Brian Viner: Great commentators always knock you for six when it comes to spinning an image

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The Independent Football

As the final seconds ticked away in Tuesday night's third-round FA Cup tie at Turf Moor, with Burnley leading Liverpool 1-0, the Sky Sports camera kept seeking out an impassioned Burnley fan, pugnaciously whistling to remind the referee that time was nearly up. Twice he filled the frame without Martin Tyler or Andy Gray making any reference to his identity; the third time, it suddenly dawned on Gray who it was. "Is that Alastair Campbell?" he half-shrieked. Why he was taken so unawares I don't know. It is well known that the former second-most powerful man in Britain is a devoted fan of the claret-and-blues.

As the final seconds ticked away in Tuesday night's third-round FA Cup tie at Turf Moor, with Burnley leading Liverpool 1-0, the Sky Sports camera kept seeking out an impassioned Burnley fan, pugnaciously whistling to remind the referee that time was nearly up. Twice he filled the frame without Martin Tyler or Andy Gray making any reference to his identity; the third time, it suddenly dawned on Gray who it was. "Is that Alastair Campbell?" he half-shrieked. Why he was taken so unawares I don't know. It is well known that the former second-most powerful man in Britain is a devoted fan of the claret-and-blues.

Whatever, an opportunity had gone begging for a pleasing little quip. "It'll need more than a spin doctor to help Liverpool now," or something of that nature. While I yield to nobody in my admiration for Tyler and Gray as a commentary-box double act, I feel sure that John Motson and Mark Lawrenson, on duty the following night at Exeter City v Manchester United, would have come up with something, followed of course by Motty's trademark chuckle, which I fear is in danger of becoming an animate object in its own right.

Maybe there should be more dialogue between the producer and the commentator when it comes to cutaways. A word in Tyler's ear just before the Campbell shot and he would have had time to prepare something impressively spontaneous. Sky's cricket coverage, brilliant in so many ways, would benefit from a similar initiative. It is odd listening to Ian Botham and Bob Willis in this South Africa v England series, vigorously discussing the field placings or Steve Harmison's bowling figures only to fall quiet when the camera falls on three men in the crowd wearing face paint and Viking helmets. On the other hand, maybe they've had to train themselves to keep shtum, given the more frequent tendency of the cameramen to zoom in on lithe young women wearing skimpy bikinis. One slip of the tongue, one "I wouldn't mind a bit of that, Bob," and all hell would break loose.

The truly great commentators are never wrong-footed by a wandering camera. At Headingley in 1981, when Botham heaved Terry Alderman for a huge six, Richie Benaud unforgettably muttered: "No point looking for that, let alone chasing it. It's gone into the confectionery stall and out again." About 15 years later, Benaud was at the microphone again at Headingley when the camera followed the ball into the stands. There was a brief silence, and then a laconic: "Isn't that where the famous confectionery stall used to be?" Cricket's armchair devotees roared. It was like being in on a private joke. Besides, who but Benaud would even use the expression "confectionery stall"?

Anyway, to get back to Turf Moor, I have some sympathy for Gray's initial failure to recognise Campbell. It can be disconcerting to see a person famous for his involvement in something as sombre as politics immersed in something as relatively trivial as football. My wife experienced a similar moment of disorientation when she wandered into the room where I was watching the Plymouth Argyle v Everton tie a fortnight ago, and caught a glimpse of Michael Foot in the crowd. Having no idea that the old boy was a lifelong Plymouth fan, and indeed a club director, she was duly astonished.

It is not altogether unusual, of course, to spot politicians at football matches. But I could understand why my wife, herself a Labour Party member, was so surprised to see Foot roaring on the Pilgrims. His great age, combined with his huge intellect, make him a somewhat improbable football fan. On the other hand, it is reassuring to find elderly intellectuals with prosaic interests. I am reminded of a story the comedian Arnold Brown tells, based on an actual encounter in the early 1950s between Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe, when the celebrated physicist was well into his seventies.

Monroe was a sucker for brainpower, just as Einstein was a sucker for a pretty face. They went out for dinner together in Los Angeles, and afterwards Monroe, fluttering her eyelashes, said, "Albert, would you do something for me?" "Vot is it, my dear," he said. "Would you explain to me your Theory of Relativity?" Einstein gave her an avuncular pat on the knee.

'"I'm sorry, my dear," he said. "I never go zat far on a first date."

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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