Daytime TV: Game for anything

It was Professor Plum with the candlestick, says Gary Day, who is fascinated by a history of board games

December 17, 2009

Benjamin Woolley's younger brother had an advanced vocabulary. At the age of eight he called his aunt the C-word. She had just acquired Park Lane in a quiet family game of Monopoly. But as they lived on a farm, he may have just said she was a silly old moo. We will never know. But his brother's outburst neatly illustrated the point that play is as fierce as it's fun.

Benjamin was presenting Games Britannia: Dicing With Destiny (BBC Four, Sunday 13 December, 8pm). Well, that's what he said he was doing. But the alert viewer will have noticed that the real purpose of the programme was to show him winning every game he played. And then being very gracious in victory. "Oh, bad luck," he said to Irving Finkel, a man who looked like a Druid in a suit.

Benjamin had just beaten him at an Iron Age board game. Aware that the camera was on him, Irving did not use the C-word. The game was discovered in the grave of a soothsayer at Stanway and had been placed there in case he "got bored in the afterlife". In which case he must be pretty miffed that it's now an exhibit in a museum, leaving him with nothing to relieve the ennui of eternity.

Benjamin's next victim was David Howlett. They played Alea Evangelii. The object of the game is for one player to move the king to the corner of the board before the other one captures him. Benjamin asked David questions to distract him. "How does the game relate to the Gospels?"; that sort of thing. As David expounded, Benjamin pounced. David accepted defeat graciously by not using the C-word.

When he was not proving his prowess at games, Benjamin pondered their history and what purpose they serve, apart from causing siblings to swear. Many came from the East. Snakes and Ladders is apparently based on Gyan Chapoor, a Hindi game that leads the players towards enlightenment. Benjamin itched to have a go. Andrew Topsfield, curator of Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian art at the Ashmolean Museum, had clearly not heard of Benjamin's blitzkrieg and foolishly offered him a game. He, too, did not use the C-word when the inevitable occurred.

Games, Benjamin told us, aren't just about chance. They originated as a way of planning battle tactics. So they are about skill, strategy, struggle. Benjamin's voice was beginning to get louder. "They are about the competition for POWER," he shouted. "They are about CRUSHING YOUR OPPONENT!" He looked as if he was about to smash through the screen and thrash me at Happy Families. The credits rolled just in time. A C-word came to mind to describe Benjamin. Champion.

Another C-word was much in evidence in Hop, Skip and Jump: The Story of Children's Play: The Great Outdoors (BBC Four, Thursday 10 December, 8pm), a survey of children's outdoor games from the early to mid-20th century: class. Those from poor families played on the street, and those from prosperous ones played in the garden. Historians found that in London alone there were at least a thousand street games. Some were related to festivals. On St Valentine's Day in Norfolk, children used to gather excitedly "where the posh people lived". These well-heeled souls amused themselves by heating up ha'pennies on a shovel before heaving them into the street where they would watch the children burn their fingers. It brings to mind another C-word - charity.

In the end we didn't learn too much about the games children played. But we did hear plenty of anecdotes about a street culture that has practically vanished. It was OK as long as you didn't wear specs or look a bit different. Even then you weren't necessarily excluded. One old chap recalled that there were two deaf and dumb brothers on his patch and whenever a rival gang appeared, they would shout "get the dummies". "It sounds terrible now," he said, "but that's how we used to talk. Anyway these brothers were huge and the noise they made scared off the invaders."

Middle-class parents wanted to keep their children away from the "common" sort. Another C-word. But money and received pronunciation hide all. Stella Sykes was sent to boarding school aged eight, accompanied by Teddy. He was soon wrested from her grasp and mutilated in a manner that would have made a Jacobean dramatist gasp in admiration.

It's the UK Snooker Championship 2009 (BBC Two, Sunday 13 December, 2pm). Commentators continue to be oblivious to the treachery of the English language. "Higgins may just be regretting having his balls replaced," intoned John Parrott. "He's got the hardest tip of any man," said a straight-faced Steve Davies. "He was polishing it in bed last night." Steve was of course talking about the cork on John Higgins' cue. More C-words. Christmas is another. May yours be joyous.

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