Sport on TV: Bullimore plays himself as nightmare scenario sees Bruce W illis meet The X Files

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The Independent Online
Think about it. You've spent a couple of days lying on a shelf in the hull of your capsized yacht, 1,300 miles south of Australia, on that bit of the map where the first cartographers used to write, "here be dragons". You've got frostbite, the skyscraper waves are starting up again, and you've eaten the bit of chocolate you had. Things can't get any worse.

Until you go to check on the life raft. You try to push your way through the cabin door, which swings back on your hand. You watch the top of your little finger float away then get back on your shelf and wait to die.

You will probably recognise this as the scenario played out by Tony Bullimore a year ago, when his boat turned over during the Vendee Globe race, reconstructed in Miracle at Sea: The Rescue of Tony Bullimore (ITV). And there lies the problem. Once I saw the words "This programme uses reconstructed scenes", all I could think about was how it was made, and how well Bullimore was playing himself. During the action sequences in the hull of the Exide Challenger, it was all a bit Bruce Willis, and the question arose, where on earth were they filming this? Presumably in one of those big film studio tanks.

At one point it was less Bruce Willis than The X Files, when Bullimore's wife, Lal, (whose bedside prayers in the dark were kindly reconstructed for us) had a mystical experience: "I talked to him and then he answered. I saw him on the shelf. I don't know whether you want to call it madness or not." Meanwhile, Bullimore, too, was talking to the skipper upstairs. "I had a vision, I went back through time and space to get help, to an ancient place. There were people sitting and talking. One of them said, `Keep going. You'll get there, you'll get there.' "

Fortunately, there were five spotter planes and the HMAS Adelaide on hand as well.

A more down-to-earth note was struck by Lal, when news of her husband's rescue came through. "I opened a bottle of champagne, and that went very quickly. And then I saw some brandy and I opened that as well. And then I saw some Bacardi and I opened that as well." And then she went upstairs to deliver some tipsy prayers of thanks.

Prayers would be the only rational response if you found yourself hurtling down a slope at around 60mph before launching into space. It was frightening enough watching it on Ski Sunday. Perhaps because it evokes memories of dreams of flying and falling, I find ski jumping an utterly compelling event (I speak solely as a viewer, of course), and BBC2's coverage covers all the angles - including one virtually up the jumper's bum as he glides through the emptiness and heads for terra firma.

I tuned into Ski Sunday by way of limbering up for next month's Winter Olympics, and with a similar idea in mind - preparing for Super Bowl - I renewed my nodding(-off) acquaintance with American Football Big Match (C4).

When C4 first put on gridiron, it had a certain novelty value, which admittedly wore off rapidly. However, time away has increased the appetite for extreme physical violence and obscure jargon, although the same things as before are still irritating - the stop-start nature of it, and the collective orgasm that shudders through the stadium when a gain of half a yard is made.

The aggression is compelling, though. One hit the previous week, we were told, had resulted in a player biting through his tongue. Now that's what we want from our American football.

Speaking of dangerous sports, with ITV back in the FA Cup, there's an incentive to watch Bob Wilson negotiate the perils of a sentence without getting completely lost. As lost as Bullimore, in fact, but without the Australian military to come to his rescue.

Matters weren't helped last Sunday by the fact that in the wake of the Skyed-up delights on show at Chelsea earlier in the day, the Everton v Newcastle game felt like crumbs from the high table.

ITV have always suffered by comparison with the opposition, though. It's difficult to pin it down, but that Match of the Day feeling, as the music came on, was like slipping into the soft leather seats of some luxurious motor, a Morse-type Jag or an Austin Princess. Watching The Big Match, or Soccer Special, or whatever they called it in your region, was like climbing into a Ford Anglia. The sets were cheaper, the graphics were tacky, even the picture quality was poorer.

These days, it's more to do with the quality of the personnel. Bob Wilson is crap. Jim Rosenthal is crap. Brian Moore is much-loved. And crap. Only Big Ron goes against type, his idiosyncratic turns of phrase raising baffled smiles all round.

Speaking of Rabbits 'n' Headlights Rosenthal, in the early 1980s, when Liverpool used to pop across to Tokyo every now and then for the World Club Championship, his commentary was the subject of an enraged letter from a viewer, the most charitable adjective in which was "narcoleptic".

I felt bad after I'd sent it, thinking how upset he'd be if he got to read it. Nowadays, I do that kind of thing for a living. As my ex-wife used to say to me, "You've changed."

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