Having recently penned an obituary for the writer Jonathan Rendall (1964-2013) in The Times, partly celebrating his short, but brilliant, career, I had a strong, melancholy urge to go back and watch the three-part mini-series that he’d scripted and fronted in 2001, called The Gambler.
Within minutes of sending a speculative email to the director, Paul Wilmshurst, I got a refreshingly swift reply, saying he’d be more than happy to send me a copy, and that I should also contact Roy Ackerman, the producer, for it was Roy who really ‘got’ Rendall. Roy’s equally quick reply was clear confirmation that Rendall meant something to him, beyond the ordinary bonds of TV and work. He also mentioned that he’d managed to coerce More4 into repeating The Gambler some time soon.
Thankfully, that some time soon has arrived: this Saturday, in fact, at 12.05am. Watching it again it’s even better than I first remembered it, back in 2001, as a deeply impressionable would-be-writer in search of a British Bukowski-type who understood the complexly pathetic and wantonly wild moments that define certain lifestyles. Rendall was a friend, of sorts, in that respect. He seemed to understand the mystery of experience, or the ‘illusion of comprehension’ as Samuel Beckett describes it. Such writers are a rare find.
Inspired by the obvious brilliance of his second book, Twelve Grand (2000), Channel 4 commissioned a series. The pitch ran like the book, where Rendall was given £12,000 by the publishers Yellow Jersey Press, over a period of three months, at four grand a month, to gamble on whatever took his fancy: horses, dogs, boxing, etv. Unfortunately, like the very best, or very worst form of method writing, the book took a lot out of Rendall. The Jon on the page appeared a lot like the Jon in real life: a man who burned the candle at both ends whilst holding a blowtorch to the middle.
Re-watching the series, you get the feeling if it was made today they’d milk it to buggery, shamelessly wallow in his bad luck and heavy drinking, sentimentalise every other frame with poxy music, trite chords and notes, plonked or plucked to swell the heart and tear-ducts. It’s a testament to Wilmshurst and Ackerman that this isn’t the case. The tone is almost pitch-perfect: a fitting reflection of Rendall, the writer, who wrote with both a highly defined sense of the absurd and a hard-iron edge.
Forever the enemy of the cliche, he makes for an endearingly unpolished presenter – or to be more exact – guide. You can’t help but root for him. Up or down, ecstatic or just plain pissed-off, he seemed made for TV, even if his chaotic tendencies and colourful personality didn’t quite fit the usual TV type. In some ways he resembles Keith Floyd, by way of Hunter S Thomson: a genuine personality who doesn’t patronise the public or lick up to authority.
Watch The Gambler On More 4, Saturday 2nd March 12.05am