Last Man Standing

Tuesday, August 14, 2007 by

It would be very easy to be cynical about Last Man Standing. The BBC has had, embedded in its DNA almost since its first day of transmission, a mission to educate and inform the nation’s youth. Time was, you could stick Muffin the Mule on for an hour a day and that would be enough. But with hot and cold running X-boxes now in every house, it’s becoming harder and harder to convince kids that they really want to be learning stuff while they watch the telly.

The front line of the BBC’s battle to raise the next generation’s level of knowledge a couple of notches above shameful is BBC3. So it’s unsurprising this should be the channel that throws up the most mutations in Auntie’s DNA – to overstretch the metaphor a tad. Last Man Standing is an interesting example of a new genre created by this evolutionary process. Part documentary, part reality show, part sports programme, this eight-week series is best described as “anthropology aggro”.

Six fit young men, experts at their particular sports, travel the world. They meet people from different tribes and cultures. They ogle the topless tribeswomen. They learn about the tribe’s ways. They live with them and experience their culture first hand.

Then they pick fights with them.

Since this is the BBC, of course, we can’t possibly send a bunch of fit young men to foreign climes, simply to beat up the natives – that’s a bit too old school British Empire. Instead, as well as making sure half the competitors are American, we give the natives a sporting chance by letting them pick the fight rules – and by sending guys with little or no experience in the natives’ sports.

The first episode is an instructive example. Our intrepid hextet are flown out to Brazil to meet the Kalapolo tribe. The Kalapolo like to wrestle. They wrestle with each other. They wrestle with other villages’ tribes. They wrestle from when they’re kids until old age.

Instead of sending experts in judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, sombo or even someone who did wrestling in high school or at college – in other words, people who might stand a chance – we send a weightlifter, a runner/mountaineer, a fitness guru, a kickboxer, a cricket/rugby player and – wait for it – a BMX racing champion. Needless to say, the home team do quite well and the away team, with their whole week of training, don’t exactly triumph.

And so it continues for the rest of the series, as the fighters brave Zulu stick fighting, Mexican endurance running, Nagaland kickboxing, Mongolian wrestling, Tobriand cricket, Wolof wrestling and Sepik canoe racing. Even when it might seem like we stand a chance (the kickboxer with the kickboxing contest, the cricket with the cricketing contest and the runner with the running contest, for example), injuries or freak accidents prevent the favourite from winning. All the same, skill at one sport seems to be a relatively transferable skill, with our heroes doing surprisingly well at some of the events.

In true British Raj style, though, we prove to be best at the after-contest activities. Jason, the BMX champion – who just happens to be a tree surgeon as well – is great at chopping trees. Brad, the weightlifter, can help the Brazilians carry the trees afterwards. Corey, the endurance runner, also happens to be a rower so helps with the boating and so on. We’re prepared to give their languages a go, speaking Spanish to the Mexicans, French to the Senegalese and giving pidgin a brave attempt, too, when faced with Papua New Guinea tribesmen disconcertingly called Dominic and Paul. All it needs is a bit of tonic water and a slice of lemon to really recreate that Jewel in the Crown feel.

It does seem a bit odd, though, that a different contestant every week feels the need to visit the local shaman and learn about the local magic. Documentary fixing at the Beeb? Surely not …

Since it’s BBC3, we also have the tried and tested gross factor at as many possible points as possible, just to ensure those feckless kids have got something to keep them watching through the dull bits. The most bizarre sport featured – Mexican endurance running – involves running a marathon round a village while kicking a wooden football and wearing a pair of shoes made from recycled tyres. Needless to say, the foot injuries are spectacular. Rajko, the fitness guru, nearly sliced off one of his own toes while chopping wood for the Trobriand. And since our contestants need to get their own food to eat, we have I’m a Celebrity … style bush-tucker grub-eatings as well as far more harrowing Mongolian practices: animal lovers would have been well advised to steer clear of that episode, which involved cutting open a sheep, reaching inside it and severing one of its arteries, as well as the equally horrific removal of lambs’ testicles while they’re still alive and squealing. By the end of the contest, most of our contestants are thinking about becoming vegetarians.

Yet for all this cynicism, Last Man Standing is actually a surprisingly touching and endearing show. Anyone expecting a bunch of arrogant jocks would be sorely disappointed by our personable contestants. While the Americans do have the edge in the confidence stakes over the more self-effacing Brits, everyone involved turns out to be a really nice guy who regards the whole thing as a privilege, wants to learn as much as possible about the native culture, and keeps the trash-talking to a minimum. They’re touched by the generosity of the people they stay with – one of the Mexicans gives up his house and sleeps outside so that the contestants have somewhere to stay. They’re surprisingly sensitive, with Jason, the BMX champion, getting deeply upset by the tree burning and eco-system devastation practised by the Mongolians, for example. There’s true bravery displayed: the nearly-toeless Rajko marches out onto the Trobriand cricket field, against doctor’s orders, to win the game for the villagers, who are playing for their honour against a nearby village and are trailing badly, in an ending that would have looked implausible in a movie – even Richard, the cricketer and previous favourite who was winning until that point, has to admit you can’t argue with heroism and one villager goes on to name her child after Rajko, such is the esteem he’s brought to the village. They even take time out to help others who fall behind.

And when the contest proves to be a dead heat, with three of the athletes having won two events each, they generously cast a ballot to decide among themselves who deserves the crown and unanimously declare Jason overall winner because of his attitude and self-development.

It’s interesting to compare the show with the other “anthropology agro” series currently doing the rounds: Human Weapon, over on the US History Channel. In this, a pro-wrestler/American footballer and a mixed martial arts champion travel the world to traditional martial arts hotspots like Japan and the Philippines, as well as lesser-known areas such as Israel and Greece, where they learn about the culture and history, and – you guessed it – pick fights with the natives.

The show is far more geared up for martial arts fans than Last Man Standing. While the British show is content to explain the rules and have the narrator, Richard Hammond, cast an amused and slightly superior eye over the sport’s training practices, Human Weapon has blow-by-blow instructions, explanations of the physics of the art and lovingly CGi-ed illustrations of virtual men hitting each other from every possible angle.

Yet, while Human Weapon is at least as educational as Last Man Standing and the hosts equally as affable and downright pleasant as their counterparts over here, without the reality show element, we end up learning very little about them and the show seems far less involving. Yes, it’s cool watching a Kali master wrestling a water buffalo, but do we know how much the hosts miss their families and want to make them proud, like Brad does (something that prompts one village to put on a birthday party to cheer him up)? Do we know what their hobbies are, as we do with Mark the Samba-dancing kickboxer? Were their upbringing and childhood as troubled as Jason’s, the true Last Man Standing?

BBC3 are already recruiting for a second series, so it’s to be hoped that while some cross-pollination occurs between the two shows, giving Last Man Standing something that martial arts aficionados as well as anthropologists can get their teeth into, the formula stays much the same. Because even if you aren’t an attention-deficit teenager, the show is an engrossing, entertaining – and indeed – educational programme that makes you care about its contestants and shows you people, customs and sports you probably never knew about – and won’t have seen on primetime BBC1 or BBC2.


Comments are closed.