He's game for a laugh

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The Independent Culture
You can guarantee two things about the new English football season, which starts today. First, that a certain sarong-wearing, Posh Spice-loving England and Manchester United midfielder will be booed wherever he plays. And second, that a host of new comedy football shows will spread across the television schedules like a nasty case of heat rash.

The first of these programmes will hit our screens before the week's out. Alistair McGowan's Football Backchat, broadcast on Channel 4 on Friday night, is newly promoted to the Premiership of "footcom" shows, joining such big players as They Think It's All Over and Fantasy Football.

In this new show, McGowan, a talented impressionist, puts new, jokey voices on stock footage of real-life footballers. So Paul Gascoigne is seen wielding a rod and discussing his passion for angling: "I'm fly- fishing. Come here, fly, I'm gonna fish yer." And former England manager Graham Taylor is pictured doing a particularly ludicrous tippy-toed training run while singing to himself: "I'm a little pixie trotting through the wood, Bluebells, daisies, all very good."

"There aren't that many ways of describing a ball hitting the back of the net and how you feel about it," McGowan explains. "The definitions are very limited - it's not like describing a piano concerto. That's what this programme is all about - what are you supposed to say when a microphone is thrust in front of you? How about, 'Ask me a decent question'?"

McGowan reckons this works as a concept because people enjoy the incongruity of it. "We have Bobby Charlton trying to get a game with some lads in the park, or David Seaman hosting a barbecue where his cat disappears. They are ridiculously banal situations, but that's what's funny. You don't expect these top footballers to be ordinary.

"Footballers take themselves very seriously, and when they say silly things, it bursts the balloon. When you pull the rug from under their feet, you realise that it's just a game and that they're not heroes."

But why has there been this conjunction between footy and funny, which has proved to be a marriage made in commissioning editor's heaven? McGowan puts it down to the broadening of football's appeal this decade. "The boom in comedy only mirrors the boom in football. There is all the Sky coverage, and virtually every paper now does a football pull-out on a Monday. In the past, you had to hunt and hunt for football coverage; you could only find it in specialist magazines which came out three weeks after the event."

McGowan can pinpoint the moment that detonated this explosion of interest. "I trace it back to Italia 90 and the BBC's decision to use Pavarotti singing 'Nessun Dorma' for its coverage. That was a huge turning-point. It demonstrated that there were other ways of viewing the national game, that it wasn't all just hoolies and bad hairdos."

Since then, footy coverage has become less formal, metaphorically undoing its top button and loosening its tie. According to McGowan, "people like Chris Evans have developed a more relaxed style of presenting which allows you to acknowledge mistakes. When people like Gary Lineker and Alan Hansen came along, they made football more user-friendly, and the stuffed-shirt aspect receded. There wasn't that old gap between us and them."

With They Think It's All Over and Fantasy Football, there is also that thrill of watching stars from one arena perform in another, more unfamiliar one (witness the football fans who flock to see, say, Eric Cantona or Vinnie Jones act in feature films). "It's always fascinating to see people you've watched for so long in one thing doing something else," McGowan says. "Everyone always asks, 'What is Gary Lineker really like?' and They Think It's All Over shows them. It's about seeing someone in a different light."

Footcom is up there with fashion and design as a hip manifestation of Cool Britannia. "Football is now the new rock 'n' roll," says McGowan. "Comedy used to be. Comedy must be the new hoola-hoop now. It must be confusing for footballers, though - 'You're not a footballer anymore, you're a rock star'."

But where will it all end? Ian Wright and Ally McCoist have already hosted their own shows. What's next? Kenny Dalglish's Laugh-In? Gazza's Comedy Hour, featuring a special guest star appearance by a pair of plastic breasts?

Don't laugh - it's probably already been commissioned.

'Alistair McGowan's Football Backchat' is on Friday at 10.30pm on C4