RADIO / A better class of platitude

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The Independent Culture
EVERY Saturday, about 5.15pm, the airwaves turn surreal. Stuart Hall, Sport on 5's Northern football correspondent, puts away his thesaurus and dog-eared copy of Kerouac, slips on his Victorian actor-manager's voice, and pours his purple prose into the nation's ear. 'Twas full-time at the school of science. An elegant damsel sashayed up to me and uttered: 'Please, Santa, give us a football team.' ' That's how he opened last week's report, before comparing Robert Fleck, the Chelsea striker, to 'an ambulant assegai'.

No show with Hall on board is short of colour. And he is not the only character here - there's Simon Taylor, the plummy authority on motor sport, golf's genial Renton Laidlaw, bumbling all-rounder Tony Adamson. But fings are not quite as they used to be. Death has claimed some stars (football commentators Peter Jones and Maurice 'jinking and turning' Edelston), and satellite television has lured others - notably Ian Darke, the vibrant voice of boxing, and the Archbishop of Wimbledon, Gerald Williams. Their replacements seem to have come off a BBC production line - smooth young cards who could be moonlighting stockbrokers. It's a relief to hear the chirpy Eleanor Oldroyd, though her metaphors - 'Just like the meat in my British Rail sandwich, Tranmere will be tough' - are not yet in the Stuart Hall league.

The running order changes little: racing, rugby and whatever else is on, until four o'clock and the second-half soccer commentary. Then the presenter John Inverdale ritually announces, 'The clock is ticking round to five o'clock, and it's time for Sports Report.' Then the famous tune - dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee- dum, dee diddley dum dee-daaah] - and the breathless run through results and instant interviews, held together by Inverdale's ready, if predictable, wit.

What's missing is pithy comment. This week boxing correspondent John Rawling launched a spirited sally at the hyping of Chris Eubank, but the personal pieces from weighty outsiders are fewer. Controversy is more likely to be fired by a report, such as Jonathan Legard's recent interview with a heavily bleeped-out Stan Flashman. This may be due to a conscious decision to shift opinion to Six-0-Six, the football phone-in that follows Sport on 5.

Six-0-Six is a child of local radio. Fans ring in on their way home, often on mobile phones, to air their grievances. It probably does more for the fan's peace of mind than motorway safety. On last week's evidence, the average fan is confident, articulate, mildly racist (there was an outbreak of Francophobia from Cantona-less Leeds supporters) and unforgiving. Inevitably, referees get a roasting. A man who had been 'going to the Wolves for 30 years' reckoned the game was going to the dogs - and blamed 'demonstrative' officials. It was all well-mannered, jollied along by the gruff courtesy of the presenter, Bob 'The Cat' Bevan, until the raw spots of team rivalries were grazed. A Geordie rang to say he'd left Newcastle for Sunderland. 'He's had a nervous breakdown,' retorted a Newcastle fan minutes later. 'Either that or his parents have shunned him.'

Next year the show will be presented by David Mellor. On The Radio Programme (R4) recently a speaker complained of the glut of celebrity presenters. Why, she argued, should Neil Kinnock stand in for Jimmy Young, instead of an up-and-coming broadcaster? If the same criticism can be levelled at Gary Lineker's Football Night (R5), Lineker's slight stiltedness makes a welcome change from slick professionalism. He has to watch his comments for fear of the tabloids (I'm told he's much more outspoken about Graham Taylor, off air), but he does come up with inside information.

This week he tried, not for the first time, to strike up a partnership with Arsenal's Ian Wright. 'Stuart Pearce tends to get hyped up for games, Ian, doesn't he?' 'Yeah, definitely.' 'I think Forest really need this win to give their season a lift, Ian.' 'Yeah, definitely.' 'Peter Beardsley . . . someone you admire, Ian?' 'Definitely. Good goalscorer.' Eventually, though, Wright was drawn into a discussion of his disciplinary problems and 'instinctive' way of playing, and Lineker gave a glimpse of the pastoral gifts that nursed the infant Gazza.

It's good, too, to hear a footballer reach for a better class of platitude. After Pat Murphy had reported on the potential for errors on the Villa Park pitch, Lineker assured him: 'There's always human fallibility about, Pat.' Yeah, definitely, Gary.