Grace Dent on TV: A Question of Sport Olympic Special, BBC1
Tuffers is torture, and yet still the punters come. They must be offering them free porn, or sandwiches
As two dozen fresh, new BBC Olympic channels sprang to life this morning – pumping out live running, jumping, sweating, chucking-stuff-far footage into our homes – there's no doubt surrounding the Beeb's aim to get us flicking our red buttons.
Who knows what demographic will be ogling channel 16 today awaiting China v Serbia in the preliminary round of the handball? More popular, I feel, will be option 2 from 9.55am where the Brazilian and Australian men's swim teams (and many other men's swim teams) will be giving their all in teensy trunks, water caressing their chiselled, primed torsos as they splash about, battling each other, man on man for Olympic supremacy and… oh blimey I love sport. (Demographic grab: myself, women doing ironing, many, many gays and some folk with an actual vested interest in swimming, their brains addled by a lifetime sitting in a draughty municipal pool spectators' area subsisting on Knorr vending machine chicken noodle soup and KP prawn cocktail Skips).
The demographic detail of who tuned in for this week's A Question of Sport Olympic Special on BBC1 is easy to decipher as we can see a sample of them sitting behind gadabout team captains "Tuffers" and Matt Dawson. Behold this easily pleased throng, dressed in garments bought from the catalogues that fall out of the Sunday supplements and the sales rack of the Edinburgh Woollen Mill and chortling until they nearly follow-through at Tuffers mugging his way through the one-minute round. Whenever I quibble about the dullness of QOS, someone will point out that the tickets to see it being filmed in Manchester have been like gold-dust for 40 years. But I'm from the North, so I know that this claim has limited poke. Some of the most exciting things that happened to me in the North during the 1970s and 1980s included: "Eating a Walls Funny Feet ice-cream" and "Getting a free Pepe key-ring with jeans off the market". How they fill the Question of Sport audience in 2012 now that the North has access to Sky TV, the worldwide web and prescription meds is more of a mystery. I've a theory that they lure audiences into the studio with a sign at Salford Media city that reads: "Free mucky books and yummy sandwiches this way, follow arrows", wait until 25 chumps fall for the ruse and then double-bolt the doors.
To me, A Question of Sport has all the appeal of a long Boxing Day spent with loathsome extended family playing an "orange piece of pie only" Trivial Pursuit game. Even in those circumstances, I might occasionally triumph with my tactic of shouting out the only sports facts I really know: 'GEOFF CAPES? RED RUM? EDDIE THE EAGLE? PETER BEARDSLEY??' (Incidentally, my younger brother regularly comes up trumps on University Challenge by repeatedly shouting Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Every wrong clock etc.) A Question of Sport's typical questions are so ridiculously tough, however, that even experts in the field can't answer them. "Who partnered Zac Purchase to Gold in Beijing?"; "After helping Croatia to the bronze medal in the eights in Sydney, which brothers won the coxless pairs silvers in Athens?"; "Which Olympic heptathlete won two European gold medals between 1990 and 1994?"; "Look at this blurry negative of someone dressed as a beekeeper and tell me who they once played in goal for?"; "All of these athletes share surnames with things you'd find in a café. Go!" Sadly, none of the A Question of Sport Olympic Special's answers were: "Lester Piggott", "National Velvet" or "Eric the Eel" so my enjoyment was somewhat hampered. In fact, just seven minutes in to this week's episode just after Denise Lewis tried to guess "who the mystery man working at the Olympic torch factory was" and just before "Tuffers standing on a pommel horse making the panel decipher his mimes of great sporting stadiums", I had a familiar feeling – that if I was ever behind enemy lines being tortured for national secrets, all my captors would need to do would be to wheel out a telly playing back-to-back QOS. Within two hours I'd be singing like a bloody canary.
But, indeed, who cares if I like it? The reason that this winning formula of clunky dirt-cheap graphics, bland non-directional banter between retired sportsmen in Lyle & Scott jerseys and the dire pantomime over-egging of anything remotely funny has remained un-tampered with for decades is because tons of people do like it. A friend said to me that these 30 minutes of television were the only time they heard their old OAP father puffing and wheezing with joy, and due to the unique way the BBC is funded everyone is special and that's the brilliant thing. I'll be making similar sounds at around 10am this morning when the swimming is on, but the reason will be quite different.
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