Aidan Smith: As reality TV stars, Hearts made their fans eat kangaroo testicles all season long
Why did Hearts do it? Why did they allow docusoap cameras into Tynecastle? And what turned Ann Budge into Rula Lenska and Craig Levein into George Galloway?
You’ll remember one of the classic/cringesome moments in the brief but eventful history of reality TV. Celebrity Big Brother, 2006, the politico pretending to be a cat, lapping milk from the actress’s hand while whispering into her ear. We weren’t told if this had been Galloway reciting the manifesto of his one-man-band Respect Party, but whatever had been said, Lenska confessed later it had “made my bottom jump and tighten excitedly”.
Now, before we go any further, before you series-link This is Our Story: Inside Hearts, you should know that Budge and Levein do not quite reenact this scene. Nothing like, in fact. I’m merely using it as an example of the strange places unscripted telly can go, the strange things untrained performers can do, when they forget the cameras are there.
In its own way the Budge-Levein relationship intrigues, or it did for as long as it lasted. Why couldn’t she sack him when the team were serving up undercooked mince every week? Was she in awe of him doing two jobs - director of football and manager - but, as he admits in tomorrow’s opening instalment, neither of them very well? Did he have her in stitches with his knockabout, rapid-fire gags?
Eventually she did sack him, but we don’t see this. We don’t even see them in conversation or together in the same room. The amateur psychologist that’s in every football fan would want the footage, but I suppose the club had the last say and the final edit regarding the programme’s contents. If only they’d been so rigorous out on the park.
Back to the original question: why do it? Why consent to be filmed? Clubs don’t know how a season will pan out. Part of the deal, surely, is that these series must be warts-and-all-portrayals - but what if there are only warts? These are the risks.
Sunderland ’Til I Die was presumably intended to capture for posterity that club’s effortless progression from England’s second tier back to the top flight; instead they dropped into the third tier. Undeterred, they agreed to a sequel, which only chronicled more failure.
Does ego come into this? Of course it does. Hearts have always been bullish about their place in the football firmament, bumptious even. “We’re a big club, a massive club,” is the Gorgie mantra. I’m sure, after almost winning the Scottish Cup the previous season, they hoped 2019-20 would show this.
So the contributors to the programme, employees and supporters, are left displaying complete bafflement. “This is Hearts, we shouldn’t be where we are,” says one fan. Another echoes: “We’re better than where we are.” Underperforming player Sean Clare picks up the theme: “We have a chance to win every game.” Austin MacPhee, briefly interim manager, adds: “We should be in the Europa League every year.” At least no one demands recounts, calls the outcomes fraudulent and threatens Supreme Court litigation.
Chris Coleman, Sunderland’s boss for the early episodes of ’Til I Die, was uncomfortable with the prying lenses and banned them from the dressing-room - thus denying the show any chance of a repeat of predecessor Peter Reid’s 19 swearie words in 45 seconds in an earlier programme about the trials and tribulations of Wearside football.
In doing so, Coleman has made it easy for other managers to insist on the same terms and conditions. Dressing-room post-mortems represent the money-shot of these docusoaps and you wonder how long faddish reality producers are going to be interested in the game if they’re continually refused access.
I’ve just thought: Budge and Levein never been seen together is a bit like Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond recording the duet You Don’t Bring Me Flowers in separate studios. So we don’t glimpse them up close and personal and the Tynie inner sanctum is no-go. What exactly do we get from the three-part This is Our Story?
Well, plenty of good men and true, women, too, who hold the club dear. Guys like Peter Stewart who works in the club shop and offers a guided tour: “I see a new hat, fleece-lined … I see a new hat, reversible.” He turned up 14 years ago “to help out for a day” and has never left. Only a cynic or a Hibby would fail to feel sorry for these unswervingly loyal Jambos. Elsewhere on reality TV, munching on kangaroo testicles in the Australian outback can improve a D-list celeb’s profile. These folk endured a whole season of the footballing equivalent only to end up being relegated.
Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, they make the programme look like a mildly desperate PR job for Hearts. Crisis? What crisis? And still, club ambassador Gary Locke leads hospitality gormandisers through the home dressing-room - “Probably the biggest in Scotland, to be fair” - before reaching the tunnel and the pitch. “This is where the magic happens,” he says, without irony.
Budge is allowed to finish sentences thus: “And I don’t want to say any more about that.” She looks uncomfortable amid the prying lenses and that’s no surprise. Watch this by all means, but I just don’t think your bottom is going to tighten excitedly.
So who’s the breakout star of This is Our Story? Who can improve the show as the season only gets worse for Hearts? I nominate groundsman Grant McDermid for bringing some welcome west Edinburgh perspective to the feverish debate over who might replace Levein. “Sven-Goran Eriksson?” he sneers. “Let’s be real, eh?”
Freely admitting he’s the kind of fellow who should button his lip, he recounts the tale of the crowd mumping at the state of the Tynie pitch. “I handed this bloke my fork and said: ‘On ye go.’ Not surprisingly he didnae fancy it.” More of the bold Grant, please.
This is Our Story: Inside Hearts starts on the BBC Scotland channel tomorrow at 9pm.
A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.