Television: The whole week's been a balls-up

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A FEW MINUTES ago, I strolled down to the corner shop and, as I went, realised that I had ballsed up the whole week. I had watched all the wrong things, and it was too late to do anything about it. The only thing left to do would be to apologise to readers and make the best of it. And if they responded by turning angrily to the Dance review, well, who could blame them?

It would be possible, I guess, to claim that I was misled by all the trailers, all the ads, all the fanfares and the front page of the Radio Times, into believing that the opening of the World Cup was the TV event of the week. But we've been here before, and we all know that absolutely nothing of any real significance happens in the first four days of a month- long tournament. The United Arab Emirates will force an unexpected draw with Slovakia, and UAE midfield ace Al-Trikki will be hailed as a particularly graceful player, who (surprisingly) currently plies his trade for Sporting Gijon in the Spanish equivalent of the Vauxhall League. "We'll be hearing more from Al-Trikki," predicts Des, Les or Ruud, and we never, ever do. Not until Argentina meets France or England meets anyone do things ever really begin to hot up.

So, day after day this week, I sat in front of the box watching obscure footie games involving Austria, Cameroon, Norway, Morocco (whose Al-Trikki was called Hadji, a name you have already forgotten), Chile, Italy, Brazil and - of course - the "brave" Scots. (Most Scottish folk have not yet learned that "brave" is the word of choice of those English people who wish to patronise their Caledonian cousins. Try substituting the word "intelligent" and you'll see what I mean.)

It all started on Tuesday night with the BBC's World Cup 98 Preview (BBC1), which was essentially an animated version of one of those collectable sticker books that even 30-year-olds seem to buy these days. The teams were each given a quick once-over, key players were picked out, and the various French venues subjected to one of those Eurovision snapshots in which the soul of the city is captured in one image. For some reason, the one for Toulouse was a couple of old men in thick sheepskins, on tall stilts. Unfortunately there was no anthropologist on hand in the BBC World Cup team, to explain what all this was about.

But there can be no anthropologist suave enough to join Des Lynam, Alan Hansen, Gary Lineker and David (or Davvid, as the bilingual Des calls him) Ginola in one of their round-the-table chats. They talk suave, they laugh suave, they are even dressed, top to toe, in Suave. There they were in bright sunlight, beside the blue harbour of Marseilles, looking like an enormously expensive ad for Ray-Bans, reminding us of how far soccer has come since the days of knobbly knees, northerners, Deep Heat, Brut and jock-rot.

By the next day, as we gathered for World Cup 98 Live (BBC1, Wednesday), they were to be found in a penthouse gallery, looking out over Paris, the Eiffel tower located just over Des's right shoulder. This time, however, they distinguished themselves from an Arena fashion-shoot by letting Jimmy Hill join in. It was a rare opportunity to see this sporting legend in full profile (you almost always view him in three- quarter or front shot), which showed off what a truly extraordinary face he has - very like those huge heads on Easter Island. The Scottish goalkeeper, he said, "stands up strong, firm and full of courage". Hah! Yet another euphemism for stupid! It didn't fool Scottish fans whose banner, "WE HATE JIMMY HILL", was cut away from rapidly when it was spotted in the crowd for the first match: Brazil versus Scotland.

As it happens, ITV's programme is also called World Cup 98 Live and their first show went out four hours after the BBC's. ITV shunned the BBC's male model-catalogue approach, and had gone for avuncularity. Uncle Bob Wilson (red face, nice grin, crinkly eyes) got together with Uncle Tel Venables (same characteristics) and chewed the fat in the way that uncles do, telling the same kind of uncle jokes. Bob and Tel had even dressed the same, and were shot against the backdrop of the stadium, in identical light blue shirts and smart ties, their uncley heads encased in those headphone-mike combos. They looked like nothing so much as two chatty old pilots yarning away comfortably as their plane flew slowly into a football pitch.

Meanwhile, back at the Beeb, the opening ceremony (composed of the garish French answers to Mr Blobby, the Teletubbies and Sooty and Sweep) came to an end and Bishop Barry Davies took up his commentating position in a concrete pulpit high above the grass. Before the match began, Bishop Barry treated us to a rambling lecture on the subject of the third-century martyrdom of Saint Denis and his subsequent burial under what is now the basilica at Montmartre. It seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with the match at all, and made me wonder if Davies knew he was on air and was not just doing a little moonlighting, Alan Partridge style, for a small French travel company. But, as early as the third minute of the match, I realised that Davies was really on a mission to improve us. That was when Brazil scored against Scotland from a corner. As the replay showed the Scottish defenders failing in their duty to stop goals being scored, Barry opined sententiously that "It borders on the criminal to allow that to happen." Bloody hell! I suddenly wondered whether criminals going about their nefarious business ever describe some antisocial act as "bordering on the soccer player"?

If they do, the activity would probably be wife- beating. Unfortunately for Channel 4's Euroballs 98 (Tuesday), Stan Collymore's one-sided bout with Ulrika Jonsson happened just before Antoine de Caunes's pre-recorded interview with him went on air. This presumably saved us from the line, "Well, I just hit her Brian, and there she was in the back of the ambulance." But it certainly put into perspective the sentiment expressed in the new Footballer's Charter read out by a 13-year-old girl at the opening ceremony, viz: "Leave your tempers behind in the changing-room." Whose changing- room, exactly?

Trebly unfortunately this nasty incident came just a few days before Ulrika in Euroland (BBC2, Friday), in which the blonde with the taste in dangerous men encountered Gordon Brown and asked him about the Euro. But at least she looked a great deal more comfortable than did David Baddiel in the first 10 minutes of Fantasy World Cup (ITV, Tuesday-Wednesday). This was because of the presence on the guest sofa of the statuesque Dane Brigitte Nielsen, who was clearly the victim of some unwise medication. Actually, she was only on the sofa (next to an alarmed-looking Jean Michel Jarre) when she was sulking. The rest of the time she prowled about pretending to fellate Baddiel, hitting him with pains au chocolat and threatening to show her breasts to the audience. For a minute or two it looked as though her hosts had lost it, and the small, jealous desire to see them worsted by a woman was soon superseded by a very English sense of embarrassment. I mean, you may fellate the host on Danish TV then shampoo his head with pastries, but we don't like it over here.

In the end, Skinner and Baddiel dealt with it all very competently, getting in a string of gags at Nielsen's expense and making the audience comfortable with the show. But the sight of a very tall, very stupid, very capricious and unpredictable woman let loose on a live show put one in mind of that famous moment - long ago - when falling star Grace Jones started hitting the late Russell Harty.

Harty died in June 1988, and so the Jones episode was revisited in a warm and pleasant memorial film, You Are, Are You Not, Russell Harty? (BBC2, Sunday). From it we learnt that his producers had ill- advisedly put Harty in the middle of his guests (instead of to one side), forcing him to turn his back on the bad-tempered Bond actress while he spoke to the others. Harty himself hated the fact that he was best known for this incident, preferring - understandably - to recall the mesmerising interviews that he conducted with Ralph Richardson and Dirk Bogarde.

The Harty film was preceded by Speak of Me as I Am (BBC2, Sunday), the story of black singer/ actor/civil-rights activist Paul Robeson's magnificent life and sad death. This was a wonderful programme, and another reminder that - even in World Cup season, and whatever the hype - there is far more on telly than soccer.