TELEVISION / Football and Eurovision: level on points: John Lyttle on two great contests - the FA Cup, between Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday, and the Eurovision Song Contest, between music and madness


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The Independent Culture

It was that time of the year again. The BBC1 announcer was as breathless as the most rehearsed ingenue: 'As the football season reaches its thrilling climax, the BBC offers you a grandstand seat'. As the clock was showing 12.15pm and the FA Cup Final (Saturday BBC1) wasn't due to be played until 3.00pm at the earliest, the 'thrilling climax' was to be preceded by three hours of frantic, fumbling foreplay; the sort of attention the nation's neglected wives had long ago ceased to expect from menfolk now sprawled worshipfully before the box with open six-packs and free delivery Spicy Pepperoni Deep Pan (easy on the anchovy).

The coverage started as it meant to go on and on and on: the obligatory pop song accompained by slo-mo film of Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. 'Oh we can be heroes, if just for one day' David Bowie crooned, nudge nudge. This sort of thing used to be done for laughs, with the footage speeded up, silent-movie fashion. Players were deliberately made to look jerky - like jerks - a tactic (consciously or unconsciously) designed to keep them in their place, to keep them human. Today they move like graceful gods. They could even be . . . male models. Ah, the debilitating influence of star-struck music video.

But then the entire colourful spectrum of pop culture was about to be ruthlessly raided for ornamental bits and bites. Well, it had to be. There was still 170 or so minutes to go before 'the thrilling climax' made 750 million world-wide viewers writhe in unaccustomed spasms of (yes-yes-yes-ooh-yes) esctasy.

The cameras trotted off to the teams' hotels for some Hello]-style interviews, unwisely prefacing the jaunt with the declaration, 'In truth, kick off can't come quickly enough for these players'. Not just for the players, not after you've been given exclusive glimpses of Lee Dixon having a facial and Arsenal manager George Graham being questioned like a beauty queen: 'It is the biggest day of your career, isn't it?' How you ached for Graham to poutingly reply, 'Yes. I also want to travel, meet interesting people and work with children.' But no, we were instantly whisked away to Sheffield Wednesday's isolated inn. Here was the 'laugh-a-minute squad]' with absolutely nothing to laugh about. See the lads eat breakfast] See the lads kick the ball through a suspended tyre] See what's on BBC2] (Click. Managing Schools. Boy, it was beginning to look good.)

Back on BBC1, highlights of the FA Cup's first three rounds gave way to Did You Know?, a string of forgotten facts about the Owls and Gunners delivered as Teen TV captions. Cue that rock beat. The youthful effect was somewhat undermined by a cutaway to Did You Know researcher Albert, a man with matching grey suit and hair. The outside broadcast unit broke in to observe Sheffield Wednesday troop to their coach. Chris Waddle, apparently unable to fit his trophy for player of the season into his carry-all, toted the gleaming award on to the bus. The ravenous camera caught it all.

Meanwhile, presenter-lynchpin Des Lynam succumbed to the spirit of the occasion and flirted with 'ardent Arsenal fan' Rory McGrath. Desperate to while away another demanding 60 seconds, Lynam was finally reduced to asking the comedian 'how is your career?' Which, by this point, is exactly the question you wanted to put to Des himself.

Click. On Channel Four Fred Astaire was dancing with Vera Ellen through Belle of New York, a film roundly trounced by John Lyttle in Saturday's Independent. The boy's a fool, an idiot, a dunce. Such a musical masterpiece obviously deserves to be seen again and again, its subtlety and suddenly evident depth of invention to be fully savoured. Such power, such narrative grip, such. . .

Click. Over on BBC1 a player with flowing fire-engine red locks, lip gloss and lashings of eyeliner said: 'I've just got to try my best.' Interest instantly revived. Then the voiceover revealed that the comely vision was not a footballer but Liverpudlian chanteuse Sonia, plugging the network's other dreaded exercise in burnt-out bombast, the Eurovision Song Contest.

By now not even the surprise introduction of a soap opera called Venables - a tale of boardroom power struggles between footer folk - could disguise the fact that everyone, everywhere was having trouble achieving climax. The flesh was willing, the flaccid magazine format was weak. Thumbnail portraits of the teams were proffered, each side donned traditional blazers to fondle the pitch and feel the vibes, but who really wanted to know that Tony Adams was 'a serious minded person'? Or that the ref was 'gobsmacked' to be chosen? Or that Sheffield manager Trevor Francis thought 'if we play better we have a better chance of winning'?

Perhaps no one truly expects anything less. Certainly no one expects anything more. The build-up itself has become the thing. The game of two halves seemed oddly superfluous to demands. Which probably explains why it was played that way. Still, if you wearied, ITV was always re-running The Dam Busters.

Aptly for a phenomenon struggling to stay afloat in the ratings, this year's Eurovision Song Contest (Saturday BBC1) came from Cork. On the principle of better the devil you know than the devil you don't ('ah-ah-ah-ah'), Terry Wogan again provided the commentary, though the Greatest Living Irishman was immediately upstaged by the resident presenter, a 28-year-old trilinguist from Belfast dressed as Morticia Addams.

The 'colossal event' opened with a ditty from Italy called, if memory serves, 'Sun Over Europe'. This set the standard: odes of national self-reference. Greece warbled 'Greece, Land of Light'. France, for the first time since Napoleon met his Waterloo, fielded a Corsican, suitably accompanied by the domineering 'Mamma Corsica'. New Europeans Bosnia sang, a tad obviously, of 'The Pain of the Whole World'. (The crowd at the Mill Street Equestrian Centre approved. But then they didn't hear Wogan introduce the Bosnians pre-performance 'postcard' with the sensitive observation 'They came all the way from Bosnia and they made them walk in the rain in a graveyard'.) Would the UK entry have done better had it been called 'Blighty, What a Terrible Recession'? Perhaps not. 1993's result duplicated 1992's. Ireland won, with a ballad about the reflective power of a lover's retinas; the UK was second. It was a repeat in other words. They might just as well have transmitted last year's 'colossal event'. Who'd have been any the wiser?