run to gold in the final 800 metres and would be there again for Bolt’s 200 metres and 4×100 metre relay win. But it was a privilege in another way too. The Kazakhs and I were soon joined by three rather beautiful and charming triple jumpers, each of whom was clearly overjoyed to be sitting here. As they were soon making plain, this was the highpoint of their lives, the moment for which they’d expended blood, sweat and tears on the track and in the weights room for most of their adult lives. I felt honoured – and not a little humbled – to be sharing it with them.
By the time I was weaving my way back through the mixed zone to my office, the scrum forming in anticipation of Bolt’s arrival after winning the 100 metres already ten deep. When my colleague asked me whether I’d now like to cover another Press Conference – not Bolt’s, but the one for the men’s 3,000 Steeplechase – I had no hesitation in saying yes.
That was the other thing I’d reconnected with during these Games. As an author and freelance journalist I generally work alone. I inhabit a self-made bubble. At the Stadium I was part of a team of diverse individuals that included a student from John O’Groats, a couple of former PE teachers and a regional newspaper editor who was sleeping in a tent a few miles away. I’d already forged friendships that, I suspect, will endure personally and professionally long after the Games – maybe even all the way to Rio in 2016. But I’d also rediscovered the rewards that come from being in a team. I wouldn’t want to over-egg it and draw comparisons with the road time trial cyclists or Mo Farrah’s selfless running partner Galen Rupp, but tonight had underlined that ethos for me. As an individual, there was no way I’d have given up my prime spot to watch Bolt. But as a member of a team, I had committed to doing a job – regardless of how inconvenient it might be. Here at the Olympics I’d rediscovered the beauty of being part of something bigger than ourselves of being a link in a chain that strengthens our sense of community and humanity. It felt good. 
On Saturday night, I was back at the stadium for the last of my eight shifts. Perhaps it was demob fever, but for the first time in a fortnight I let my professionalism drop and leapt up and down like a lunatic roaring Mo Farrah on down the home straight in the 5,000 metres. But I also managed to achieve two things that, for me, crystallized the experience of being part of these remarkable Games. 
The first came early that evening during a press conference held by the ruling body of athletics, the IAAF, with Lord Coe on the panel. On the way out, I shook Coe’s hand and thanked him on behalf of all the volunteers with whom I’d shared the past fortnight.
“You do realise that it wasn’t just the younger generation who were inspired by this Games,” I told him. It wasn’t an original line, I’m sure, but the rushed smile and “thanks” he gave me felt like my very own gold medal. 
The second was my very last act as a so-called Games Maker. As I was gathering together my belongings, including the rather lovely metal baton handed out to all volunteers at the end of the Games, my team leader, a brilliant lady on secondment from UK Sport, let slip that she was short of willing hands for the Paralympics in a couple of weeks time. 
So I stuck my hand up and volunteered. I’ll be back dashing around that stadium again very soon.

A Storm at Golgotha

A piece I wrote for The Times to coincide with the BBC’s new version of The Passion, back in the Spring of 2008. I remember it most for the hair-raising drive across the Atlas mountains from Marrakech to Ouazarzate, on the edge of the Sahara where I spent a couple of days with the production waiting for the weather to behave itself.

Joseph Mawle, centre, as Jesus in the BBC’s version of The Passion in 2008.

Mid-afternoon in the suffocating heat of the Moroccan desert, and a day that began long before dawn is at last building to its climax. On a ridge, overlooking a rugged, rock-strewn valley, a swarm of make-up artists, costume-fitters and prosthetics experts are applying the finishing touches to the loincloth-clad figure of the actor Joseph Mawle. Nearby, in-between swigs from small bottles of mineral water, a quartet of red-robed Roman centurions is rehearsing hauling upright the crude, T-shaped gibbet to which the young Englishman is about to be attached.

Until now the day has been bedevilled by small technical hitches that have put back filming. Mawle, facing the biggest challenge of his young acting career, portraying Jesus’s crucifixion at Golgotha, has been up since 3am. So when, a few moments later, the last-minute adjustments are complete and the call for quiet and then action finally goes out, the sense of excitement is mixed with a palpable sense of relief. Hundreds of hours of preparation and planning, both here in Morocco and back in the UK, are about to come to fruition. Or so it seems.

Seconds after the cameras turn over for the first time, a sudden gust of desert wind throws thick, red dust up into the eyes of Mawle and the centurions. Within moments tripods, chairs and other bits of equipment are being picked up and thrown over by stinging blasts of air. As all eyes turn heavenwards, a bank of dense, livid, purple and grey clouds is settling above the scene, obscuring even the vast Atlas Mountains in the distance. Soon fat gobbets of rain are turning the dusty landscape a dark, muddy brown, sending everyone running for cover. Minutes later, with the storm growing in intensity, filming is postponed.

At least producer Nigel Stafford-Clark hasn’t lost his desert-dry sense of humour. “There are times when I wonder whether I’ve walked into the Book of Job. This definitely feels more like it belongs in the Old Testament rather than the New one,” he says, huddled under a makeshift tent, looking up at the unruly heavens with a world-weary smile. “I do feel like having a conversation with God and saying, ‘Come on, we’re trying to tell this story, give us a break.’”

Stafford-Clark and his team are here in southern Morocco, near the town of Ouarzazate, to film an ambitious new, three-hour version of the Passion, the story of Jesus’s last week on Earth. Despite the fact that it is summer, this is the second time in a week that the production has been thrown by the capricious Moroccan weather. Last week, plans to film Jesus’s arrest by the Romans in the Garden of Gethsemane were wrecked by a sudden and unexpected flash flood. “It was extraordinary. One day this place looked like it hadn’t seen rain for centuries, the next it was submerged in water that was roaring down from the mountains,” says Stafford-Clark.

Stoicism is the television producer’s stock in trade, but rarely can it have been required in such quantities. Encounters with biblical storms are far from the first tests Stafford-Clark and his production team have faced. Given the bold, brave and potentially controversial approach they are taking to retelling the story of Jesus’s final days, they are also unlikely to be the last.

The BBC conceived a new version of the Passion, to be broadcast episodically at prime time on BBC1 over four nights through Easter Week, more than a year and a half ago. The appetite for Biblical stories had been proved by the enormous box office success of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. Stafford-Clark, who had just brought the acclaimed Bleak House to television in a similar format, sensed an opportunity to breathe new life into the subject.

“I had just watched Pasolini’s Gospel According to St Matthew, which I’d loved when I’d seen it in the Sixties,” he says, by now safely installed in his office at the nearby Atlas film studios, which have become his base. “It is the only successful version I’ve seen of this story. The big American epics in the Fifties, and even the Zeffirelli version with Robert Powell back in the Seventies, were all very reverential. They all made you feel as if you were looking at it through a plate glass window, as if there was a distance between you and what was going on,” he says. “It always felt like King Arthur or Lord of the Rings, as if these events took place in a vacuum.”

Stafford-Clark wanted to ground the story in reality for the first time. “It’s billed as the greatest story ever told and in many ways it is. But in terms of storytelling it never seemed to make a lot of sense. Watching all these other versions, I didn’t understand what Palm Sunday was all about, for instance. He was just a humble preacher from Galilee. Why all this excitement? Why did the high priest react the way he did in condemning Jesus to death? Why did Pilate do what he did? When you are given the story normally, all these things have to be taken for granted. They are part of what you are told. I felt there was a chance to remedy that.”

The key, for him, was to create a drama that allows the audience to feel as if they were in the thick of the action 2,000 years ago. “If you had been in Jerusalem in AD32 you would have witnessed this. You would have seen the crowds, the excitement of his arrival, you’d have got wind of what was going on in the temple. And then you’d have heard rumours that he’d been arrested,” he says. “It’s something that actually happened. This is the thing we are trying to get across.”

The first challenge was to find a writer capable of evoking the turbulent, chaotic political melting pot that was first-century Judaea. He appeared in the unlikely form of the Emmy-winning, Irish-born writer Frank Deasy, best-known for hard-hitting contemporary dramas like Real Men, about child abuse, and Looking After Jo Jo, set in the world of Scottish drug gangs. Deasy’s fast-moving, episodic script shows the tumultuous events of Passover week in Jerusalem from the perspective of all those who took part in it, not just Jesus and his disciples, but Pontius Pilate, the Romans and the Jewish temple authorities too. “As a dramatist, the big challenge was to evoke a world in which this story has not taken place, a world without Jesus or any Christian churches or any of the Christian concepts that are so familiar to us,” he explains.

As well as reading the Gospels and conducting his own research, Deasy spoke to Professor Mark Goodacre, a leading New Testament scholar at Duke University in North Carolina, who was engaged as a historical consultant to the series. It allowed him to add dramatic depth – and potentially controversy – to the orthodox version of the story. Deasy was determined that every character had a story of his or her own. “By the end I hope people feel they have been on a very deep journey with these characters, that they feel they have shared the most powerful week of their life. So everyone had to have a motive that we could understand, a logical psychology to the things that they do,” he explains.

As a result, for instance, Mary Magdalene, played by Paloma Baeza, is portrayed not as a prostitute but as a woman who is, effectively, one of Jesus’s sponsors. “There is increasing evidence that she was a wealthy widow who supported Jesus’s campaign. As he emerged from Galilee, he needed backing,” says Deasy.

Pontius Pilate, played by James Nesbitt, is also revealed in a new light, as a career soldier posted to one of the most troublesome outposts of the Roman Empire. “We see him as a man with a wife and a career and a villa in Rome to worry about,” says Deasy. “Again I wanted his decisions to be plausible. He’s a guy managing a career and a volatile political situation. I think Pilate is an interesting contemporary figure. You can almost view the current situation with the Western powers in Iraq or Afghanistan in the things Pilate says. He is someone who is dealing with people with huge convictions about things that mean very little to him and he is trying to impose order,” he says.

The character who emerges from the shadows of history most strongly in this version of the story is the high priest of Jerusalem’s temple, Caiaphas. In most versions of the story the man who condemns Jesus to death at the hands of the Romans is a one-dimensional figure, the most identifiable bad guy. Through his research, however, Deasy began to see a man who was part priest, part politician, a leader who was faced with keeping a lid on the cauldron of intrigue and insurrection that was Jerusalem during the biggest festival of the year, Passover. So when Jesus appears in Jerusalem, fulfilling an ancient prophesy that the Messiah will arrive on a donkey through the city’s eastern gate, Deasy’s Caiaphas, played by Ben Daniels, is motivated not by bloodlust, but by the need to protect his people from the violence the Romans routinely meted out when tensions rose within the city. “I became more and more fascinated by Caiaphas,” Deasy says. “He is usually a cartoon villain. But he is trying to protect his world for noble reasons. He loves his people and his family. By going down a very human route with Caiaphas it led me into really interesting dramatic territory.”

At the heart of the drama, of course, is Jesus himself. Like Stafford-Clark, Deasy wanted to move away from the image of an otherwordly figure. “In so many other treatments Jesus is pure, floating on a cloud 2ft above the ground,” he says. “He has to emerge as a person to other living people.”

The key to this was giving him a voice that was rooted in the world, something Deasy found in an unexpected place. “I was struggling, so I talked to a friend of mine who is a priest. Every day he makes these concepts fresh to a contemporary audience so I asked him how he did it. He gave me a really simple piece of advice,” he explains. “He said to think of Jesus as coming from Newcastle, as a working-class man from the north of Palestine who speaks Aramaic to fishermen and peasants, who comes to London where people speak Hebrew and are more educated. And he starts to preach the Gospel. He has got to use words that are quite simple, clear and rough at times. He has to explain concepts like redemption, righteousness, forgiveness, in plain, everyday language. This idea of Jesus coming from a real place worked. After that I found a voice for him that was easy and conversational, simple, without being patronising.”

Perhaps the boldest decision Deasy made was the last one. The final episode of the six-part drama depicts the resurrection of Jesus in a way that is open to individual interpretation. In keeping with the Gospels, he reappears to his former friends in different ways, leaving them to decide what it is they have seen.

“A lot of accounts skip the resurrection,” Deasy says. “We have followed the different gospel accounts faithfully. There are lengthy discussions among the disciples about what it means. They are the conversations we would have today in the light of an event like that. It resolves itself in that there is a resurrection of hope among the disciples. There’s a sense of new life, that suffering has been transformed into something meaningful. The extent of what that means as a viewer is up to you.”

While Deasy was completing his script, Stafford-Clark was turning his attention to filming. When he decided to shoot in Morocco during summer, director Michael Offer thought he was crazy. “The old phrase about mad dogs and Englishmen sprang to mind,” laughs the Australian director. “The heat has been challenging, particularly for the actors wearing beards and robes.”

The Atlas film studios have been a favourite location for film-makers from David Lean to Ridley Scott, who filmed sequences for Gladiator here. Every aspect of The Passion’s look was carefully researched. For instance, production designer Simon Elliott and his team went to great lengths to ensure that the last supper was an authentic meal from the Judaea of the time. “The Passover lamb eaten during the festival would be part of the meal, along with herbs and green vegetables,” says Elliott. “There were dates and raisins and unleavened bread and a sausage made of honey and dates.”

In a similar vein, Elliott and his team tried to recreate the crucifixion as realistically as possible. Historical evidence suggests that Jesus would have been nailed to the cross in a way that is at odds with the image that has dominated Christian iconography for 2,000 years. “There has only ever been one archaeological find of a crucified skeleton, in Palestine in the Sixties,” explains Elliott. “The body was in a slightly different position to the classic one, with the legs tucked up and under. Historians think it shows the crucifixion was fiendishly designed. If you could bear the pain of having the nails driven through your ankles you could take the weight and lift up your chest. But if you were put in a position where you couldn’t lift yourself up you died of asphyxia – you were basically suffocated. That’s the reason they broke your legs, so you would very quickly suffocate.”

If the burden of retelling the greatest story ever told was heavy for the production team, however, it was greater still for the man chosen to portray Jesus. A relatively little known actor, acclaimed for his work in the BBC2 drama Soundproof and most recently seen in the gay drama Clapham Junction, Joseph Mawle was Stafford-Clark and Offer’s first choice for the role. He admits he has found it hard and lonely work. “It is incredibly daunting,” he says. “It is in some ways the biggest role you can take on. There were times I got quite shaky about it and thought, I’m really scared, to be quite honest with you. If we don’t like Jesus, then we are in trouble.”

The key, he says, has been to play him as flesh and blood. “He was a man. No two ways about it. The only way I could approach him was not as a god, but as a man,” he says. He has, he admits, been particularly wary of the crucifixion scene. “I am pretty scared about it. I want to get it as right as possible, to play the reality as much as possible and to tell the story as best as possible.”

Frustratingly, however, he will not be doing it today. As word comes through that filming has been abandoned for the day, Mawle heads off to begin preparing to film an interior scene at the studios.

Nigel Stafford-Clark, meanwhile, is in his office, anticipating battles much further down the line. Aware of the scrutiny that the film will get, both here and in the US where the BBC’s co-financier, HBO, will show the drama, he has already begun dialogue with the Christian community. “We have told them what we are doing,” he says. “It’s very important that it doesn’t come as a shock to people, particularly to those for whom it is the most important story in their lives. The reaction has been very positive.”

He is too old and wise a hand to expect it to avoid controversy completely. When he made Bleak House he had to field complaints from the Dickens Society and, faced with a rather broader constituency this time, he is braced for criticism again. He is unapologetic about the approach he and his team have taken, however. “My job is telling stories. The fact that it is the backbone of one of the world’s great religions is what, for me, has stopped it being told properly as a story before because people back away from it. It’s not just a story that is told in churches. It really happened,” he says.

“Our version is not remotely controversial. There is no attempt to twist anything – you don’t see Jesus sleeping with Mary Magdalene or anything like that. We have tried to make it feel like it is really happening. And because you understand why people are behaving the way they are, what Jesus is doing becomes even more extraordinary.”

“With the world the way it is at the moment,” he continues, “anything that is about something that goes beyond your everyday existence is of value. People are looking for something beyond their new car. Telling a story like this quenches that thirst. It makes you feel there is something beyond your own limited existence.”

And with that he leaves his office to head back out towards the set – checking nervously for the arrival of another Biblical storm.

Venturing into the world of animals.

Whenever anyone asks me how I ended up writing so frequently about our relationship with animals, I generally point them in the direction of this Guardian article, written way back in 2007 under one of my pseudonyms, Augustus Brown. All the clues are there.

I was seven when a large sow taught me one of the more valuable, if painful, lessons of my young life: pigs really don’t appreciate being ridden, rodeo-style. My moment of enlightenment came one Sunday afternoon, in a muddy pasture on the smallholding where I grew up. Filled with that blend of bravado and brainlessness that only boys of that age possess, I decided to climb on board the fattest of our half dozen or so porkers and “break it in”. (I’m fairly certain the idea had been planted by watching a bunch of leathered cowboys taming a steer, earlier that day on Bonanza.)

No sooner had I grasped her leather harness and clambered on board her broad, bristly back, than the sow had shaken off the indolence that had defined her personality since she’d arrived with us and begun performing a passable imitation of a bucking bronco. I held on for all of three seconds before being catapulted, head first, into the mud. The physical bruises faded soon enough; the scars this delivered to my boyhood pride took longer to heal.

Scientists probably don’t have catastrophic interactions like this in mind when they talk about the benefits of having animals around. Their arguments tend to focus more on the advantages dogs, cats and hamsters bring in terms of stress-release and proto-parenting, teaching children responsibility and environmental awareness. I have no doubt there is merit in all their assertions. But, it struck me recently, the curious incidents that filled my childhood may offer one or two extra, unheralded arguments in favour of spending our lives close to animals.

When I was 11 or so, for instance, my father and I found a fox cub injured in the woods nearby and brought it home. We nursed it on bottled milk for a few weeks. We converted an old sideboard into his home, even gave him a name, Carlo. No one was more enthusiastic about our new charge than my father, who was fired by memories of his own childhood when he too had reared a stray cub. I remember sensing that our shared responsibility for this poor creature had somehow brought us closer.

One morning I woke up to discover the fox had battered its way through the side of his home and fled. He was gone but he hadn’t forgotten. A week later an already more mature-looking Carlo reappeared in a roadside hedge near the entrance to our lane. Rather idiotically, I assumed he’d come back to say thanks. So, unbelievably, did my father. When he kneeled down to stroke the fox, Carlo bit him so hard he almost severed a finger. I’d never seen so much blood. The memory has been locked away ever since, a piece of family lore. Naturally, neither my father nor I has ever trusted a fox since.

In the rural community in which I grew up, animals were part of the daily fabric, especially to my large circle of uncles, many of whom were steeped in the more arcane traditions of country life. One was an accomplished poacher who taught me how to tickle trout. It’s a skill I have yet to practice in the Thames tributary that now runs by my home, but you never know when it might come in handy.

Another farming uncle taught me how to spot a sheep that was ready to spontaneously combust. (Hint: if a ewe has been stuck, lying on its side, suffering from “bloat” for several hours and the temperatures are in the 90s, don’t light a match anywhere nearby.) Yet another showed me how to read the weather-forecasting skills of cattle and birds. In truth, this was less impressive. It being west Wales, the only weather they tended to predict was rain, which didn’t really put them in the Nostradamus class.

The most useless trick a relative passed on to me, undoubtedly, was how to hypnotise a chicken. To my amazement, I saw that by tucking the bird’s head under its wings then moving it around slowly in a cyclical fashion, it froze rigid, as if in suspended animation. Unsurprisingly, the beauty of that particular party piece lay in its comedy value. The mere mention of it was enough to reduce the most miserable aunt to laughter. That’s another important facet animals bring to family life, of course, as the producers of You’ve Been Framed have known for decades.

I’ve spent the bulk of the past 30 years in London, far removed from the rural world in which I was raised. (In reality, it has almost disappeared. Few of the older generation remain and almost all of the old traditions have died away, too.) As a consequence of this, my two young children, Thomas and Gabriella, have missed out on the kind of first-hand animal encounters I took for granted. There have been, of course, memorable moments at zoos and rescue centres, bird parks and nature reserves. Like every other urban family, we’ve driven round Longleat with baboons attached to the windscreen wipers and wondered at John Aspinall’s gorillas at Howlett’s in Kent. On holiday in Brazil, we even shared our home with iguanas, macaws and macaque monkeys. The joy these experiences bring the children almost always makes me regret their transience. I feel sad the only foxes they encounter are city scavengers. I often wish they too could do something as daft as learning the art of chicken hypnotism.

This all changed a few months ago, however. It was then that animals – and the simple, sometimes silly pleasures they bestow upon family life – made a small, very small, comeback.

As parents, my wife and I had been resistant to the children’s pleas for a cat or dog for a blend of practical and medical reasons. Our home was too confining for a decent-sized dog (and I see no point in having any other). A cat – or any other furry creature – would almost certainly have exacerbated the mild asthma our son, Thomas, occasionally suffered. (Irony of ironies, his first bout was probably triggered by straw mites, encountered during an otherwise brilliant visit to a Devon farm during lambing.) With the latter problem seemingly fading with age, however, our arguments had begun to seem ever more facile.

Then, a year or so ago, I began writing a book on curious animal facts, an assemblage of all the strange things science has taught us about the subjects my country uncles probably knew instinctively. (Cows may not be able to detect rain but, it seems, sharks are capable of detecting bad weather with unerring accuracy.) As talk of how fish communicate by breaking wind (the bright spark that discovered their bubble language named it Fast Repetitive Tick, or FRT) and how mice serenade each other with ultrasonic song flashed across the breakfast table, the children detected the final semblance of their parent’s anti-animal resistance melting away. They seized the opportunity with ruthless efficiency. Our home now echoes to the twittering of a four-month-old budgie called Georgie.

Already Georgie is providing the more mundane and obvious benefits those scientists like to talk about. He is a shared responsibility, a warming, unchallenging presence that defuses the stresses of domestic life, a source of entertainment and education. (Did you know budgies are among the most monogamous of all birds? It’s partly to do with the fact that females take vicious revenge on a straying male. If he lived in the wild, Georgie would be a hopeless cuckold.)

But he is also beginning to fulfil the role the cows and chickens, foxes and fish played in my country childhood. For a start he generates laughs to rival those produced by talk of hypnotised chickens. You had to be there, of course, but for us the memories of the comic manner in which he fell off his newly installed swing during his first week can produce laughter so violent we fear the children may spontaneously combust.

The little bird’s positive influence on the children is already clear. Their Sunday mornings are dedicated to clearing out and cleaning the cage. The budgie’s bath times are conducted with diligence and good sense. Pocket money was put aside for a range of Christmas presents for him. He is handled with care and respect. Provided the children keep up their excellent attitude towards the tweating newcomer, other birds – and, who knows, a guinea pig – may follow.

I haven’t quite recreated the strange animal-filled landscape of my youth. But I do feel somehow re-connected to the pleasures that a constant, non-human presence can bring. In my more fanciful moments I dream of transforming our home into a place where all manner of animals lie in wait, each of them with a memorable, preferably danger-laced, lesson to deliver Thomas and Gabriella. My wife often accuses me of turning the house into a pigsty. Perhaps we could go the whole hog and stick one or two in the garden.

· Why Pandas Do Handstands, and Other Curious Truths About Animals by Augustus Brown is published by Bantam Press. For a signed copy, comment below or send a message via the contacts page.  Or order at here

Call in the Cavalry

Jazz, photographed in lockdown in London, 2020

(First published as part of the Aitken Alexander isolation series in April, 2020.)

I was drinking a morning coffee in the sunshine when I noticed him. Splayed out on the grass. Limbs akimbo. Without a care in the world. 

He’d found the sunniest spot in our London garden and was absorbing every irradiated ounce of vitamin D available to him.

I couldn’t help but smile. It was a masterclass in mindfulness. An object lesson in opportunism. But then it struck me. He was right. It was a particularly lovely morning. We all had to make the most of it. 

I put down my cup, lay on the lawn and joined him.
“You’ve caught the sun,” my wife said when I returned, flushed, to the house half an hour later. 

“Just  been lying on the grass with Jazz.”

“Lying on the grass? With our cat?” 

She shook her head quietly then walked away with a shrug. 

“Whatever gets you through the day I guess.” 

Our daily lives have become a search for silver linings. A downward tick in an infection rate. An epidemiological insight. I saw a sliver of hope last week when I read that, prior to the lockdown, Battersea Cats and Dogs Home found themselves so overwhelmed with applications they had to halt new adoptions. On Sunday March 22nd, the day before we were told to remain in our homes, 1,200 people offered to take in cats and dogs, a record unmatched in their 160 year history. It cheered me not just for the sake of the assorted waifs and strays who now find themselves well loved, fed and exercised in a secure home. It made me more optimistic that we will weather the storm. We have called in the feline and canine cavalry.   

The physical and mental health benefits of keeping a cat or a dog – or a budgie, hamster, rabbit or tortoise for that matter – are well known. According to America’s national health authority, the CDC, pet ownership is associated with a decrease in blood pressure as well as cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Most importantly in light of the current crisis, they also alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

But their benefits extend beyond even this, I think.  

For children, for example, they can offer lessons in responsibility and proto-parenting. The discipline of looking after a cat or dog is worth learning. When they were younger, long before we had Jazz, my kids earned pocket money in return for cleaning out their budgie’s tray. It must have been south London’s most immaculate birdhouse. 

At this particular moment, I suspect our pet’s even greater gift is to provide the pleasures that are denied us. Companionship, of course. A tactile friendship devoid of the need to distance. (We should probably ignore the scaremongering about cats and dogs passing COVID on to us.) In particular, they deliver us a sense of routine, some shape to our Groundhog Day-existence. Friends talk of the hedonistic highpoint that is their daily walk to the park or heath. Within my own home, where my wife, daughter and I are in lockdown, feeding and watering Jazz now represents a welcome landmark within the day. He’s become a boon to all three of us. 

Best of all, of course, our pets provide moments of indulgence, playfulness and – oh joy – escape. “Time spent with cats is never wasted,” said Sigmund Freud. An hour curled up on the sofa with Jazz while reading a book or watching a movie now feels more precious than pearls.  How blissful must it be to spend half an hour focussed entirely on a dog’s pursuit of a well-chewed ball?

There are those who wonder whether this will fade, whether we will soon complain that a pet is for life not just for coronavirus? I really doubt it. I think we will look back on this time and sanctify the things that got us through. Not just the nurses, cleaners, doctors and ancillary NHS workers, the steadying hands on the tiller, the already familiar list of key workers. We’ll also thank those who lifted our spirits, who calmed our nerves, who simply stayed at our side and steered us around these treacherous waters. I have a suspicion our pets will figure prominently on that roll of honour. I know Jazz will. 

Fifty years ago…

…In June 1970, I was a twelve-year-old schoolboy, hopelessly obsessed with the World Cup finals. I spent as much time as my father would allow glued to the household’s large, rather ungainly new colour television set. Russia v. Mexico, England v. Czechoslovakia and Rumania, highlights of Israel v. Italy, I watched the lot. What little spare time I had was spent poring over copies of Goal, Football Monthly or the old Daily Mirror and the dispatches of sunburnt scribes like Frank McGhee and Ken Jones.

Owing to some cunning forward planning, even demands that I get on with some homework failed to deflect me. My main school project that term was on the nations of the World Cup. With scissors and paste I had put together a guide to the sixteen participating countries on the back of a roll of old wallpaper. The roll now circled the classroom of the school’s most football-minded master, a man called Dennis Jones. Each section featured a potted history, a photo of the nation’s World Cup squad and a few relevant images. Italy were represented by the Pope and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. El Salvador, who had gone to war with Honduras after their qualification match, by a picture from an old World War II comic. God only knows what I used to represent Bulgaria and Morocco. Thankfully here my memory does fail me.

Football – or to be more precise, international football – had been something of a drug since I was seven or so. It was, of course, the previous World Cup – England’s World Cup, that had fired the whole thing off. Since then I had got terribly excited about Celtic v. Inter Milan and Manchester United v. Benfica on television. Thanks to a piece of inspired ticket acquisition by my father, I would soon see Cardiff City’s 1–0 win over Amancio, Gento and the gods of Real Madrid in the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup in the unforgettable flesh along with 47,500 others at Ninian Park. Yet Mexico marked the dawn of a new, even more exciting era, and not just because this was the first World Cup to be beamed live from the other side of the world in glorious, living colour. One man, and one team, elevated it to the realms of magic.

In hindsight it seems natural that Pele and the 1970 Brazilians should have arrived in our living room the year after the first moon landing. Tostao and Gérson, Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto, Rivellino and Clodoaldo shared much more than their number with Neil Armstrong and his crew. They were, after Apollo 11, the second great event of the new, telecultural age. It seemed fitting that their games were transmitted from Central America via a satellite in outer space. From their opening match against Czechoslovakia it was clear they were visitors from another footballing world. (We should have guessed they’d carried out the same NASA training programmes as the astronauts.)

Brazil alone seemed to justify the extra money my father would now have to pay for upgrading his old monochrome licence. All coffee browns and ebony blacks, cobalt blues and canary yellows, their players and their playing came in shades I had never seen before. Each of their games seemed to be a drama filled with flashing free kicks, 50-yard passes and even longer-range shots. Their kit, their running, even their celebrations seemed more vivid and vibrant than anything I had witnessed before. Bobby Charlton still shook hands when he scored. Not that he was doing much of that as he melted in the Mexican heat. Pelé and company cavorted and congratulated each other like lovers at the end of a seven-year separation. Then there were the names: exotic, moody mononyms like Tostao (‘the little coin’), Gerson and Jair, Clodoaldo and Rivellino. For three weeks, I was mesmerized by them. They have occupied a sun-kissed corner of my memory ever since.

Their glorious summer reached its climax on that rainy Sunday, 21 June. In the days before the Final, I had feared for them. Part of Brazil’s magic, I realize now, lay in their fallibility. Their defence leaked like an old, rusted bucket. In Italy they faced the most cynical and professional side in the world. Wise men in Mexico were calling the Final a battle for football’s soul, a dance to the death between the free expression of Brazil’s samba football and the organizational coldness of catenaccio, the pincer defence that was Italy’s only gift to world football. The tactical complexities were a bit beyond me back then. I saw it as a contest between a collection of inspiring if occasionally naive geniuses and a bunch of Italian hitmen. I desperately wanted Brazil to win.
They did, slaughtering Italy with the most exhilarating football ever to win a World Cup Final.

Pele got them moving, leaping like the proverbial salmon to head past Albertosi. Every Pelé goal was an occasion, but this was special – the hundredth goal Brazil had scored in the World Cup finals. Even their eccentric keeper Felix played a blinder, making one great stop from Italy’s Sardinian assassin Luigi Riva. Gerson, their balding, eternally-chattering generalissimo, put them back ahead again after an uncharacteristic error by the young Clodoaldo had let in Boninsegna for an equalizer. Jairzinho bundled in a third to become the first player ever to score in all matches in the finals, then Carlos Alberto scored the fourth, a weave of interpassing started by the now redeemed Clodoaldo and the best goal of the lot. In years to come the phrase would pass peacefully into the obscurity reserved for the very worst sporting clichés. On 27 June 1970, however, it seemed as if the game of football truly was the winner.

The final whistle brought bedlam. Much had been made of the intimidating moat keeping the Azteca hordes at bay. Suddenly it seemed as if even the Brazilian fans could walk on water. Thanks to the miracle of colour television, I saw Tostao stripped down to a pair of blue underpants. Pelé was lost under the biggest sombrero in Mexico. The presentation was delayed by fifteen minutes as the players fought their way through the throng.

As Carlos Alberto lifted and kissed the Jules Rimet trophy we knew we would never see the old trophy again. Brazil had won it for the third time. It was theirs to take home back to Rio and keep. What we did not know was that we would not see football like this again. As the sun set on the Azteca that afternoon, so too a golden sporting age faded, never to return.

By the time Brazil came to defend their world championship in West Germany four years later, Pelé, Gérson and Tostao had all retired. Jairzinho returned, more muscled and sporting an Afro haircut straight from the Shaft movies of the day, but his rampaging runs were no more. Rivellino still fired in a free kick or two, but he was also reduced to squaring up to Billy Bremner of Scotland. It seemed as if the gods had fallen off their pedestal.

The freewheeling, fantasy football had gone, replaced by a pragmatic, European style. Europe – in the free-thinking form of Johann Cruyff and Holland – reverted to historical type and once more played the conquistadores. Cruyff and co. were a sight to behold. But Brazil were a heartbreaking shadow of their former extraterrestrial selves. After that, despite a brief return – naturally enough in a team led by Socrates – to the old philosophy in 1982, the real Brazil disappeared. So too, for me anyhow, did some of the magic of the World Cup.

Brazil finally won the crown again in 1994, sending the most passionate football nation on earth into deliria. I was in California when it happened and witnessed the scenes in Pasadena as the samba beat out. But it wasn’t the same. Theirs was a triumph of tactical nous and modest flair. Even Brazil’s most ardent fans do not claim the heroes of that win deserved a place on football’s Olympus. Talk of Bebeto and Romario, Dunga and Rai and grown men will nod in respectful acknowledgement. Mention Pelé and Tostao, Gérson and Jairzinho and you may see those same grown men cry.

Almost thirty years later, the shadow cast by the 1970 Brazilians seems longer than ever. This isn’t just sentiment, the statistics bear me out here. Videos of their campaign remain bestsellers. (So do their shirts, apparently the world’s most popular replica football clothing.) Few of football’s legion of new writers can resist referring longingly to their greatness. Even the best of the older ones, Hugh McIlvaney, admits they ‘may have represented the highest point of beauty and sophistication the game is destined to reach’

In the years since their triumph, FIFA and its potentates have moulded football into a global obsession and a multi-billion-dollar business. Yet like the multinationals it now conspires with, the game’s ruling body profits from a product as humdrum and homogenized as a Big Mac or a Diet Coke. As the game has got bigger so its teams and its players seem to have shrunk with it. When Pelé opened Euro 96 at Wembley, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Perhaps we were crying for our lost footballing selves?

Over the years I had often wondered what had happened to those heroes of twenty-seven summers ago. Only Pelé, now Brazil’s sports minister, remained a world figure. Carlos Alberto joined him at the New York Cosmos, but I had seen or read nothing on the rest of that magnificent eleven. All manner of tales had drifted my way as time went by. How the team and its stars had been exploited for political ends by the then military dictatorship. How, mainly for political reasons, Pelé, Gérson and Carlos Alberto had refused to defend their title in Germany even though they were fit to play. How the intellectual Tostao had walked away from fame and football to become a near recluse. How one or two had tumbled into the sort of booze-hazed half-life that had put paid to the careers of geniuses like George Best and Garrincha.

In the spring of 1997, with the last World Cup of the century approaching, I set off to find them. The search would take me on a journey of 12,000 miles and to four major Brazilian cities and one minor one. A little of what I had heard turned out to be the truth, or close to it, at least. Most of the mythology turned to the disreputable dust I had always hoped it would. Instead I discovered a collection of stories that were sometimes colourful, often crazy but always compelling. The result was a book, first published back in 1998, that chronicled what happened when Pele and Tostao, Jairzinho and Gerson, Carlos Alberto, Rivellino and the rest formed that bewitching, beautiful team …

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