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Spassky vs Fischer: How the chess battle became a theatre event



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Boris Spassky (left) and Bobby Fischer duke it out in 1972

When the American Bobby Fischer challenged the Russian Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship in 1972 the media looked on in fascination. It seemed the Cold War was being played out in Iceland on a chessboard. Now a new play reconstructs the historic match.

It was pre-internet, pre-mobile phone, pre-online comment, pre-news channels, pre-streaming. The match was happening in a place inconvenient for the world’s media. TV satellite space was at a premium: on US networks the updates were sometimes just talking to a reporter in Reykjavik on the phone.

No one had seriously considered chess as prime-time material. But then along came the unique and deeply troubled Bobby Fischer.

Fischer was born in 1943 and grew up in New York. From his early teens the game of chess obsessed him. At 14 he was the youngest ever US chess champion.

But since World War II world championships had been almost entirely dominated by the USSR. Could Fischer be the man to bring the prize back to Brooklyn?

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer is an attempt to delve into the psychologies of two remarkable men. Spassky, who’s now 82, was usually regarded as the more stable of the two. Fischer died in 2008 after years of bizarre behaviour and extreme statements – he praised the 9/11 attacks for instance.

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Manuel Harlan

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Robert Emms (left) who plays Fischer and Ronan Raftery as his rival Spassky

Robert Emms has made his name as an actor in TV series, including Atlantis and Chernobyl. Now he has to make sense of playing Fischer.

“Bobby is packed full of contradictions. He was Jewish but he could be anti-Semitic. He was American but he seems to have felt no real patriotism. He was undoubtedly unstable and I think you need to go back to questions of paternity and the family he grew up in. His relationship with his mother was tense.

“However all that came about, he ended up with a vulnerability which shaped him. Bobby Fischer was a brilliant but self-destructive character and – though this is mainly after the period of the play – eventually he spiralled out of control. There’s real tragedy there.

“As an actor that gives a huge amount to play with but you’re always dealing with what’s in the text: Tom Morton-Smith (the playwright) is always pointing the audience in a certain direction. Bobby probably was never happy and I’m not sure he had real friends. But he was larger than life, which is a gift to play.”

Irish actor Ronan Raftery, currently appearing in the TV mini-series The Rook, plays Spassky. “He always came over on the surface as a much calmer and more focused player. But I think we now know more about how thrown and upset he was by Fischer’s behaviour and we use that.

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Manuel Harlan

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Director Annabelle Comyn has the job of making a chess match exciting to theatre goers

“Boris genuinely hated the fact that this game he loved so much had somehow taken on an aspect of superpower politics. As the reigning world champion he just wanted to play the match and win.”

Emms thinks that in 1972 Fischer too was essentially apolitical. “It’s interesting that neither man felt a strong affiliation to his country – what they were passionate about was playing chess and we communicate that on stage.”

Which raises the question of how exactly do you stage chess for the theatre? Two people leaning over a small table holding their foreheads in silent contemplation doesn’t promise great drama.

Director Annabelle Comyn says when she met with Morton-Smith the question of staging the games was high on the agenda. “In the text Tom reproduces them in standard form so chess fans can digest the moves if they want to. But deliberately there was no guidance as to how and to what extent we’d represent that on stage.

“The games soon take on a meaning which goes beyond the game itself. The match is being used both by the Soviets and the Americans for certain ends. So we start with a literal meaning for the moves but then we grow into a language of paranoia and politics and the language of control. That’s a large part of what the play is about.

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Manuel Harlan

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Ronan Raftery rehearsing his role as Boris Spassky

“So whether it’s with music or with something more physical, we’re staging the games to dramatise what was happening underneath. They’re very choreographed pieces – you don’t need to understand every single move in detail to see what the story is.”

Comyn says the play is also character driven. “One of the fantastic scenes is when we see Bobby with his mother. That relationship was maybe controlling, volatile and insecure. We see the lack of trust that Bobby has in the world about him and I think the play helps us understand how that translated to his fear of Soviet mind games during the time in Iceland.

“Bobby’s essential mindset was that everything he’d ever achieved in life had been on his own and without assistance. He definitely felt he was fighting against the Soviets – but I think inside he was fighting against the whole world.”

As challenger, Fischer did poorly in the early stages and only later pulled ahead. His complaints against the organisers included that TV cameras were giving off noises which put him off his game (but which no one else could hear).

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Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer had an unofficial rematch in 1992

Comyn says one of the themes is how the relationship between Fischer and Spassky grew. “It would be wrong to say they became great pals. They did not. And maybe that would have been beyond Bobby in any circumstance. But they are in proximity for two months and inevitably something does develop.”

After the match Fischer all but disappeared for 20 years. In Yugoslavia in 1992 he played and won an unofficial rematch against Spassky, which had a total purse of $5m (£3.8m in current money). He lived in Hungary and finally in Iceland, where he died and is buried.

Emms thinks the prospect of taking the world title was vital to Fischer.

“It was the one thing he craved though I wonder if he ever truly believed it would bring contentment. After Reykjavik Bobby virtually gave up the game for years. You could say the whole experience helped define him but also to destroy him. He was a hugely closed personality and everything he tried to achieve was through the chess board.

“Bobby felt victory was rightly his. But would that complete him as a human being? I think probably not.”

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer is at the Hampstead Theatre in London until 18 January.

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Peter Crouch on jumping from planes and ‘the ultimate retirement’




Peter Crouch

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Crouch has presented a hugely successful podcast since retiring last July

When Peter Crouch made his debut as a TV football pundit in 2014, he got a bit of a shock.

“I went to India for a week to do the World Cup as a pundit. I thought I’d cut my cloth out there,” he recalled on That Peter Crouch Podcast last year. “We were in Mumbai, and on my first appearance I was with Mikaël Silvestre and a Bollywood star.

“We had a little rehearsal and [the producer] said, ‘Right, so the game’s about to start, we’ll be live in 10 minutes. Here’s the touchscreen, so when you use the touchscreen at half time…’ and I was like, ‘Excuse me?'”

Crouch was unfamiliar with how to use the device – which allows pundits to freeze-frame moments from the game and draw on-screen graphics to highlight players and analyse strategies.

“I was dropped into that situation thinking, ‘How have I got myself into this position where I’m live to two billion people with a Bollywood star and Mikaël Silvestre, with a touchscreen I’ve never used before?!”

Needless to say, when the show went live “there was a lot of buttons that I didn’t use… I went with a couple of bendy arrows and moving players”.

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John Abraham

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L-R: Crouch, Gaurav Kapoor, Mikael Silvestre and John Abraham covering the 2014 World Cup

Fortunately, Crouchy is feeling better prepared for his new TV series – Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer – which begins on BBC One this Saturday.

He’s got some help too, in the shape of co-presenters Maya Jama and comedian Alex Horne. Unusually for a TV show at the moment, all the presenters will be in the same studio – albeit socially distanced.

The show was originally intended to be a post-match series for Euro 2020 but, of course, football matches were among the many events abandoned because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Euros got cancelled, Glastonbury got cancelled, the Olympics are cancelled, Wimbledon cancelled… It’s not been a great summer has it?” says Crouch.

“So we thought we needed to bring smiles to people’s faces, so instead of it being around the Euros, we tried to make it around all those things.”

The format has now morphed into a wider Saturday night show fusing sport, music and entertainment.

“Some of the people that were supposed to be at the Olympics have kindly signed up, and we’ve got a tournament going on,” Crouch explains. “We’ve got people playing live gigs, and some amazing guests.

“I think it’ll take people’s minds off what’s been going on. It’s going to be good fun.”

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Broadcaster Maya Jama and comedian Alex Horne will assist crouch on the BBC One show

In his professional career, Crouch played a total of 468 Premier League matches for Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa, Southampton, Liverpool, Portsmouth, Stoke City and Burnley.

Before retiring last July, the striker had scored 108 goals in the top flight, of which 53 were scored with his head – a Premier League record.

But, like many retired footballers before him, he’s now transitioning into a successful broadcast career.

While Dion Dublin has been presenting Homes Under The Hammer and Match of the Day host Gary Lineker has become one of the BBC’s biggest stars, Crouch has built a hugely successful 5 Live podcast with co-hosts Tom Fordyce and Chris Stark.

That Peter Crouch Podcast is already into its fourth series, and was the most downloaded BBC podcast in the first quarter of this year. In 2019, the show racked up 12 million downloads, despite only releasing 15 new episodes.

‘I love Loose Women’

You may have seen the trailers for Save Our Summer, which feature several “two-metre Peters” – cardboard cut-outs of the footballer which came in extremely useful when applying social distancing rules during rehearsals.

Asked what attracted him to the show, Horne jokes it was “mainly Crouchy’s beauty”, but adds the new format could be an improvement on the original idea.

“I actually think not having the football in it is going to make it a lot better, because we now don’t have to talk about the home nations’ disappointing performances,” he laughs.

“Yeah we’ve ruined enough summers, to be honest,” Crouch admits.

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PA Media

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Peter Crouch (pictured in 2010) holds the Premier League record for most headed goals

Horne continues: “It’s great to have a live band in the studio. There aren’t enough shows with actual bands playing live – it’s basically Strictly and that’s it. So it’s a really good atmosphere in there.

“And obviously we don’t have an audience but we don’t really need it, because there’s nine of us before the guests come on. So it feels great in there, really fun and summery.”

For Jama, who recently announced her departure from Radio 1, it’s a chance to return to her roots.

“I actually started as a football presenter… so I thought we were going to do sporty fun [on the show],” she says.

“But obviously my first love is music and entertainment, so when I found out that it was changing and we were going to be able to have everything in one, and on Saturday night, I was like, ‘Obviously. Of course’.”

Halfway through the press launch for Save Our Summer, Crouch has to pause briefly to restore order in the house.

“Can you see this?” he asks. “The dog’s run in, there’s mud all over the carpet, all the kids have come in, Ab [wife Abbey Clancy] is going mental. And I’m in the posh living room. Apologies, carry on.”

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Maya Jama presented her final Radio 1 show last month

Back on track – Crouch explains that some elements of the series were filmed pre-lockdown.

“Part of the show is me doing the ultimate retirement,” he says. “I’ve been taking a few ex-team-mates who have retired as well to do things we couldn’t do when we were playing, and the first one I did with JJ [Jermaine Jenas] was jumping out of a plane.

“In some ways, I hope this show never gets commissioned again, because I’ve been close to death on a few occasions. It’s not been fun, it’s been excruciating at times, and jumping out of a plane was one of them.”

One of the main benefits of getting in front of the camera, he adds, has been keeping himself busy at a time when many retired players feel at a loose end.

“I was so scared about retiring from football. You hear stories about people struggling and sitting there not having much to do, watching Loose Women,” he says.

“And listen, I love Loose Women, but I didn’t want to sit there and have not a lot to do. So I took on a few things, and the things I’ve taken on are only things I enjoy doing.”

Which, in the case of his new TV show, hopefully won’t involve too many touchscreens.

Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer begins on BBC One at 21:15 BST on Saturday.

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George Floyd death: TV, radio and music industries mark ‘Blackout Tuesday’





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Mistajam’s BBC 1Xtra show is one of several programmes to reflect the conversation around George Floyd’s death

Radio stations and TV channels have changed their programmes to mark “Blackout Tuesday”, reflecting on George Floyd’s death in police custody.

BBC Radio 1Xtra is hosting a series of discussions and debates in support of the black community, with song choices that reflect black pride and identity.

Many record labels and music stars have stopped work to observe the initiative.

MTV will go silent for eight minutes – the length of time a white police officer knelt on Mr Floyd’s neck.

The gesture will be replicated on other channels including VH1 and Comedy Central, while 4 Music will pause its output once an hour throughout the day.

There are also moments of reflection on BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2, while commercial radio stations including Kiss, Magic and Absolute Radio are observing a social media blackout “to show that racism of any kind cannot be tolerated”.

ITV daytime show This Morning briefly went dark, showing a black screen with the words “Black Lives Matter”.

Presenter Alison Hammond later said Mr Floyd’s death “hurt me to the pit of my stomach”.

“Firstly, I am a mother of a 15-year-old black boy,” she said. “When I saw that image of George Floyd, I saw my brothers, I saw my father and I saw my son, I saw everybody’s son and I was disgusted to my core.

“If black lives mattered, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

Apple Music’s Zane Lowe tweeted that he would skip Tuesday’s edition of his radio show, saying he stood “united with his black and brown friends and colleagues”.

“I will not be on radio. I will be taking part in Blackout Tuesday, listening, learning and looking for solutions to fight racial inequality,” the DJ added.

On Radio 1, Clara Amfo gave a powerful speech about the effects of racism and the recent events on her mental health.

The broadcaster said Mr Floyd’s death reinforced a feeling among black people “that people want our culture, but they do not want us”.

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Media captionClara Amfo: “You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues”

Music companies and musicians around the world adopted Tuesday as a day of reflection and protest in the wake of Mr Floyd’s death last week in Minneapolis.

Katy Perry posted a plain black square to her Instagram account with the caption: “I hope that #BlackoutTuesday gives us all (especially in the music industry) an opportunity to take what we’re learning and put it into action on Wednesday, and every day going forward.”

Rihanna said her Fenty beauty label would not conduct any business on Tuesday.

Apple’s iTunes store and its streaming service Apple Music replaced their usual carousels of new music and playlists with a slide stating: “This moment calls upon us all to speak and act against racism and injustice of all kinds.”

Listeners were then directed to a livestream of the Beats 1 radio station, where the music is focusing on themes of black empowerment and civil rights. (All of the service’s usual tracks were still available through the search function, however.)

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Apple Music

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Apple Music has replaced its regular carousel of new music and playlists with a simple message

Spotify, meanwhile, blacked out the artwork for several of its most prominent playlists, including Today’s Hits and Rap Caviar.

The company also inserted a silence of eight minutes and 46 seconds into selected podcasts and playlists “as a solemn acknowledgement for the length of time that George Floyd was suffocated”.

‘Provoking change’

The movement began last Friday, when a number of companies and artists shared a statement posted under the hashtag #TheShowMustBePaused, calling for “a day to disconnect from work and reconnect with our community” and “an urgent step of action to provoke accountability and change”.

The initiative was started by Atlantic Records marketing executives Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas, and spread by hundreds of artists including Billie Eilish, Britney Spears, the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, producer Quincy Jones and Eminem.

“Tuesday, June 2nd is meant to intentionally disrupt the work week,” wrote Agyemang and Thomas.

“The music industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. An industry that has profited predominantly from Black art. Our mission is to hold the industry at large, including major corporations + their partners who benefit from the efforts, struggles and successes of black people accountable.”

They have subsequently posted several calls to action, including a reading list called Anti-Racism Resources and links to community action groups.

All three major record labels – Universal, Sony and Warner Music, whose combined annual revenues exceed $16bn (£12.75bn) – signed up to the initiative, as did many independent labels, the Glastonbury Festival and event organisers Live Nation.

Interscope Records also vowed to stop releasing new music for a week, while many others donated money to the George Floyd Memorial Fund.

But some people in the music industry criticised the initiative’s lack of clarity and direction, dismissing it as “virtue signalling”.

“I love you all, but this music industry shutdown thing feels tone deaf to me,” wrote indie musician Bon Iver on Twitter, although he later apologised for “calling out people when they are on the same side as you”.

Indie labels Father/Daughter Records and Don Giovanni also said they did not plan to observe the blackout.

“If BLM [Blacks Lives Matter] calls for the music industry to take action, we will,” wrote the latter on its Twitter page. “But I have no interest in supporting major label record executive white guilt day.”

However, Agyemang and Thomas have stressed the blackout is just the beginning of a larger campaign.

“This is not just a 24-hour initiative,” they wrote. “We are and will be in this fight for the long haul. A plan of action will be announced.”

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Media captionAshley Banjo: “I looked at George Floyd and I saw my dad”

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Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo's emotional speech about George Floyd's death




The broadcaster spoke candidly about George Floyd’s death, racism her mental health, live on Radio 1.

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