Penguins Stopped Play by Harry Thompson

Captain Scott and the big freeze

Simon Lister
Simon Lister reviews Penguins Stopped Play by Harry Thompson

If you have a television, then the chances are that Harry Thompson has made you laugh out loud. He was the mighty brain behind programmes such as Have I Got News For You, its sporty cousin They Think It's All Over and the music quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

In April last year Thompson felt unwell and was told by his doctor that - despite having never smoked a cigarette - he had inoperable lung cancer. By November Thompson had died. He was 45.

The enduring love of Harry Thompson's life was cricket. He adored the game to such an extent that, although he was useless at it, he and his university pals set up a club so they could be useless at it together. They named the side the Captain Scott Invitation XI after the explorer who died in the Antarctic in 1912, the personification of British heroic failure. What happened to the Scotties over the next 20-odd years is the story of Penguins Stopped Play.

This book is first a romp through the pretty villages of southern England, an expertly told yarn of the Scott XI being belted to all parts by merciless locals. Alongside accounts of humiliating defeats and the odd lucky draw Thompson drops in a few choice anecdotes: the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, fetching a ball only to vault a fence straight into a deep pool of liquid manure. The author also remembers Hislop's last game, after he had already become a celebrity. He batted with a black cab running its meter on the boundary "ready to take him somewhere more important".

The writing is crisper than a Gower cover drive and as witty as any of the Tales from a Long Room. But then something happens. The Scott XI suffers an almighty schism and splits in two - one side led by Thompson, the other captained by Marcus Berkmann, one of his oldest friends and, as many readers will know, the author of the brilliant Rain Men (and the original owner of the Hislop/manure anecdote).

According to Thompson it was not a pleasant parting and in the latter half of his book there is a whiff of old scores being settled. This is both a shame and a weakness.

Thompson's XI go travelling, determined to play a game on every continent. Their trip takes up more than 100 pages and proves that writing about any cricket tour is hard enough but, when the matches are of little consequence to anyone except the author and his team, the task gets trickier, even for a natural like Thompson.

All we really learn is that the Scotties are the same group of good eggs, rotten eggs, piss artists and idiots that make up practically every cricket club in the country. And by the end of the tour the sparkling shambolic amateurism of the early years, so engagingly described, has evaporated. What remains is something grimier and not half as interesting.