On the ball with Bravo

The Flextech channel - usually regarded as the hardcore bloke's favourite - is now the home of Italy's Serie A football. So as things are looking up in the style stakes, Ian Burrell finds out what else is planned

James Richardson - smart brown jacket, yellow woollen rollneck - kicks back in the bar of a boutique hotel across the street from Il Duomo, Milan's vast Gothic cathedral.

The British television presenter, whose face has become synonymous with Italian football, is fresh back from the city's other towering house of worship, the San Siro stadium.

Local rivals AC Milan and Inter Milan have just concluded one of the most thrilling encounters in the history of the derbi della Madonnina, or - as Richardson put it in his preview - "the biggest fixture in football since Peter Crouch bought a wardrobe".

With Inter winning 3-2 in the final minute, Richardson and his new colleagues from Bravo television could not have scripted the outcome better. Even so, the 70,000 British television audience figure that later emerges from the overnights is less than the 77,000 crowd in the San Siro itself, though much better than the 35,000 that the channel has registered for previous Italian games.

Bravo, part of the Flextech group, hopes to use Football Italia as a bridgehead to establishing a more sophisticated male-orientated channel in the British television schedules. The show has some way to go to match the profile it had on Channel 4 with the same format in the 1990s, but could nevertheless prove to be an astute commission.

Richardson appears assured and unpressured, reflecting the fact that he leads a lifestyle that would be the envy of many British men. "I'm here (in Italy) a couple of days a week," he says. "It's very easy to stay abreast (of Italian football) because it's something I'm interested in anyway. The first thing I like to do in the day is have a cup of coffee and read La Gazzetta dello Sport. It's not even doing research. It's really not like work."

Across the bar from Richardson are his new punditry colleagues, the former England player Lee Sharpe and ex-Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson. Fast-living Sharpe, who has seen his profile raised by appearances on Celebrity Love Island, missed his flight and reached the San Siro only minutes before kick off. But it is Big Ron who represents the greater risk to Bravo director of programming Johnny Webb.

Atkinson, though still very well connected in the world of football, has had almost pariah status within the media since he made racist comments about the former French captain Marcel Desailly, inadvertently broadcast by ITV on a live feed to the Middle East. The ensuing furore cost him his ITV job and a column with The Guardian.

Webb says the decision to bring Atkinson back was not taken lightly. "We had long, long, long debates about Ron and what to do. My personal view is that everybody fucks up and most people get a second chance."

Atkinson was the British manager who did most in the 1970s to give playing opportunities to black players. Unfortunately his sense of humour is rooted in the training ground banter of the same era, and because his appeal as a pundit is his ability to lace insightful football observation with quick-fire quips, he could be an accident waiting to happen. As conversation in the bar turns to the state-of-the-art hotel rooms, Atkinson loudly observes that he has "a couple of black birds in mine". The comment prompts one of the party to splutter the hope that Ron is talking about "the feathered variety".

But if Big Ron does not blow this last chance, Webb knows that, along with the suave authority of Richardson and the high-quality sporting content of Serie A itself, he has secured a coup. Webb has been trying subtly to reposition the 20-year-old channel away from the hardcore laddish diet of its past. This means extending the target audience up from 16-34 to 16-44 and trying to avoid the kind of "guilty pleasure" content that invokes disapproval from wives and girlfriends.

A channel offering programmes of interest to both sexes but heavily slanted towards men is long overdue, he thinks. "Men tend to be passengers in shared viewing, whether it's drama or entertainment. Television is massively feminised. How many reality shows can you name that are totally aimed at blokes?" Flextech has enjoyed great success with its Living channels, building an audience of mostly women and gay men by offering a mix of extreme makeover shows, camp American acquisitions and adventures into the world of the paranormal.

Webb wants a Bravo channel that is "smart and funny but not high-brow like BBC4". He says: "It's about starting with a premise that says, 'What are we interested in as blokes and what can we do without stereotyping ourselves as boozing crims?'"

Forthcoming shows about rioting and football hooliganism might not seem the obvious way of countering such stereotypes. I Predict a Riot will be a 10-parter presented by Loaded magazine founder James Brown, examining the causes and effects of mass violence. Webb is a fan of the cult feature film The Football Factory and is clearly delighted to have persuaded the actor Danny Dyer to present The Real Football Factories, a series that will assess the current state of soccer hooliganism.

Through depth and a strong narrative, he hopes these programmes will avoid unduly glamorising their subject matter. Storytelling is a key ingredient, Webb believes. "People have tended to think women are about stories and men are about high-octane, snack-sized entertainment. But the whole history of men is about telling stories."

Man's Work, commissioned from Shine Productions, will place Bravo presenter Ashley Hames in what Webb describes as the "most excessive, dangerous, dirtiest, most expansive, transformative jobs in the world", such as helicopter logging, opal mining in Australia and crab fishing in Alaska.

Comedy is also crucial to Bravo's new identity and, unlike the home-grown content of the original programming, Webb has chosen to buy in American product. He's especially excited about It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, made by Rupert Murdoch's FX and set in a blue-collar Irish bar. He describes the show as "totally un-PC for the right reasons, so really challenging". The programme, which has some parallels with the social faux pas made by Larry David's character in Curb Your Enthusiasm, deals with such issues as "homophobia, racism, child abuse and right at the edge subjects".

But the key to Bravo's strategy is Richardson's Football Italia. The presenter says he originally landed his plum job because "I was the only Italian-speaking, cheap television producer who was willing to move to Rome at three weeks' notice". So he left Sky for Channel 4 and barring one five-month period off the air, has been the face of Football Italia ever since.

Happy to interview players in Italian, he gets access to Serie A stars such as Patrick Vieira and Clarence Seedorf. Richardson recently questioned Paolo di Canio over his sympathy for fascism and a decade ago was punched in the head in the midst of a riot in Genoa.

Dave Clarke, Bravo's channel editor, says Richardson's presence has given Football Italia a "slightly more upmarket, intelligent feel", in comparison to coverage of the Premier League. "James's talent is indicative of where we want to take Bravo," he says.

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