LONG RUNNERS / Downhill all the way: Marc Girardelli: No 16: Ski Sunday

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The Independent Culture
Age: 17. It started in 1977 on a schuss of enthusiasm, after the effervescent Franz Klammer's celebrated run in the 1976 Olympic men's downhill at Innsbruck. Mark Wilkin, the producer, recalls that 'the public really caught on. It was an irresistible combination of him, the danger, the colour and pretty pictures of the mountains'.

Frequency: about 10 shows a year ever since - normally beginning with the premiere neige competition from Val d'Isere in early December.

Ratings: it averages 3 million viewers - not bad, as there are only thought to be 1.5 million skiers in Britain.

Formula: in a fashion victim ski-jacket, David Vine - the presenter since the outset - introduces an eight-minute item on the resort and the competitors, before retiring to the box to commentate on the ensuing race. The posh Julian Tutt then reports briefly from a rather less glamorous event (last week, a women's slalom on artifical snow somewhere in Slovenia.)

Is it easy to put together, then? Not exactly. Wilkin finds his plans can change almost daily. 'It always looks terrific on paper, but suddenly there's no snow in Garmisch and you have to travel to somewhere 10 hours away.'

So is it very expensive to make? No, because the BBC takes only one of its own cameras - for the feature-style intro. 'British viewers want to identify with personalities,' Wilkin explains. 'When they see a racer they want to think 'he's the blond guy who laughs a lot' - not just look at a helmeted blob.' The cameraman, Alan Jessop, has made a speciality out of filming the course as he skis down it - when Wilkin lets him. 'Some courses - like Kitzbuhel - I wouldn't let him near.'

The actual race footage always comes from the host broadcaster, so the BBC is not to blame for the frequent blandness of the pictures. Wilkin underlines the difficulty of capturing on film the steepness and speed of a downhill. 'Two-dimensional television flattens the whole thing out. If you pan with the racers, it only slows them down. The only time you get an accurate impression is when a racer falls.'

What does come across, then? The spectacular mountain scenery. The Eiger (in last week's programme) hasn't looked so good since Clint Eastwood climbed it. The wipe-outs are another dramatic feature of Ski Sunday - though Wilkin is also careful about these. 'The ideal crash is where the racer does something horrendously wrong, falls 100 metres with his skis and limbs everywhere, then gets up as if nothing happened.' More bloody accidents are not screened.

What else is good about the programme? The theme tune - 'Pop Looks Bach' by Fontaine - is widely thought to be the most stirring in televised sport. 'No producer would dream of changing it,' says Wilkin. Passengers whistle it at Vine when they see him in airport lounges.

So Vine - 'TV's Mr Skiing' - knows everything about the sport then? Er, not exactly. Wilkin emphasises that the programme does not wish to blind viewers with ski science. 'If you start giving them inside edges, radiuses of slalom curves and laminated bonding systems, they are going to turn off. Our aim is to broaden the knowledge of those who ski without alienating those who don't' However, Vine's technical comments rarely seem to venture beyond 'the glide' and the 'the tuck'. This was shown up by Martin Bell's thorough analysis of the Wengen course last week. Vine's reading of a run also leaves something to be desired; last week he told us how rarely Helmut Hoflehner fell - just moments before Helmut Hoflehner fell. He tends to use phrases from the Alan Partridge Handbook - viz, 'he's thinking about the S - and he's thought too hard'. Vine is not among Britain's 1.5 million skiers.

Little-known fact: Carlton weather girl and tabloid star Sally Faber was once a presenter. Vine has hosted Miss World and The Eurovision Song Contest.

Rival: Eurosport is launching itself headlong downhill, offering 96 hours of live coverage from the World Cup.

How good is Ski Sunday, then? Its end- of-term report might read 'could do better'. The filming and commentary often lack imagination. But, to give it its due, Ski Sunday does manage to impart a flavour of the mountains. And it provides one of the true couch potato's chief delights: watching others risk life and limb while you lounge on the sofa.

(Photograph omitted)