I've been watching Wimbledon (BBC) for years. It's the only sport worth watching - lyrical, gladiatorial, individualistic, hypnotic. I frequently lose track of the score, form fleeting crushes on players, take brief dreamless naps, and spend a good deal of time wondering if my psychic powers (if I have any) are affecting play. It is the perfect game to watch in total, narcissistic solitude.
So why the relentless commentary? Where do the commentators come from, from what crack in the earth beneath the immaculate lawns? And they come to talk. On and on and on. I wouldn't let my best friend talk that much. It's all waffle. Have you ever learnt anything from a tennis commentator that you couldn't have either thought up yourself, or done without? It seems to seep out of them involuntarily. Or else they're being paid by the word.
There's hyperbole: Reneberg's serve was "as good as anything I've seen for years". There's mind-reading: "Increasingly one is fascinated by the thought processes going on in Milligan's head ... and he's learning how matches are won." Dumb adoration: Henman's "great asset is his temperament - his self-belief and his calmness". Sycophancy: Sampras and Reneberg "are both, as you said, extremely nice guys". And the usual scolding: "That's the sort of error that is needless." Worst of all, they see tennis as an interruption to the flow of these inanities. Silenced for a moment by an actual game in progress, one commentator said, "just to complete what I was saying there ...", and off he went again. It's like being stuck next to the party bore.
Probably for their own protection, these commentators are rarely seen. They're invisible and characterless, with ephemeral and shifting views. They're so fickle. They'll desert a player in the middle of a match if they decide the opponent is winning. The only thing that's consistent about them is that they're incredibly biased - either towards the likely winner or towards any obscure Brit who happens to own a racquet. The half- volleys of the favoured few are always "lovely", while the opponent's successes are merely creditable, "bravely battled" or luck. We don't even get to look at the opponent as much. And they have the nerve to think we are eager to see the commentators' complacent predictions proved right. I longed for them to be wrong, and they were: they backed Chang, Agassi, Becker and Seles in the first week.
If sport is a social barometer, nationalism here is rife. The football was bad enough. And now Wimbledon. The BBC isn't really covering an international tournament at all, it's covering the British contribution to it. This would only be forgivable if the British players were in with a chance which, apart from Henman, they're not. The dull match between Milligan and Lapenti took precedence over Seles v Studenikova! (We missed almost two hours of the Seles match.) Seles is an international champion, who hadn't played at Wimbledon for four years after being stabbed by a maddened Graf fan. What's Milligan? Some bloke with leg cramps. It's jingoism and makes a very sorry spectacle - sunburnt bigots sucking strawberries.
And then there's all the unnecessary cloth. Might Agassi's defeat have had anything to do with the fact that he was practically wearing a tent? Have these guys never heard of aerodynamics? It's some sort of cloth fetish! Agassi's shorts reached his shins; Seles, too, was shrouded in many dismal layers; Greg Rusedski claims to be British but you can tell from his shorts (almost trousers) and shirt (almost a dress) that he's North American. Sampras's shorts are at least three feet long.
And then there's the question of women's underpants, and why they must be visible during the execution of a tennis match. Who in her right mind would really want to play a serious game of tennis in front of hundreds of spectators, wearing an ultra mini skirt? But this is the norm. The camera looks straight up the women's skirts when they sit down to towel themselves off and eat a bit of banana. Why can't they wear shorts? But at least the frilly knickers seem to have disappeared. They've given way to power pants, career-woman smalls. Studenikova stores balls in hers. They sometimes pop out. Virginia Wade, our commentator, explained that the ball had escaped from a pocket. But there was no sign of any pocket in Studenikova's skimpy attire. If they can't afford skirts with pockets, the women players really aren't being paid enough. Meanwhile, we never get to see the men's undies. We hardly see their knees. They're hoarding all the cloth once used to make frilly knickers, and pockets, for the women.
"Women are suckers for anything that claims to increase well-being or enhance bodily function - even if their bodies are functioning perfectly well already. From the number of products on offer, you'd think that being female was a disease." This week, in her series Strange Days (BBC2), Catherine Bennett poured cold water on alternative medicine. It was a much wittier debunking effort than her petulant diatribe against superstition last week. This land is now strewn with self-proclaimed therapy centres full of sick people piled high with coloured stones (crystals) or trying to learn how to breathe efficiently (despite years of experience in breathing with no effort at all). Bennett has no patience with any of it: "Reflexologists don't know why the state of your body should reveal itself in the soles of your feet. It's another of those enigmas - and bad news for people with bunions," she quips mercilessly.
We got a glimpse of a homeopath's computer programme, which offered cures for anything, even despair. It split despair into several categories: "shrieks of despair, paroxysmal; hope, alternating with; vomiting, during," etc. The patient in question was also hearing voices. The homeopath's solution? Veratum, a remedy for fear of death as well as for being overtly critical. If it only worked, we'd all take it and die happy.
Bennett dealt severely with colonic irrigation. She tracked down a nurse ready to explain the process: "I'm very very gradually going to introduce warm water throughout the entire colon, which is five feet long, and that will flush out any deposits and waste material in there." But, as Bennett pointed out, "this waste material finds its own way out. What hidden surprises does she expect to find down there? Missing golf balls, lost umbrellas?" Superb. But her enjoyable irreverence left little room for a compassionate recognition that most people don't turn to alternative medicine until modern medicine has failed them. It's not so much an "alternative" as a last resort: if your GP has abandoned you to your fate, why not start boiling up some Chinese herbs?
Television's fascination with soldiers developed a boil this week, in the form of a two-part documentary on British volunteers in the French Foreign Legion (C4). It was all pretty predictable - shifty characters getting their heads shaved and the spirit knocked out of them. Once they'd mastered press-ups, they were shipped out to French Guyana to learn about snakes, prostitutes and mud. One guy had joined because his best friend had died and his girlfriend had left him; another because he'd just come out of the Marines and had nothing better to do. They're all given an intelligence test: "If you are not intelligent enough we put you back into civilian life," says the commander. But these guys are obviously not intelligent - that's why they've signed their lives away for five years! On the plus side, they learn French.
"There's thousands of reasons for doing BT adverts, and every one of them's got the Queen's face on." So said Bob Hoskins in the Gaby Roslin Show (C4). He almost redeemed himself - but you don't get off that lightly for irritating a nation to death. Better start sharing those profits, Bob.Reuse content