Intent on doing the double

Thanks to Fantasy Football, David Baddiel has survived Rob Newman. And thanks to Frank Sk inner, he's in a funny double-act again. James Rampton saw their pre-season pre parations Which other programme would spend several minutes searching for football references in Othello? People think that they are an item; they have to keep inserting `heterosexual caveats' into their conversation
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Jimmy Tarbuck - in a smart but casual leather jacket and a pair of tasselled shoes which must be a big hit down the golf club - breezes in and pumps Frank Skinner's hand enthusiastically. Patsy Kensit, wearing knee-length black boots and a Tartan micro-skirt, chats animatedly with David Baddiel.

Michael Grade, in a tie loud enough to be heard in the next county, sits chomping a cigar and blustering that Grobbelaar and Merson are his "absolute home-bankers". Jo Brand is huddled in a corner by Sean Bean, dressed in a grey suit that has apparently been remaindered from last year's Professional Footballers' Association dinner. Maybe they are discussing the tattoo on the Sheffield United-supporting actor's shoulder: "100 per cent Blades".

This is not the Bafta awards. What it is is the ultimate Celebrity Fantasy League gathering, a scrum of soccer's showbiz elite.

The Chief Executive of Channel 4 and the star of Lady Chatterley's Lover are among the 13 managers assembled in a panelled room at the Football Association HQ in Lancaster Gate, London for the auction of players for the second series of BBC2's Fantasy Football League. The room is more used to hosting FA Cup draws and press conferences at which an ashen-faced FA official announces the latest investigation into a drugs or corruption scandal. Now it is witnessing the comedian Jo Brand crying out "Dicks!''

(a West Ham player) to big laughs, and Baddiel buying Rob Newman (from Norwich City) "for old times' sake".

So what is it that has drawn people like Grade and Tarby to this august chamber and made them behave like over-grown schoolchildren? It is true that three million people now play some sort of Fantasy Football, but in the television series the rather anoraky League is merely a pretext for making a net-load of jokes about football. Nobody really follows the results. Fantasy Football League is first and foremost a comedy programme, and it has spawned the best new double act on television: Skinne r and Baddiel. Newman and Baddiel may have been more sophisticated, and had more teenage groupies, and Skinner and Monkhouse may have rattled off more jokes to the minute on Gagtag, but Skinner and Baddiel are more laugh-out-loud funny. Baddiel's reputat ion over the past couple of years has suffered more bruises than Bryan Robson's legs; Fantasy Football League has caused his standing to rise like a Phoenix from the Flames (as the programme would have it).

Over a Fantasy Breakfast of bacon, egg, sausage and mushroom in a Hampstead cafe a week after the auction, Baddiel reflects that in the programme "there are sections that are nothing to do with football. I liked the bit in the summer special where we tried to prove that the woman we had on really was Olive from On the Buses". The programme was nominated for the Best New Comedy Award at last week's British Comedy Awards.

It is the comedy which has lured many of the celebrity managers. Nick Hornby, the author of the best-selling Fever Pitch and another celebrity manager, reckons that "there's never been any kind of satirical football programme - if we exclude Saint and Greavsie, and I think we safely can. All the other European countries have one. The standard of English football is pretty abysmal, so someone taking the piss out of it was bound to take off. Much of the coverage on television is so po-faced, it was cryingout for something like this.''

The fact that Alan Ball has a voice like a squeaky children's toy needs pointing out. And which other programme would spent several minutes searching for the references to football in Othello, or point out in its official diary that 5 August 1968 was theday that Gazza's mate Jimmy "Five Bellies" Gardner was born (though he only had two bellies then)?

"The programme has tapped into the fanzine culture," Hornby continues. "No one on the telly ever used to say that players are bad, but fans say that all the time. The programme is reflecting what's happening at football grounds."

Skinner and Baddiel are fans with television cameras. Skinner is such a keen West Brom supporter that he organised his stand-up tour around their fixture-list; the club Red Stars him videos of all the games he misses. He waves his rattle. "We love football and have a huge affection for footballers. The programme shows that there's more to them than kicking a football around."

The waitress comes to take our orders, and Baddiel momentarily considers having a brioche. Skinner butts in: "Bruce Rioch - is he coming?" Their relationship is full of such joshing. Skinner breaks into an impression of the singer, Richard Tauber, and Baddiel helpfully provides the requisite monocle with his spectacles. At the end of the interview, Skinner sneaks up behind Baddiel and tickles his tummy. Lads, lads.

This sparkiness makes them the Sutton and Shearer of the small screen. Unlike some double-acts, they do actually speak to each other when the cameras are switched off. Not only that, they share a flat. When Baddiel buys Andy Cole for £9.1m at the auction, Skinner complains: "I can't even get him to buy a new light bulb for the hallway." Leaving the cafe, Skinner reminds Baddiel that they need to buy some cat food. "You can't get cat food in Hampstead," Baddiel replies. "You can buy your cat a designer frock, though."

Two and a half years ago, Skinner was thrown out by his girlfriend and went to stay at Baddiel's flat "for a week". Sometimes they bicker like a married couple. (So much so that people think they are an item. Skinner says they have to keep inserting "heterosexual caveats" into their conversation - particularly with taxi-drivers.) What Morecambe and Wise did in fiction, Skinner and Baddiel do in reality. That brings to their act an authentic, bitchy, beer-soaked edge (this in a business where such qualities are an attribute).

Both of them were managers on Radio 5's Fantasy League, but, according to Skinner, "we always felt it was more televisual." So, says Baddiel, "we tried to develop a programme based on what we do at home." "But they wouldn't let us put that much pornography on," adds Skinner.

The one cloud on the Fantasy horizon is the media backlash against the intellectualisation of football. Nick Hornby, Pete Davies, and Jim White in print, and now Skinner and Baddiel on screen, have shown that it is possible to have a brain and to like football at the same time. The media has built them up, and now looks poised to knock them down again.

Baddiel, something of an expert on backlashes, contends that "it's become a bit of a talking-point for journalists. Because he doesn't like football himself, Craig Brown wrote a piece in the Evening Standard attacking what he sees as middle-class people pretending they like it. But real football fans love the programme. We've never had anything but a positive response when we go to matches. It wouldn't make any difference if there was a journalistic backlash."

"The real test," chips in Skinner, "of how intellectual football has become would be to see Eddie Izzard, who's a Crystal Palace fan, going to Selhurst Park in a dress."

`Fantasy Football League' begins on Friday, BBC2 at 11.15pm

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