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Matthew d’Ancona’s Culture: This Federer documentary packs power

Our editor-at-large’s rundown of the pick of the week’s television and books

Roger Federer in Federer: Twelve Final Days. Photo: Prime Video


Prime Video

In his classic 2006 essay on Roger Federer, the late David Foster Wallace described the tennis legend as “one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws… a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light”.

Co-directed by Asif Kapadia (who won an Oscar in 2016 for Amy) and Joe Sabia, this compelling documentary traces its subject’s final days as a professional player and the exit from the main stage of sport of the mystical being whom Wallace identified.

The notional focus is the 2022 Laver Cup at the O2 Arena in London, as Team Europe squares up to Team World – fittingly captained, respectively, by Björn Borg and John McEnroe. But the play on court is really no more than a backdrop to a series of valedictory rituals, as carefully choreographed as they are steeped in emotion.

Precisely because Federer was so composed on and off court, the glimpses he allows the camera of deep feeling are all the more powerful. “I won’t be a ghost,” he says – and then finds himself unable to speak for a moment.

Even as we watch, he is undergoing a metamorphosis that only a tiny number of human beings experience: the return from the realm of mythmaking to something approximating ordinary human life. Bereavement comes in many forms.



For 22 years the acclaimed editor of GQ and now the editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard, Dylan Jones has been a protagonist in, as well as a chronicler of, the culture, fashion and media history of this country for more than four decades.

Now he has delivered a fine memoir that is both bracingly personal – sometimes harrowingly so – and full of insight and wit about the times through which he has lived and the media landscape he has helped to shape. (Full disclosure: I wrote for him at GQ and continue to do so at the Standard).

Many years before culture took over the world, he intuited its growing importance to power as well as to art, style and the catwalk. “I knew,” he writes of an early stint on newspapers “that it was culturally normative to treat ‘culture’ as incidental, or peripheral”. He also knew that that was wrong. Today, of course, it is commonplace to say that culture is upstream from politics and that identity trumps economics (for details, see Donald Trump’s campaign for a second term).

The book is stuffed full of anecdotal gems and stories about the famous – Bowie, Bryan Ferry, the Blitz kids, the Stones, David Beckham, Grace Jones, the royal family, politicians – but it is much more than that. These Foolish Things is also a masterly panoramic portrait of an extraordinary era in international style and culture.

As far as I can work out, Jones is just getting warmed up, so I expect (and hope for) additional volumes. And do listen to the man himself talking to Matt Kelly and me on last Friday’s episode of The Two Matts.



In January 2023, the actor Jeremy Renner suffered life-threatening injuries in a snowcat accident, after which, having saved his nephew, he ended up in intensive care with 38 broken bones. Extraordinary, then, that, after a remarkable recovery, he is already back to star in season three of this excellent series.

The premise of Mayor of Kingstown is both imaginative and cynical: adjacent in spirit to David Simon’s phenomenal Baltimore saga, The Wire (2002-08). Based in a Michigan town whose main industry is incarceration, it is the story of the McClusky family, whose tribal role is to intercede, fix, bribe and dispense rough justice so that some sort of order may be maintained between the cops, gangs, inmates, prison officers and (on occasion) victims’ families.

A classic series in the making and further evidence – if it were needed – that its co-creator Taylor Sheridan, the force behind Yellowstone and its spin-offs, is the most important figure in contemporary American television.


by James Shapiro

Faber & Faber

Best known for his award-winning books on Shakespeare (especially 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare), the Columbia University scholar James Shapiro here excavates the deep roots of today’s culture wars – to intriguing and highly readable effect.

His subject is the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal-inspired programme designed to broaden access in America to artistic performance and innovative drama. Under the directorship of Hallie Flanagan, the FTP lasted only four years, from 1935 to 1939, but – in that short time – staged more than a thousand productions in 29 states, seen by 30 million Americans. All of which was an intolerable provocation for the racist, ultra-conservative Texas congressman Martin Dies, who made it his mission, via the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to destroy the FTP.

One might argue that culture wars are as old as culture itself. But Shapiro is right to identify the disturbing symmetries between the Dies committee’s methods and today’s attacks on the “liberal elite” and cutting-edge creativity.

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