Do we need; Media lads?
Serena Mackesy hears the Mockney accents, sees the school swot in hiding and demands to know...
Monday 03 June 1996
No, it's not so much the games themselves that are the problem as the rash of media lads that will break out across the schedules between now and the final on 30 June. This has already started, though the tournament doesn't get under way for another five days - London's South Bank, originally intended as a centre for culture, was taken over on Saturday by the Europe United Football Festival, a mish-mash of poetry, art, comedy and discussions on the subject. Kate Hoey MP hosted a talk on "What it means to support the peaceful game", and a talk on "What it means to be a fan today" came from Tom Watt. Tom Watt, you may remember, was once the wimpy and much- cuckolded Lofty on EastEnders. Nowadays he is a media lad, another member of that growing clique of men who make a nice living out of football without having to play it.
Laddery is big money these days. The list of its practitioners is long, and growing - Baddiel and Skinner, Lee Hurst, Kevin Day, Phil Jupitus, Nick Hancock, Martin Clunes, Neil Morrissey. Loaded, a one-joke magazine, continues to cut a swathe through the market place. And the odd person who used to actually do something is taking up laddery as a second career - you can hardly turn on the telly these days without the smiling face of Gary Lineker joining in the insult-hurling. Shame on you, Gary - you used to be such a nice boy, too.
To make it as a media lad, you should espouse the following characteristics - make it clear that you live on pizza and dispose of the boxes behind the sofa. Feign a rabid interest in the traditional working-class pursuits of beer, tabs and football. Remember all the great thirtysomething TV moments like the day the elephant crapped in the Blue Peter studio and rehash them at every available opportunity. Ditto pop records of the 1970s. Talk Mockney. Above all, be a middle-class bloke who thinks his roots aren't showing.
This last attribute has not gone unnoticed. The Nottingham Forest striker, Jason Lee, blamed David Baddiel and Frank Skinner's look-everybody-we- don't-wash-up show, Fantasy Football, for the crowd chants of "He's got a pineapple on his head" that dogged his every move and so distracted him that he ended up on the transfer list. Indeed, the comedians had repeated the phrase with crashing monotony on the Friday night show. Nottingham Forest manager Frank Clark later ranted: "What Fantasy Football has done to Lee is terrible... a couple of people on TV, who know nothing, have helped him become victimised." And then he slung an insult far greater than anything previously employed - he called Baddiel and Skinner a pair of "middle- class wide boys". Football is a world rife with wide boys; it was the "middle-class" that was the real stinger.
Comedy, and popular televisual presentation, have become increasingly puerile since the end of the 1980s. Fantasy Football and Hancock's high- rating vehicle, They Think It's All Over - a sort of Question of Sport with added swearing which includes rounds such as Feel the Sportsman, in which contestants run their hands over a mystery guest and try to guess their name - are the culmination of much lowering of standards. This is comedy of the schoolyard - pointing fingers at victims and shouting "Nyyarr!"
Of course, comedy has to move in cycles, and the gags of the Eighties are pretty creaky these days. The Tories, after all, have long since got beyond a joke. Then along came the generally unfunny The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Rob Newman and David Baddiel's stage show - a series of monologues on the lines of "you know, right, when you're taking a dump, right, and you reach for the bog paper, right, and your girlfriend's had the last of it for taking off her bleedin' makeup..." and the scene was suddenly dominated by dreary polemicists dressed in casual gear. Suddenly, the pub bore took centre stage and started making money.
Newman, at least, had the good grace to retire and turn into a novelist. Baddiel, meanwhile, took full advantage of the golden market created by Rupert Murdoch. The rise of the Media Lad is, at bottom, Murdoch's fault. This is partly because of the admiring and exhaustive coverage given to the antics of the likes of Paul Gascoigne in his papers, but mostly, it is because of Sky's monopoly on football. The channel bought up the rights to all the matches anyone would actually want to watch, and the terrestrial channels found themselves with huge holes in their schedules. The controllers panicked. There was a whole section of the population to whom they were unable to cater. They flailed around, they conducted disastrous experiments with American football, they showed matches between Dutch teams no one cared a hang about, and they haemorrhaged viewers. In the end, blokes want to come home from the pub and slump in front of a match. And then they want to go back to the pub and talk about it.
Skinner and Baddiel certainly hit on a winning formula, something bound to appeal to those bleary masses. Now, blokes can come home from the pub and watch a programme about blokes coming home from the pub and talking about football. And they're saying all the things the blokes in the pub would be saying: "You know that Jason Lee, right? He looks like he's got a pineapple on his head." Wit at its most rapier-like.
Nowadays, you can't swing a cat without hitting a media lad. They're on Radio 4, review shows, talk shows, morning TV, evening TV, lecturing audiences at the South Bank. Tell us another one of your brilliant social observations, Frank. "You know that Jason Lee, right? He looks like he's got a pineapple on his head..."
Now, there's nothing wrong with a bit of blue-collar humour. The working classes are by and large under-catered for in our televisual culture. The gameshows and sitcoms meant to be aimed at them are so banal as to be insulting. But the thing is, these guys aren't working class - they're just pretending to be working class, plagiarising the humour of the streets.
David Baddiel is a particularly distressing example. That faux-Cockney accent, the rude words, the exaggerated body movements. How times have changed. Remember Nigel Kennedy? The Prat with the Fiddle? He did the same thing, hurling himself around, saying things like "monsta" and waving his footie scarf. The funny thing was, nobody was fooled for an instant. We all knew he had spent his formative years locked up indoors talking posh. A very good violinist, but the whole world thought he was an idiot.
Give it half a decade and people seem to admire David Baddiel. Are they really fooled? Do they really think he has come up from the streets rather than a Cambridge common room? He has the look of the school swot trying to live down his past - got his A-levels, got his S levels, passed his Oxbridge interview talking like everyone else from middle-income professional families and, within a week of getting into the JCR bar, dropped his aitches and mugged up briskly on sounding convincing while talking about football. We all knew at least one person like that, hiding their prefects' badges and talking about nightclubs in Romford.
One can't help but hope Euro 96 will be the beginning of the end of this ugly trend. The media lads will of course be out in force, pontificating on any slot of airtime that can stump up the pounds 500 appearance fee. Those grinning faces are guaranteed time on Top of the Pops because their dreadful single, "Three Lions", made with Liverpudlian band The Lightning Seeds, has somehow reached No 1. Frank Skinner has been playing rent-a-quote, banging on about his self-imposed celibacy during the tournament: "I'll be living, breathing and eating footie - no woman would put up with me." Kevin, Lee, Gary, Tom: - they'll be everywhere. And the pay-off of ubiquity, the Lord be praised, is viewer fatigue.
I like real lads, when they're not fighting. They're a laugh; their gangling oafishness and ability to do DIY is rather endearing. But fake lads are irritating. That pretence of not earning huge amounts of moolah and never having read Chaucer and Proust makes me gag. Come off it, David. We all know your cleaning lady irons your shirts.
What do you think?
Every Monday, you can give the Do We Need...? subject of the week the come-on-down or the thumbs-down. Send your verdict on Media Lads, in no more than 100 words, to Do We Need...?, Section Two, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL or fax 0171-293 2182 no later than Friday morning.
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