Saturday 18 February 2017

From the archive: "Being A.P."

The documentarist Anthony Wonke has parlayed the success of his Scottish BAFTA-winning Piper Alpha account Fire in the Night into back-to-back sporting profiles. The glitzy Ronaldo, which pondered how a superstar footballer might spend his days and his money, premiered in UK cinemas last week; this week brings the more grounded Being A.P., which follows jump jockey A.P. (Tony) McCoy as he trots from Newton Abbot to the National over the 2014-15 season, bidding for his twentieth consecutive Champion Jockey title.

Wonke quickly finds striking new ways of looking at a figure who may have become overly familiar from his regular appearances in the winner’s enclosure. He catches McCoy going over the jumps in slow motion, the better to show every bone-rattling landing; he digs out the X-rays of the surgical equipment holding the jockey’s battered wrists and ribs together; he finds him in the dentist’s chair and on the masseur’s table, undergoing necessary readjustments. Some respite comes when he’s seen reading the Racing Post in the bath, after the manner of Andy Capp.

Moreover, it’s clear the filmmaker has located a source of great narrative drama: that of an ageing champ – comfortable in so many respects, with a wife and two young children at trackside cheering him on – pushing himself once more towards the holy grail of 300 winners in a season. And – arguably – pushing too far: an early tumble leaves McCoy staggering about the family home with a punctured lung, though it’s a tribute to his much-vaunted gift for pain management, and his desire to win, that he should be seen back in the saddle within days – and chalking up further victories.

If his subject’s underdog days are long behind him, Wonke identifies a particular tension: how many more wins will McCoy romp to before he himself is put out to pasture, his whiphand forced either by the daily stresses and strains of his profession, or his wife Chanelle’s increasingly vocal and heartfelt pleas that this might be the right season to bow out. (The film has a sharp ear for candid marital conversations.)

Although the screen fills with that spectacle specific to the track – misty-morning training sessions, overcast afternoons at Sandown and Newcastle, the colour and noise of a Gold Cup day – McCoy himself is most often observed lying prone in examination rooms or taking meetings with his inner circle in the hope of finding a dignified exit strategy: the dismayed look on the jockey’s face after hearing his commercial advisor asking “Do you want to be the face of peanut butter?” suggests a man ready to ride off over the hills and far, far away.

In his opening voiceover, McCoy describes himself as “an addict” – a man on the horse, as hooked on the twists and turns of the turf as any gambler. The film senses how this monomania – three or more rides a day, every day for six months of the year – might well have a deleterious effect on one’s body and relationships, while simultaneously steering its subject towards a future that may well be less gloried, but which instinctively feels a whole lot healthier.

If Ronaldo was the prestige, blue-chip documentary assignment, stalking a global brand ambassador in peak physical condition, Being A.P. instead assumes the look and proportions of a weathered, more appreciably human B-picture: one of the most intimate and involving sporting profiles for some while, Wonke’s film offers a portrait of a champion once more weighing up the field before him and determining the right time to make a decisive move – this time hauling himself past the finishing post for good.

(November 2015)

Being A.P. screens on BBC2 tomorrow night at 10pm.

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