The week in TV: Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me; The Academy; A League of Their Own; Good Grief – review

Tom Daley: Illegal to Be Me (BBC One) | iPlayer
Football Dreams: The Academy (Channel 4) |
A League of Their Own (Amazon Prime) |
Good Grief With Reverend Richard Coles (Channel 4) |

Since Tom Daley came out in a YouTube video nine years ago, he has become an outspoken advocate of LGBTQ+ rights. The diver, national treasure and five-medallist was a good choice, then, to present an examination of homophobia in Commonwealth countries, filmed in the months leading up to the Games in Birmingham.

These “issue” documentaries often present us with the manufactured “journey” of a celeb, but in the case of Illegal to Be Me, Daley truly does change his views. Homosexuality is illegal in 35 of the 56 member states that make up the Commonwealth, Daley tells us, and he starts the film with the goal that such countries should be banned from hosting the competition. Then he speaks to LGBTQ+ athletes from the countries that would be affected by such a ban.

In most cases, the personal risk is so high that athletes cannot appear on camera, or they do, but in silhouette and dubbed. In Pakistan, a lesbian former cricketer talks to Daley in a safe house. Her teammates viewed her as a “mutant”. It’s too dangerous for Daley to travel to Nigeria, but he speaks on the phone to an unidentified, high-profile athlete whose friend was murdered by someone on a dating app who tricked him.

“Sad doesn’t even cover it – it’s like something out of a horror film,” Daley says. But just when his spirit is plummeting, he meets some remarkable queer advocates. In Jamaica, an academic schools him on the colonial origins of Commonwealth laws, and encourages him to reconsider his approach. A community leader suggests it would be hugely significant if the Pride flag were to be flown at the Games – better than banning member states from hosting it, an action that might actually increase hostility to LGBTQ+ people.

Kids spend hours travelling to training, only to be potentially benched. There’s a lot of kicking of water bottles.

So Daley sets to work writing and delivering a manifesto on how the Games might progress. The triumphant final scenes are the Birmingham’s opening ceremony; Daley and his contributors waving giant Pride flags. It’s a moving set piece, and no small achievement. The problem is that I can’t get the earlier archive footage of gay men being tied naked to trees and whipped in the streets out of my head. So Illegal to Be Me leaves me thoroughly depressed rather than uplifted, but that’s no fault of Daley’s.

In other sporting, but less harrowing scenes, The Academy (Channel 4) is the latest addition to a growing field of behind-the-scenes football documentaries (Amazon Prime dominates the market, following top teams more eagerly than season-ticket holders). The USP of The Academy is that, rather than spotlighting those who have already made it – exquisitely talented footballers, but nonetheless familiar men with bulging calves and bigger bank balances – it introduces us to the starry-eyed youth teams at south London’s Crystal Palace (the seniors came a respectable 12th in last season’s Premier League). Kids spend hours travelling to training several times a week, to the detriment of their social lives, only to be potentially benched. There’s a lot of kicking of water bottles.

“Academies are Darwinian,” admits club chairman, Steve Parish. Episode one introduces us to the under-12s, and in particular a “band of brothers”: precocious Kairo, who does not lack for confidence; Bola, who is struggling with a knee injury and whose mother is working overtime to afford new boots; and Kayden, whose short stature is matched by his low self-esteem, despite encouragement from head coach Phil Hingston, who radiates competence and kindness.

You don’t need to like football to find The Academy interesting, as its story arc is similar to reality shows: it’s a competition, and here the reward is a new club contract. But it also strikes me as an undercover exploration of family and society; many of these teens see football as their shot at defying the low expectations of negligent – and often institutionally racist and classist – institutions that dismiss the potential of young black boys. It would be wonderful if, a few years down the line, they were rippling the back of the net at the highest level.

Forgive me, couch potatoes! For now we have … more sport! But of a much more stylish and slick variety in Amazon’s new eight-part series A League of Their Own, based on Penny Marshall’s 1992 baseball film. Created by and starring Abbi Jacobson (of the excellent New York comedy Broad City), the time is 1943, the place is Illinois, the men are off fighting, and Jacobson’s Carson Shaw is leading the all-female Rockford Peaches. Viewers will instantly be cheering from the bleachers for Carson and her teammates: the cosmopolitan, sexy Greta; the hard-headed Jess; and ever-optimistic presence Maybelle. But A League of Their Own is not all about the game, gloriously directed and diegetic-soundtracked though it is (quick cuts, cracking sounds as ball hits bat).

The sexist dismissiveness of coaches and stadium announcers is par for the course, but where this series differs from the film is its introduction of queer characters, and Max, a black pitcher who isn’t even allowed to try out. The element of modernisation that doesn’t work so well is the anachronistic language, something that also afflicted Netflix’s Persuasion. Jacobson is one of our best contemporary television writers, and writes perfect zingers, but that’s a little to the detriment of A League of Their Own. I imagine it’s something that will become less noticeable a few episodes in, but it’s strike one, even if I don’t anticipate a second or third for what is mostly a riot of fun and camaraderie.

Channel 4’s Good Grief is a sort of accompaniment to Richard Coles’s book The Madness of Grief, written after the death of his partner, David. (Coles, former Communard and current Church of England priest and author, is approaching the same national treasure status as the aforementioned Tom Daley.) This isn’t a typical programme about bereavement: for one thing it has alpacas. Coles travels around the world meeting people whose coping mechanisms – if that is the right term, and this programme makes me think it might not be – for grief are thoroughly modern, when most of our ideas of mourning still follow the solemn, steadfast, dark endurance of Victorian times.

He unmasks the pop-culture tropes of grief (“the five stages” notion gets short shrift), and introduces some more wacky ideas of which I’m equally sceptical (the woman who dismisses the five stages does so in a session of “laughter yoga”). But the point is: it’s whatever gets you through. The myriad ways in which people deal with loss are highlighted in scenes that are heartwarming, cheering and sometimes bewildering. Coles takes in sky-diving, surfing and something called “bereavement boxing”, and I do actually want to try all of them, even if they would have been of most help, in my case, a decade ago. In other hands, this might have been overwhelming, like being assailed by Groupon offers, but Coles is an intelligent and engaging guide. And as with Daley, perhaps what most contributes to Good Grief’s success is that he has skin in the game.

What else I’m watching

I Just Killed My Dad
The popularity of true-crime dramas speaks to our fascination with the macabre and extreme. This is the story of perpetrator Anthony Templet. It’s especially relevant given that continuing American sickness - teen boys and firearms.

Five Days at Memorial
Based on a true story, this eight-parter recounts the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the chaos that engulfed a New Orleans hospital. As you’d expect, it’s incredibly intense, and with a cast that includes Vera Farmiga and Cherry Jones, of the highest quality.

Channel 4
Ramy (Ramy Youssef), the Egyptian American protagonist of this acclaimed New Jersey-set sitcom, is back navigating the conflicts of his Muslim faith and millennial lifestyle, in a world increasingly divided about… well, seemingly everything.