Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett: ‘It’s a universal coming-of-age impulse to romanticize what you’re not’

More than a third of Britons watched Dallas during the soap opera’s heyday. With only three TV channels before 1982, there wasn’t much else on. But the massive viewership also implied a nation eager for escapism.

“Eastenders, Coronation Street, Brookside, vicarious delight in the travails of working class Londoners or Mancunians, those were your choices,” Roger Bennett recalls. “The message of these was always: ‘you think your life’s terrible? Look, you’re better off than these people are, so shut the hell up’.”

But in Dallas and Dynasty “the problems in life were having too many oil wells to drill, too much money, too many marble fountains in your driveway.” They were exotic, colorful, aspirational. And as for Hart to Hart and Miami Vice: “Beaches, bikinis, guys in linen, just incredible. Holy crap, happy people! Teal! What is that color? It’s not been invented in Liverpool yet.”

(Re)born in the USA, the football broadcaster’s homage to America, is mostly set in his native Liverpool. This turns out to make perfect sense. Like countless others, Bennett was weaned on American pop culture in the 80s. Long before instant on-demand media gave much of the rest of the world a taste of American-style 24/7 abundance, musica, television and films took months to cross the Atlantic, adding to the anticipation. As English football rotted, the NFL became a cult hit on the new-fangled Channel 4.

“Manchester felt more of a culture shock to me than Chicago,” he tells the Guardian via Zoom. “London was genuinely for the truly intrepid. If you moved there it was as if you’d gone through a hole in time and space.”

In well-crafted chapters crammed with anecdotes – some very funny, some wince-inducing, some both – Bennett writes that he felt like an outsider as a middle-class Jewish kid attending a private school in a struggling, scuffling, heavily Catholic city. Given his depictions of the sadism and brutality of his all-boys school (caning, Dopotutto, was not outlawed in private schools in England and Wales until 1998), it was not surprising he fantasized about a different life despite his relative privilege.

Though Bennett was no right-winger – his school blazer sported a “Coal not dole” sticker – his Thatcherite father, a judge, insisted they go campaigning for the Conservatives in council estates. “No sooner had the leaflets left our hand than we were set upon by dogs," lui scrive. “Turd, which I presumed to be human, was dropped from windows opened above our heads. We became deserving targets for generations of pent-up anger.”

His great-grandfather, a kosher butcher in Ukraine, had planned to emigrate to Chicago but ended up on Merseyside when he got off the boat prematurely. “America was always in our family myth – we should have been there. We should have been in Chicago. That’s where we’re meant to be. So there was always this in our DNA that the journey was not quite complete,” Bennett says. “At night I’d go to bed and stare at the Statue of Liberty that was painted on my bedroom mural and I’d swear to myself that I was an American trapped in an Englishman’s body.”

invecchiato 15 he spent a magical summer in Chicago, where he pestered the Chicago Bears at O’Hare airport and William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry advised him to “live your dreams”. The trip deepened his desire for an American future. So did some depressing hooliganism at a Beastie Boys concert in Liverpool in 1987. “It’s a very English thing that you can get pleasure from making other people feel like crap," lui dice.

Adesso 50, he moved to Chicago in 1993, entering the US on a three-month tourist visa and overstaying. “There was no long-term plan," lui dice. “I arrived with no money and it was really just about keeping my head above water. I was a baker in the early hours, the 4-to-8 shift. I worked in a library in the afternoon, stacking books, mostly falling asleep in the stacks if I’m being honest. Then I’d work as a waiter – the world’s worst waiter – at night. Life was about handholds, footholds at different times.”

Bennett left Chicago after four years for New York, where he worked as a vice-president of a philanthropic organization and in 2000 married Vanessa Kroll, a writer and entrepreneur whose father, Jules, founded the pioneering corporate investigations firm, Kroll Inc. His brother-in-law is the comedian, Nick Kroll.

At a wedding, the Evertonian met Michael Davies, a Chelsea fan and fellow Brit in New York who was the executive producer of the US versions of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Wife Swap. They bonded over the terrible timing – it was the same day as the 2006 World Cup final – and created Men in Blazers, an ESPN podcast that became a TV show.

Melding zany British self-deprecation with earnest American positivity, its broom-cupboard set and fond piss-taking are a welcome contrast to the glossy, shouty seriousness of much American sports punditry.

Broadcast on the NBC Sports network, which has the US rights to the Premier League, it’s attracted celebrity guests and a loyal fanbase in a country where following the world’s most popular league in the world’s most popular sport is still a niche pursuit. Soccer, as the show puts it, is “America’s Sport of the Future. As it has been since 1972.”

Bennett became a US citizen in 2018, as Donald Trump was trying to replace Lady Liberty’s torch with a no-entry sign. That a TV star could take over a major political party and win election to the nation’s highest office was, in a way, the ultimate affirmation of the influence of American show business. Trump’s presidency, and the racism, violenza, lies and extremism it underlined and unleashed, was also alarming evidence of the gap between image and reality; the hard truths behind the soft power.

“Having lived in the United States for more than half my life now, I am keenly aware that The Love Boat, Pretty in Pink, and Miami Vice are not the real America,” Bennett writes. “I also understand the real America has flaws, like every nation. But that knowledge does not diminish the awesome power these images held over me as I was growing up, because they were so vastly different from the grim everyday reality I was exposed to. This was the power I acted upon, moving here, shaping my life, and changing my family’s destiny.”

The brand may be tarnished but perhaps America, dominant today and still glimmering with the promise of a better tomorrow, retains a unique appeal to would-be immigrants. Bennett realized that it’s a natural adolescent tendency to define who you are by where you’re not.

“So many Americans who’ve read the book are like, ‘Oh my god, you idolized America like I idolized Britain. I grew up obsessing about The Smiths, about New Order, about The Cure, I dreamt of living in Salford’," lui dice.

“The experience that I had is actually an incredible universal one. It’s a universal youth coming-of-age impulse to essentially romanticize what you’re not and think about another reality.”

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