Hancock's half-hour of fooling and fondling

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
THE quiz game They Think It's All Over has been promoted from Radio 4 to BBC 1. Or relegated, depending on your view. But either way, it came out of the tunnel for its first season last week, looked completely at ease in its new strip and, to all intents and purposes, opened its legs and showed us its class.

You could play Spot the Influences with this programme almost ad infinitum, though this is not to say it doesn't have its own flavour. There is, clearly, a liberal smattering of A Question of Sport, including a thinly disguised "What Happens Next" round. There are also substantial traces of Have I Got News for You, with Nick Hancock in a kind of Angus Deayton role. (The programmes have in common the producer, Harry Thompson.) There's a spot of Whose Line Is It Anyway? and just a dab, maybe, of Fantasy Football League. And when Giant Haystacks came on, there was even an element of Pets Win Prizes.

This was for an inspired round in which team-members, blindfolded, have to identify a pair of mystery guests simply by fondling them. The other guest was the more than averagely diminutive jockey Willie Carson. It will be interesting to see where this round is heading now that it's already burned up the obvious contrast-of-scale gag.

Our team captains are Gary Lineker and David Gower. Each has a comedy side-kick to sustain them (Lee Hurst and Rory McGrath) plus a visitor. The people responsible for getting guests on the programme must at some point have drawn up a list of quick-witted and spontaneously funny people from the world of sport. And then, because ideally they would like the programme to run for more than two episodes, they got on the phone to people like Rory Bremner. Rory accompanied David and Lee. Gary and McGrath had Roger Black, the athlete, whose principal role in the evening was almost to pass out with laughter following a McGrath joke about Sally Gunnell.

You knew straight away from the early Graham Taylor question that you were watching a programme with an uncommonly imaginative approach to sport. Most of us, if pressed, would have just one thing to ask about the former England football manager: it would be "Why?", accompanied probably by tears of rage, frustrated grinding of teeth and perhaps that gesture which people sometimes do which involves locking their hands together in front of them and shaking them vigorously in the manner of somebody throttling a chicken.

Altogether more thoughtful, They Think It's All Over deposited Taylor in their "Guess the Excuse" round, in which the teams have to try to deduce or remember the pathetic explanation offered up by a sportsperson for some disaster or scandal in which they have been involved. In this instance, England had just lost to Sweden and Taylor was pictured, for no fathomable reason that one recalled, seated on a lake in what could well have been a pedalo.

This was, as Gary Lineker correctly stated, the occasion on which Taylor - helplessly ad-libbing, surely - claimed that the Swedish players had the automatic advantage of being bigger physically and stronger than English people, a comment with no valid genetic basis whatsoever. It was sobering to remember that, long before Roger Bannister was saying potentially provocative things about people's tendons, Graham Taylor was arguing for the innate muscular superiority of Swedes. "If you look at the Scandinavian countries, they tend to be of an outdoor pursuit," he said, bafflingly. Vintage Taylor.

"He never blamed anyone but himself," Lineker said wryly. "Top man." Lineker seems to have cottoned on faster than Gower to the idea that, given that he's going to be out-joshed by the comedians around him, he might as well go easy on the smart remarks and play to his strengths by offering up the odd anecdotal nugget. The revelation that Vinnie Jones had once lobbed toast at Lineker during breakfast in a crowded hotel and had later referred to him - with the wit and insight for which the Wimbledon hardman is renowned - as "Big Ears" was one of the programme's bonuses and less anxiety-inducing than the sight of Gower gamely struggling to deflect Lee Hurst's streams of personal abuse.

There were points at which the humour became quite unnecessarily cruel. And obviously these were some of the best moments in the programme, ones to store away on a show-reel and cherish with future generations. Up popped a particularly challenging and visually distressing merger of chin and eyes, topped off with Andre Agassi's hair. "The pretty one from Prisoner Cell Block H," ventured McGrath. "It's Sally Gunnell," he added. "Which part?" said Hancock. "All of it," said McGrath.

Gower's team failed to detect the eyes of Tony Adams but successfully identified the mouth of Jayne Torvill. Hancock explained there had been some hesitation about incorporating her, on the grounds of definition. "It's meant to be sportspeople," he said, "but all she does is twat about on the ice in a frock." The more They Think It's All Over allows Hancock to open up in this way, the more it will attain the status of compulsory viewing.