Sportsmen struggle to stay afloat in anchor role

Sport On TV
You can see why television companies do it - it's the famous- face principle, nothing more - but turning retired sports people into presenters has never been a good idea. It's like, say, a TV sports columnist taking up opera singing. It's just possible that a new Pavarotti might be uncovered; but it's highly unlikely.

Punditry is one thing - when the in-house experts are free to be themselves and give us the benefits of their accumulated insights and wisdom (stop that derisive giggling at the back), bringing to bear on proceedings the fruits of their hard-won experience.

However, anchoring a programme is another matter entirely. Just as a football manager stamps his own character on team and club, so the presenter dictates the mood of the programme. If they are stilted and ill at ease, the whole show will feel that way.

Essentially, an anchorman is playing a part, the part of him or herself (I bet even Des Lynam works hard at being Des Lynam), and as Escape to Victory showed us for all time, sportsmen cannot act - repeat after me, sportsmen cannot act (with one recent God-given exception, naturellement).

We've probably got Ian St John to blame. In 1969 he took part in a Sportsnight With Coleman competition to find a new commentator for the 1970 World Cup. St John and Idwal Robling could not be separated by the judges, and the casting vote was left to Alf Ramsey.

Unsurprisingly, give Sir Alf's celebrated Caledonian antipathy he set the Welshman Robling to Mexico, but undeterred, Saint forced his way on to the small screen and became a master exponent of the classic "I'm-reading- from-the-autocue-in-case-you-haven't- noticed" monotone. He was, of course, hampered by being the straight man to another former footballer, thereby breaking the golden rule of showbiz: never work with kids, animals, or Jimmy Greaves.

The likes of Bob Wilson followed on, ITV making a big mistake when they poached him from the BBC and let him loose presenting programmes of his own. It was Sue Barker who broke the mould, though. Her first efforts were all rabbits and headlights, but somebody obviously got hold of her early on and gave her some media training.

The secret is simple. All you have to do is forget proper pronunciation and break up your sentences with lots of arbitrary stresses and pauses, rolling your voice up and down for no apparent reason like a hovercraft in rough seas.

Gary Lineker has a stab at it, but has never quite managed to sound like anything other than someone reading a part from an am-dram audition, or an Arran-sweatered Open University presenter.

Will Carling, enlisted by ITV to anchor their coverage of England v Australia last weekend, obviously came prepared, flaunting his pauses like an old pro (though he could have thrown a few stresses in too): "Good afternoon. And welcome to Twickenham. For the first. Of our big. Rugby internationals. Here on ITV. There's a new order in the game. Facing a massive challenge. And it all begins today. It's England. Against Australia."

He'd got his presenter's facial expression worked out too, though only one unfortunately - rather wry, deliberately casual and only marginally ill at ease. He's got that slightly bland, slightly detached "this isn't really me, even if it is a nice little earner as I come to the end of my playing days" sort of look. But he's OK. There's no reason why he couldn't be the new Lineker, though you can't quite imagine him saying "twat" on They Think It's All Over. You can imagine him thinking it, but not saying it.

As for the rest of ITV's coverage of the game, it was, like Carling himself, perfectly acceptable. After all, it's not as if they haven't done this sort of thing before (as they reminded us with the World Cup "World in Unison" theme tune lifted from Holst's The Planets).

The studio though, looked a mite claustrophobic, with Carling plonked in front of a big bank of screens that brought to mind David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth - "all of you! Get out of my mind!"

After the game they quickly got the England coach, Clive Woodward, into the studio. I've never looked at him closely before, but his face is clearly a homage to the round in They Think It's All Over where they combine the faces of three different people. His top bit is William Hague; the bottom is - what was his name? Oh yes, John Major; while the middle bit is Herr Flick the bespectacled Gestapo officer from 'Allo, 'Allo. And while we're on the subject of passing resemblances, Bob Dwyer, one of Carling's guests, appears to be the result of a gene splice of Roy Strong and Yosser Hughes.

Appropriate really, except it was Carling who said "Gizza job. I could do that." And I suppose he least as well as Ian St John and no, you're right, that isn't saying much.