View from the Sofa: A Grand National main course, but none of the trimmings, thanks

Grand National, Channel 4

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The Independent Culture

Clare Balding didn’t last long with Harvey Smith, the husband of Susan, trainer of the Grand National victor Auroras Encore, in the winner’s enclosure. Smith was standing in costume straight out of central casting’s Yorkshireman department, doing that chest-out, chin-on-neck thing that rural types from the Dales can do to a tee.

And as Balding gamely tried to elicit a worthy quote from him, all he would do was stare into the distance and slightly nod his head while saying: “Su-perb.” Such was Balding’s professionalism, she quickly switched the microphone to the far more erudite Mrs Smith, but it was an uncomfortable moment to cap what was not the most successful of weeks for Channel 4.

They appeared to want to make the Grand National cool; the network’s slogan for the race was “the original extreme sport”. Which, of course, is complete bunkum. After all, as brave as the jockeys are – and the horses of course, but more on them later – there are not many themes common to skateboarding and parkour that are also entwined in the sport of kings. Ever seen a horse do a kickflip? Or a skater wear Barbour?

As jarring as the slogan was, the presentation at Aintree was slick. And the super slo-mo shots of sweating horses with rippling muscles certainly made the meeting look dramatic.

But on Thursday evening came the first face-in-hand moment: the Come Dine With Me Grand National Special.

Dinner parties and horses? Were they mad? Had Channel 4 forgotten last month’s ‘“nag bol” and “lasagne with added Shergar” jokes already? Clearly not. Neither had Mick Quinn, the former Newcastle striker turned horse trainer, who was his boorish worst as one of the guests. On receiving a menu designed by jockey Mattie Batchelor, he quipped: “Steak? Sure it’s not horse?” You could tell why he is seldom let loose beyond Sky Sports News. As for the rest of the two-part show, such were the dynamics (jockey, trainer, horse owner Sally Rowley-Williams, and presenter Emma Spencer) the foursome were far too chummy to make it worthwhile.

Then there was the much-publicised Alan Carr’s Grand National Specstacular on Friday, designed to gee us up (sorry) for the main event the following day. The 90-minute show had the requisite “ironic” (read: “low-rent”) celeb talent such as Rylan from X Factor and Louis Walsh from, erm, X Factor that befits a comedy special built around a jumps race. And, as expected, it had as much to do with horseracing as George Osborne has to do with philanthropy.

But it summed up what was wrong about revamping (C4’s word) the Grand National coverage: the extras are unnecessary. The coverage of the races themselves, apart from the  Liquorice Allsort-coloured pundits’ booth at Aintree, was fine, the presenters gleefully relishing the forthcoming action on the Thursday and Friday, even after two horse deaths, was a little ghoulish, but as far as grabbing key people before and after races went, they all did well.

And by the time the main event was over, they had realised that people actually do care whether the nags are sent to the knacker’s yard or not. One of the first things the commentator said after Auroras Encore crossed the line was that he had it on good authority that there were no more injuries or fatalities.

Which was good news, of course. As for Mr Smith, Balding did get him to say something eventually; he muttered something like: “This race will go on for ever, horse-huggers, just you try and stop it.” Which was probably true. But let’s hope Channel 4’s clipped-on light entertainment embellishments fall at the first.