Fishing Lines: Seconds out for a screen first

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The Independent Online
BAD NEWS for those who thought fishing was all about gently moving streams, riverbanks bedecked with wild flowers and secret places where you don't see another angler all day. Barry Hearn, the man who has done for boxing what Damien Hirst has for fine art, has big plans for fishing. Soppy traditionalists should watch out.

Hearn revealed his latest project at Mallory Park, the Leicestershire fishery that has a race track to keep the lakes apart. Subtly called Fish o' Mania to reflect its understanding of the sport's tranquillity, it was the climax of a nationwide promotion that brought together 16 anglers for a five-hour competition with a pounds 25,000 first prize.

Fishing's problem, you see, is that it has been far too low-key. As Britain's largest participant sport, it needs a little razzmatazz to spice up its image, Hearn believes. Using a few promotional tricks that boxing enthusiasts would have found familiar, his Matchroom assemblage shoved angling into a Rod Stewart suit and put it under the glare of Sky's television cameras. For five hours. Live.

I'm one of those who believe that fishing competitions are on a par with mole racing and synchronised holding-your-breath when it comes to compulsive television viewing. And Fish o' Mania was a superb example of the genre, because you could watch someone crouching over an unmoving rod for 30 minutes or so, and then nothing happened. Fortunately, Hearn had realised that this was scarcely the stuff to rival Eastenders in the ratings battle. So he made the competition largely incidental, and organised a spectacular series of freak shows to take everyone's mind off fishing.

For a start, there was the bungee jump. It can't be easy to concentrate on fishing when a procession of halfwits are flinging themselves off a 170ft crane. Chris Eubank was scheduled to get the proceedings under way by bungee-jumping himself, but he proved that he has far more intelligence than most of the public give him credit for by declining the opportunity at the last moment.

A celebrity fishing competition attracted far larger crowds than the main event. Here, teams such as the Motorcyclists (Eddie Kidd, Ron Haslam and Gary Havelock) fished against those from other sports such as snooker (including Steve Davis), boxing (Herbie Hide and Barry McGuigan) and TV soaps. Actually, this was a bit of a swindle, because expert anglers set up the tackle, baited up, cast out and did everything except wind the fish in. Still, it was reassuring to see that Davis is as good with a rod as I am with a cue.

There were obviously a couple of other competitions running, but I never discovered where to enter them. One, I suspect, was to work out what a bevy of hard men with tattoos, wearing yellow Bodyguard T-shirts were doing. My theory is that they were to keep groupies and autograph hunters from the anglers. They did a fine job: not one of the 16 finalists was troubled all day.

But I never worked out the seating competition. Why was the grandstand placed so far from everything except the bookmaker's tent? It was like placing the main grandstand behind the clubhouse at the Open Championship. Still, it seemed to keep a lot of children happy running along the empty rows and playing tag. After all, the event was billed as 'a day for all the family'. (Mine, sadly, refused point-blank to come along, despite being told about the funfair and the tackle tent, the uncooked hamburger stands and the chance to meet Bernard Cribbins.)

It would probably be churlish to point out that only about 3,000 of Hearn's predicted 30,000 crowd turned up. Certainly, a mob like that on the banks would have made it impossible to see what was happening, instead of just very difficult. Maybe they all stayed at home to watch it on Sky (six hours and 10 minutes, if we are to believe Matchroom's press release).

But here's a funny thing. Although official figures are not out yet, usually reliable sources tell me that the fishing extravaganza drew up to four times Sky's normal Saturday afternoon viewing figures. The frightening thing is that it means we reactionaries know diddly-squat, and Hearn was right after all.

If Fish o' Mania attracted big viewing figures with only a couple of fish and just a few half-hearted entertainments, how much better would it work with no fish and an afternoon of complete lunacy?