Face value as rock-steady Nancy finds her range

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The Independent Online
Sadly for John Inverdale, The Face (BBC2) made its debut two days into January and was thus too late to qualify for the latest renewal of the Gary Lineker Challenge Shield, which salutes the most ridiculous question posed on national television during the previous 12 months.

In its absence, Inverdale emerged as 1997's clear winner, thanks to the sublime moment when he asked Ronnie "The Rocket" O'Sullivan, a guest on his talk show On Side (BBC1), why it is that, unlike most snooker players, he has yet to acquire a nickname. As regards the 1998 competition, though, it is over almost before it has begun. Inverdale can wrap up the trophy right now and post it air mail to Nancy Feagin, Halfway Up A Godforsaken Rock Face, Somewhere In America.

We can be fairly sure of this because Feagin, one of the most accomplished rock climbers in the world, did not submit just one entry during Friday evening's programme, she compiled an entire portfolio. The Face is a six- part study of the attraction - if that is the word - of dangerous mountains, and in the opening programme, Feagin and her fellow mountaineer Barry Blanchard were attempting to scale a 2,000ft granite monolith called the Proboscis, part of a range on Canada's bleak northern frontier known as the Cirque of the Unclimbables (literacy, clearly, is something of a disadvantage for the committed climber). At one point, Blanchard spent two fruitless hours trying to negotiate a particularly difficult patch of rock. His face was pressed almost flat against the granite, he was cold, wet and exhausted, and there was a thunderstorm approaching at high speed. Understandably, he let rip with 30 seconds-worth of high-octane Anglo-Saxon - at which point his companion cheerfully enquired: "How's it looking up there?"

And once Nancy got started, there was just no stopping her. Consider this explanation of why she risks her neck on such a regular basis. "The whole reason is, what will you find when you get up there, and what is it like?" she said, even though it was blindingly obvious from ground level that the answers would be "nothing" and "awful" respectively. Give it a month or two, and she will surely have her own chat show.

Blanchard, by contrast, was a bit of a hippie. When it came to his motivation, there was much talk of native American roots and a feeling of oneness with nature, and on this you could see his point. The scenery was magnificent, and so too was the camera work, which inevitably posed that eternal puzzle of climbing films - how is it that the crew always manage to reach the top first? Life must be very frustrating when you are a TV mountaineer, forever discovering, like Scott at the South Pole, that someone has beaten you to it.

As for this strange breed of people enjoying a deeper understanding of nature than the rest of us, The Face offered conclusive proof in its opening shot that precisely the opposite is the case. The Moses Tower, a huge double-pronged stack of rock in the Utah desert, no doubt looks like just another challenge to the average climber. Anyone with an ounce of sense, however, can see that it is the largest V-sign on earth, and take the hint from Mother Nature without a second thought.

After all, why indulge your sporting desires in the middle of nowhere when there are far more amenable arenas? Like down at the pub, or rather, the Circus Tavern in Purfleet, where the titans of tungsten have been doing battle all week for the version of the Darts World Championship (Sky Sports 2) which matters.

As a venue, the Tavern is raucous and intoxicating (in every sense of the word), but even so, the darts experience is better still on the box, and the reason why can be summed up in two words: Sid Waddell.

When a lads' mag polled its readers a few years back to find their all- time No 1 sports commentator, Waddell came in third, despite his entire output in those days being restricted to one week in January, and the only surprise about his top-three finish is that they managed to find two to beat him.

No one - no, not even Murray Walker - communicates the excitement of their chosen sport with the irresistible panache of Waddell. Instantly familiar to anyone who remembers the mid-Eighties heyday of darts, his voice is now a regular fixture on Sky, and as such probably the best argument going for getting a dish. True, when Sid is excited - which is a little more than 98 per cent of the time - you have to forget about what is actually happening on the oche to stand any chance of understanding what he's saying, but it is well worth the effort.

Ancient history, Greek mythology, classical literature - the allusions fly thick and fast at you from all directions. During the match between Eric Bristow and Dennis Priestley alone, Waddell compared the bags beneath Priestley's eyes to a pregnant gerbil, pointed out that Bristow, his cheeks smeared red with fans' lipstick, looked like he had "been mugged by an Avon lady", and then threw in a little bit of Dostoevsky for good measure. Even in a week of exceptional darts, that was surely the finest treble of all.