Irritations of Modern Life 10: Televised Sport In Pubs

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The Independent Culture
I REALISED the extent of the televised-sport-in-pubs disease about a year ago when I walked into my local to find the entire clientele watching a bodybuilder in sparse underpants who was flexing his muscles and mincing around to an anonymous piece of heavy metal. "A good performance from the Finn, there," breathed the commentator when the man eventually finished.

Now another man started flexing. His performance was in all respects the same as that of the preceding competitor, although his underpants were of a different hue. When he had finished, the commentator started to say something which came out as: "Er..." before lapsing into silence. By now, a third muscle-bound man had taken the stage.

The programme was being transmitted, presumably in desperation, by Eurosport or Sky Sports. I find it hard to tell them apart, and I don't subscribe to either of these satellite sports channels. I don't take them because I don't want them. What I do want to do is go to the pub occasionally (well, quite often actually), but the majority of pubs now have satellite sports on the telly.

Most landlords switch the satellite sports on at around opening time and turn them off at around closing time. Sometimes the landlord switches over to another channel but only if there's sport on the other channel. The appeal of, say, Sky's Premier League football broadcasts I sort of understand. But unfortunately there isn't enough real sport to fill the broadcasting time available.

I haven't yet seen live, international Scraping The Barrel on satellite sport channels but I have seen what appeared to be souped-up tractor racing, and something called World Team Darts, which is like individual darts only more so. In an attempt to drum up excitement, it began with pounding disco music and a camera panning dramatically across a few men slumped over pints of bitter.

I asked the landlord of my local whether he actually wanted satellite sports TV. "I've got to have it if I want to bring the punters in," he said. Sure; but did he like it?

He looked at me strangely. "I don't follow you," he said. I might as well have asked a farmer whether he liked a certain type of silage.

Pubs are under threat from home video, better quality take-out booze, the increasing preference for wine. The merging of male and female socialising. But the breweries are responding. They're making pubs more women-friendly, getting children in, serving excellent food. They're providing quizzes, musical entertainment, and laying on sports TV.

Of course, if you don't want a plate of something rather expensive involving tarragon, you don't have to have it. If you don't like quizzes or guitarists you go to another pub. But it's almost impossible to escape satellite sports on TV, and it's particularly hard to escape Sky Sports News. This comes from the "Sports Centre" , which is reminiscent of Alan Partridge's "Desk of Sport" (Steve Coogan's comedic alter ego insisted on this formulation, believing that "Sports Desk" didn't sound important enough). Sky Sports News begins with melodramatic music and doomy graphics, and then focuses in on the sombre face of the newscaster who boomingly intones: "Groin strain trouble for Shearer," in the voice of somebody announcing the beginning of Armageddon.

You can't even think whilst this is happening, let alone read a newspaper. Sky Sports is also a conversation killer far more lethal than the jukebox, which was so virulently objected to by Kingsley Amis and boozers of his era. The enjoyable crispness of pub etiquette ("What's yours?", "My shout?") is hopelessly blurred if your friend is woozily transfixed by some elderly crown green bowlers giving each other high fives in "exciting" moments as they are encouraged to do on Sky Sports.

There's nothing new, of course, about the conjunction of sport and alcohol. I know from my own experience that village cricket should really be called "village drinking". But to watch a man consume five pints of lager and three packets of porky scratchings whilst watching a feat of physical fitness (or even darts) is grotesque.

But it is, I'm afraid, a paradigm of our times: the hopeless observer, and the soaring achiever - a reminder that, in our media-dominated age, the watcher and the watched are the new us and them.

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