Sport on TV: Stress corner as Smiler falls vowel of Des' World Cup Party

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The Independent Online
ITV's HANDLING of previous major football tournaments has seen some remarkable lapses of judgement, Lee Hurst's disastrous contributions to Euro '96 being the most recent, with Mike Yarwood's 1982 World Cup performances setting the standard. I'm not hoping for too much from Skinner and Baddiel this time round, either - their Fantasy Football League on the BBC had stopped being funny a couple of series before they realised it.

This week, ITV set out their stall for the next month with Des O'Connor's World Cup Party. It was perhaps the first British programme to subject football to a rigorous intellectual analysis. Professor O'Connor interviewed Anthony Clare and Oliver James about the psychological void left by the omission of Paul Gascoigne and interrogated the Archbishop of Canterbury on the England camp's spiritual arrangements. He questioned Salman Rushdie on Iran's chances, then Susan Sontag, Camille Paglia and Germaine Greer discussed how the women's game can catch up with the men's. Michael Ignatieff sang an old Half Man Half Biscuit number backed by the Demos dancing troupe while Eric Cantona painted a huge picture in the studio. It was that kind of night. The climax was a football-themed slam poetry read-off won by Seamus Heaney, who only qualified for it because his grandmother was born in Japan.

It could have been like that, but wasn't, for some reason. However, though the heart sank at the thought of the permatanned crooner let loose on the World Cup, it could have been a lot worse. He kicked off with the comedian, Alan Davies, whose brief for his allotted 30-odd seconds or so was to rubbish other sports, particularly the Winter Olympics. He hates curling, for example - "You sweep it up! You threw it out there!"

Then there was the non-naff Spice Girls, All Saints, whose cover version of Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" would seem to suggest that they have run out of material already, M'Lud, and the impressionist, Kevin Connelly, whose act, as I have observed before, consists of acceptable impressions subverted by scripts about as funny as a death in the family. And his Glenn Hoddle is still identical to his Trevor Brooking.

Warren Mitchell doing his Alf Garnett had potential, but he ruined it by giving the poor man's Oswald Mosley completely inappropriate views. Alf Garnett would never have condoned drugs in sport, or violence - "Take the violence out of boxing, no one would go, would they?" he said, with admittedly Garnettian logic.

There was a quick chat with Pavarotti, which had some amusement value due to his own vertiginously high opinion of what he used to be like as a footballer - "I scored many goals," he said. "I was very precise. In the final I scored one incredible goal." Then came Connelly's one decent impression, a magnificently abstract Kenny Dalglish, a Beckett character in his stuttering inarticulacy and fractured syntax.

The coup for O'Connor was getting the Prime Minister on the show - although such is the World Cup's PR value it was probably impossible to keep him away. Cynics all over the country are probably even now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing Smiler's nauseatingly demotic performance.

After a long story about Blair's mother-in-law and the Spanish prime minister, O'Connor asked him about the Humphrey the cat saga - which yielded a mildly amusing (if true) anecdote involving the Italian prime minister asking him "Eh, Tony, why you killa your cat?" It was at this point that the PM, by now relaxing into his man-of-the-people role, bizarrely began peppering his discourse with glottal stops, as if that was going to make him seem more like one of us. So "get" became "ge' ", "little" became "li'l" and "sort of" became "sor' of". I've go' nothing against glo'al stops; they just sound daft coming from the posh bloke who runs the country. When combined with the dainty vowels, the effect was grating, embarrassing even. But then there's little more squirm-inducing than a politician trying to fit in. Even the vowels became more slack-jawed as the interview went on, all "yer do" and "yer know". I felt like punching him in the mouth. If England win the World Cup he promised to sing a duet with O'Connor. "It will be with mixed emotions that I watch it now," he said. That goes for all of us, I suspect.

The PM was only second on the bill, to Sir Reginald Dwight, who sang some old rubbish wearing an England shell suit on an astroturfed stage then submitted to some ferocious questioning. "If England win, will you come back and sing a duet with me?" O'Connor enquired. "If they win, I'll come back and sleep with you," the roly-poly knight of the realm replied. Now we've all got something to look forward to.

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