Friday, March 16, 2012

Winter Is Coming (And That's Summer In France)

In recent years, I’ve been quite enthralled by the Tour de France. At first this came as a surprise to people who know me, including myself. For years I took perverse pride in having actually forgotten how to ride a bike. One of my most recent adventures in cycling ended when I veered inexplicably into the railway line fence in Westgarth. I just checked: the scar is still there on my belly.

So Le Tour (it’s French for The Tour) might not make me want to hit the pedals, but it does make me turn on the telly after 10pm any night I’m home.  To the skeptical or uninitiated, I usually begin my explanation like this: “Have you ever watched one of those HBO DVD box sets?”

Bear with me.

In a single cycling race – say, the road race at the Olympics – a hundred or so riders start off, ride for a really long time and then somebody wins. Sometimes there’s a bit of drama along the way but often it comes down to a sprint for the finish line. Let’s call this the Generic Hollywood Movie version of cycling.

The Tour, however, is the HBO Box Set. With 21 days of racing (and a few rest days in between), there is plenty of time for the drama to develop.

In the Tour, riders are in it for themselves but more importantly for their team, and hence the team’s major corporate sponsor. Most teams are international but some have a national base: there is a Basque team, and now an Australian one.

Some teams have a rider aiming for individual glory. There is the Yellow Jersey for the overall leader of the Tour; the Green Jersey for the best sprinter (points can be won at the finish line but also at various places throughout a stage); the Polka Dot Jersey for the King of the Mountains, the best climber; the White Jersey for the best young rider; and the prestige of winning an individual stage.

If a team has a rider hoping to win any of these things, his team mates are expected to support him even at their own expense. But if he falls out of contention, one of his team mates can have a day in the sun.

The significance of all this may not be instantly apparent, so let me explain. In the Generic Hollywood Movie, everyone is trying to win the race/ get the girl/ save the world. In the HBO Box Set, life is rather more complicated. People want different things! There is a tangled web of motivations and alliances, with characters moving up and down the ladders of fortune and influence depending on their skill and luck.

Only one man can wear the Yellow Jersey – but most of the riders in the field are directly or indirectly involved in a plot to tear it off his back.

Sound familiar, Game of Thrones fans?

The great thing about Le Tour – and HBO TV shows – is they don’t pander to short attention spans.  If you turn on for twenty minutes, nothing will happen. Invest a few weeks of your life, though, and the rewards are proportionate. If you really get to know a character, you’ll really feel it when he falls off his bike – or gets his head chopped off.

With its second season about to air in the US, Game of Thrones is something of a phenomenon. Based on a series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, it was supposedly pitched to the network as “The Sopranos on Middle Earth”. It’s a description that may be apocryphal but nonetheless cannot be bettered.

The setting is the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, a realm with many similarities to Britain. The War of the Roses is a clear inspiration: the two noble houses of Lannister (Lancaster) and Stark (York) are at each other’s throats. A great wall protects the civilised from barbarians to the north. Across the Narrow Sea is a vast land mass of exotic cultures, magic, and perhaps even dragons.

It’s not all tight scripts and great acting, of course. Le Tour may have the drugs but Game of Thrones has serious doses of violence and sex. I haven’t heard as much blood gurgling in throats since The Passion of the Christ. As for the sex, well, I would argue it’s mostly contextual. Others have a different view.

Some people have complained they can’t follow Game of Thrones: “Too many names, too confusing.” Well, I guess that’s where the luscious mise-en scene and amazing backdrops come in. If you haven’t got the foggiest what’s going on, just put your feet up and enjoy the view on your expensive new Plasma TV.

One of the celebrated highlights of the Tour is the breathtaking scenery. While the riders grind out another 200kms, we are treated to helicopter shots of mediaeval abbeys poised perilously on windswept mountaintops. Game of Thrones is essentially the same but, instead of lycra-clad cyclists flashing past, a knight fights a lowborn thug to the death in the trial by combat of a dwarf – while a nine-year old prince breastfeeds and cheers them on.

The Tour de France and Game of Thrones. Let the cross-promotion begin.

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