After just four games of what he had luridly billed as Andy Murray’s quest to become “the first British man wearing shorts to win this title”, Andrew Castle declared: “It’s difficult to watch, at times, it seems so gruelling.” Perhaps more squeamish viewers were duly prompted to explore exactly what alternatives the BBC had thoughtfully made available via the red button icon in the corner of the screen titled: “Choose match.” Perhaps John McEnroe was indulging Court One with some more knockabout veteran doubles. After all, the coverage had entered its inevitable, annual nosedive 20 minutes before the match when Sue Barker reluctantly acknowledged Mac had commitments elsewhere.
While the American instead shared his spiky insights with his compatriots, the BBC reverted to partisan self-parody, sensing some integral, institutional role in the forging of communal memory. You know the type of thing: slow-motion montages against portentous orchestral swells; a cameo featuring Tim Henman as a fruit’n’veg salesman, Boris Becker as a postman and Pat Cash broodingly trimming hedges, presumed variations in the erotic daydreams of a suburban housewife; mock blockbuster trailers. (“He has travelled from another galaxy… He walks among us, but he is not like us… Part man, part supreme being… Novak Djokovic is Man Of Steel.”)
It must drive rival broadcasters nuts, this anomaly that terrestrial ring-fencing enables the BBC to cling to the most valuable rights on the market when it lacks the funds – and often, it must be said, the interest – to bid for lesser events. The BBC was so pleased with one collage, of black-and-white footage from the Fred Perry era, that it played it twice in the hour before the match. “Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister,” Henman told us. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president,” said McEnroe. Cut to Becker. No. Please. Surely not… “Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics.” Phew.
That was hardly the last time viewers would watch proceedings through splayed fingers – but it was soon a reflection on the deeds unfolding on the court itself. Which must be counted a relief for the BBC, after two embarrassments during the tournament. Murray had been vexed by a fairly pejorative interrogation immediately after beating Fernando Verdasco, while John Inverdale yesterday sent Marion Bartoli an apology for his “ham-fisted” suggestion on radio that she was “never going to be a looker”.
If the implication was that Bartoli is a champion made for radio, then the visual medium flirted perilously with offence of a very different kind when producers favoured us with a telescopic tableau of bathers and swans in the adjacent park. As the camera closed, it being by no means evident that one woman was wearing her bikini top, Castle nervously suggested caution. “No, we’re all right,” he breathed. Henman responded to the crisis by asking how swans had ever gained a reputation for violence. “Have you ever met anyone who’s had their arm broken by a swan?” Becker simply berated Britons for going to Ibiza for their holidays.
With his studied bemusements and swerving, mid-Atlantic dipthongs, Becker fills the McEnroe role as antidote to the All England – which is to say, Middle England – timbre of Henman and Castle, who saluted the Prime Minister’s arrival in the royal box in terms both counter-intuitive and familiar: “Useful leftie.” When Murray forced an immediate break of serve in the third set, Castle said: “I’m getting nervous.” Becker scoffed: “I’m gettin’ excated.”
Of course, the most eloquent commentary can be silence. Castle is sometimes resented as too loquacious, but the panel was regularly, and sagely, rendered speechless as the match gained critical intensity in the third set – albeit Henman did permit himself a “goodness” as Murray set up the critical break.
“I wonder how many times he has thought about this,” Castle said, as Murray came out to serve for the match. And, of course, you immediately wondered what the commentator might himself have prepared for the big moment. In the event, it was a simple exclamation: “The waiting is over!” Not bad. But let’s hope we don’t have to listen to it for another 77 years.