The Sardonic One gets an Electronic shock

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The Independent Online
Understatement does not come naturally to Clive James. So when he headed back to his homeland to report on Australia's most important horse race, in Clive James: Postcard from the Melbourne Cup (ITV), viewers could expect a surfeit of superlatives. They were not to be disappointed. "Imagine the Grand National without fences," he raved, "the final Test at Lord's with Ian Botham batting 11 times, and the Wimbledon final won by Prince William. Imagine all that at once and you are still nowhere near appreciating the world-shaking significance of the Melbourne Cup."

Odd, then, that having established that the race was the most important sporting event on the planet, Clive should spend great chunks of the programme ignoring it. Racing's loss was our gain, as the portly commentator ambled through 26 takes in his walk-on part as Robert the taciturn postman in Neighbours, shot the breeze with a tram- fancier, and - best of all - tried out with the Australian Olympic-gold- medal-winning coxless four rowing team.

One of the Awesome (or should that be Oarsome?) Foursome had retired, and James was keen to have a go in the stroke's seat. As things turned out, a coronary seemed more likely than a stroke, but the Sardonic One was prevented from doing too much damage to himself - or the boat - by the intervention of the team's coach, the admirably forthright Noel Donaldson. "It's expensive equipment," he warned, presumably referring to the racing shell, "and we don't want you to bugger it up."

Returning - reluctantly, one sensed - to the topic of horse racing, James doffed his skin-tight body-suit and joined some top Australian jockeys in the sauna as they sweated off the pounds before the big race. Why does he feel driven to display his physique in this way? Is it a perverse reaction to Australia's macho culture? Or a function of what-the-hell gonzo reporting? Whatever it is, he is not doing himself any favours. In the rowing kit he looked like a condom full of melons; in the sauna, with his sweating, heaving, hairy flanks, he looked more like a horse than a jockey.

Thankfully, covering up was the priority when race day dawned wet. Actually, "wet" doesn't really do the weather justice. As Clive might put it, it was riverine, inundatory, cataclysmic: it was welly time, and our reporter popped on a pair and thoughtfully tucked his morning-suit troos into the tops Wouldn't do at Ascot, of course, but that is Ascot's problem, not Melbourne's.

Fortunately, the horse James had elected to back, one Electronic, had, he noted, "feet like lavatory plungers" and "a dolphin-like sheen". Encouraged, he invested more than ever he had before (ten Australian dollars) and sat back in the soaking stands confident of success.

Unfortunately, no one had told Electronic that she was supposed to revel in the conditions and she underwent some kind of short- circuit (water in the fuse-box?), travelling backwards, James glumly noted, "all the way to the stables".

His depression was short-lived for, invoking the magic word ("documentary" - try it yourselves sometime), James was soon quaffing champagne out of the Melbourne Cup itself, before having its contents emptied over his head. Lurking in the background with a big grin was the unmistakable figure of Ladbroke's representative Mike Dillon, who is not only ubiquitous on Britain's racecourses, but on those at the other end of the world. He must have been cloned.

The presenter of Friday night's Top of the Pops (BBC1) was no stranger to the winner's enclosure: Funky Frankie Dettori. The racing world was agog to see whether he would perform his famous "flying dismount" after introducing every item, and grubbier wags were concerned that he might attempt to ride a vigorous finish on a Spice Girl.

Nothing of the sort. Nattily attired in grey suit, blue shirt and gold tie, Dettori seemed to have made the switch from flat jockey to disc jockey with ease. Just to make him feel at home, the first act up - "first out of the stalls", as Frankie put it - was a gee-gee, Gina G.

Not all of the acts were as upbeat as the presenter. Bjork, sporting more hairpins than the Monaco Grand Prix, warbled her way Icelandically through a mournful dirge while her audience of teenagers swayed uncertainly and scratched themselves.

But Dettori drove the programme on in great style, introducing "Bill Clinton's favourite R & B singer", Babyface, with a smug point at his own youthful features, and declaring that the indescribably dull Boyzone "beat the Beatles by a short head - no photograph!" Top of the jocks: no contest.

Top Gear Motorsport (BBC2) has reached the end of the road, robbing fans of the sight of the presenter Tiff "Stiff" Needell pirouetting into the undergrowth. But not for long, for Tiff has a holiday job, driving for a top "works" team in the RAC Rally. The team? Skoda.

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