The brave new world of (talking about) sport

Johnny Vaughan's World's End Productions is taking its Radio Five Live sports show, Fighting Talk, to BBC2, says David Whitehouse
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The Independent Online

Johnny Vaughan's extracurricular activities are a lesson in how TV stars should conduct their business interests. While others seem content to provide an unsuspecting world with yet more sporting cock-up DVDs, Vaughan has quietly played a part in the rise of one of Britain's hottest independent television companies, World's End Productions.

Publicly, meanwhile, he's about to recommence doing what he always did best, his role as one-man judge and jury on the company's cult brainchild - Fighting Talk - as it hops from BBC Radio Five Live to BBC2. But the shift from radio to TV is by no means simple. In the words of the show's producer, Gregor Cameron: "We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we just took it straight from the radio. We want to maintain the integrity of the radio show rather than a knee-jerk response to the fact that it's on TV."

Along with longtime friends Jerry Drew and Jim Philips, Vaughan founded World's End in May 1998, one year after he'd revived the fortunes of an ailing Big Breakfast. To begin with, World's End, from its tiny office on the King's Road, concentrated solely on the production of sell-through corporate video titles. By January 1999, their prowess had allowed them to move into the realm of broadcast television, employing Cameron to head the department, and into much bigger headquarters in Fulham.

Almost six years on, and with Vaughan still playing an active yet low-key role, they have established themselves with a series of well-received TV programmes. However, their prime product remains Fighting Talk, the sporting debate weekly routinely worshipped among a hallowed demographic of men considered floating voters for any other medium. Originally hosted by Vaughan, and later by Xfm's Christian O'Connell, the basic format sees a panel of experts discuss, nay, berate each other on the latest sports issues in order to be crowned Fighting Talk champion of the week.

For Cameron, leaving what he sees as their natural habitat will be no mean feat. "Radio Five is the hidden gem in the BBC's radio schedule. It sounds obvious, but it's not talkSPORT, and it's not Radio 4," he says. "The reason why we went to them in the first place was because it was a radio station to which we all admitted listening, especially on a Saturday morning. If you polled football fans, it's where they go. If something drastic happens, they go to Sky. But not on a Saturday morning."

The challenge has been to maintain the show's informal must-hear content while ensuring that the visuals don't detract from the reasons that so many men elected it their sports debate show of choice in the first place. This struggle to find a happy medium was Cameron's main concern from the moment the BBC gave World's End the opportunity to take it to TV.

"One of the weird things we had to consider when moving to TV is that sports shows normally feed off the back of an event, but we are creating an event for people that like to talk about sport," says Cameron. "What we did with the radio show was stumble across this new format, this polemic where people can argue the toss - unlike panel shows which can look a little bit stale. God knows what will happen. It's very hard to pilot these things on paper, or to imagine what a radio show will be like on TV, but we didn't see that as a reason not to do it."

Such a transition remains a risky proposition. Fighting Talk's hardcore disciples are no more fans of change than the people that have listened to Radio 4's I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue for the past 31 years. "It's the one concession that men get when they're forced to go shopping on a Saturday morning: they have Five Live on in the car. All we've tried to do is recreate that mentality on the TV. It's still Fighting Talk pure and simple." Sounds easy, but then it always has.

'Fighting Talk' is on Fridays at 7.30pm on BBC2