Will Hawkes: They're under starter's orders – so hurry up, it's not time yet

View From The Sofa: Bellies and Bullseyes, ESPN CLASSIC/The Grand National, BBC 1
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The Independent Online

You couldn't exactly describe Bellies and Bullseyes as being sold on false pretences. As a programme, it is indeed replete with both bellies and, yes, bullseyes – but the reality is nonetheless somewhat different from the Falstaffian image evoked in the title. Thursday's edition – featuring the Crafty Cockney himself, Eric Bristow, in his 1983 final defeat against Keith Deller – promised much but delivered little. It appears, sadly, that darts matches from 28 years ago just aren't that exciting.

And it wasn't just the main event that was a little underwhelming. Presenter Sid Waddell, normally as energetic as a toddler with six cans of pop in the tank, was strangely low-key. B&B wasn't even that interesting as a bit of social history: it turns out that darts players wear pretty much the same thing now as they did then – enormous, short-sleeved shirts, tented over gargantuan guts – and have the same haircuts: in Deller's case, that of a banking clerk; in Bristow's, a mullet.

Even the crowd was much the same as today: drunk. Another event that tends to attract the committed drinker is the Grand National, even if the race that stops a nation doesn't quite advertise its association with beer in the same way as its great rival, the Cheltenham Festival.

The BBC nonetheless managed to find pretty much all of the sober people at Aintree on Saturday, and a few teetotal nags too. Our first sight of the eventual winner, Ballabriggs, came in the stable beforehand, when his trainer Donald McCain was questioned about the horse's outfit – well, his headband. It was green and yellow and a little fussy, and made the poor creature look a bit like a teenage girl.

If that wasn't enough excitement, then there was Clare Balding. A consummate professional she undoubtedly is, but you couldn't help snickering when she promised us our "first sight of the jockeys in their National colours" and the changing-room camera picked out one little fellow clad only in his towel. Those may well have been his colours – I'm by no means a connoisseur – but, if so, he wasn't in the mix towards the end as I can't recall any semi-naked jockeys desperately clinging on to a towel as their ride cleared the last.

The excitement, of course, didn't stop there. First, up popped Hazel Irvine at the Masters with a link of such excruciating cheesiness – I believe the phrase "runners and riders" was used – that it is best quickly glossed over. Next came John Parrott and his cockney bookie pal, Gary Wiltshire, a man who could easily pass for a darts player in any era. Aptly enough, they were down among the bellowing drunks in the betting enclosure. "It's like a betting jungle!" exclaimed Wiltshire, unnecessarily.

After that, we were definitely ready for the off – but the Beeb crowbarred in a bizarre bit of VT featuring a Big Brother-style announcer and shots of people getting ready for the race: at home, in the office, in their car, at their friendly local brothel. Actually, I made that last one up.

The race starter probably saw this bit of VT, because he appeared genuinely angry as the horses prepared for the start. "It's not time yet," he raged as they crept forward. "Hang on! Hang on!" And then, finally, they were off. Bellies, thankfully for the horses involved, were in short supply.