High jinks and low blows with Oliver's army : Sport on TV

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AS THE saying goes: "There's no business like showjumping." And there's no programme like Channel 4's Cutting Edge for getting down to business. "Women in jodhpurs with boots and spurs and a little whip in their hand," said one of the hapless contributors to Monday night's documentary.

"Er ... you know shows the outline of their bum and their legs ... I think it's quite sexy."

Put a little less feverishly by the woman doing the voice-over, the premise of "Jumpers" - in which the cameras nosed into horse boxes and stables in search of a hidden world - was that showjumping has "always enjoyed a glamorous image".

Well, perhaps by comparison with, say, carpet bowls. But for many of us showjumping has tended to enjoy not a glamorous but a faintly absurd image - the stuff of late-night sports programming in which horses named after television sets and car spares attempt to clear polystyrene walls and giant flower arrangements while Raymond Brooks-Ward shouts, "Come on, Virginia" and "Oh no".

"Jumpers" included a clip of an event in which riders zip round the course as usual but then abruptly abandon their horses, jump into a bright red jeep and burn off across the sawdust to complete a test of driving proficiency. The first prize was £15,000 worth of Japanese car. In this, the sport resembled a high-risk It's a Knockout but you could argue that showjumping always has the potential to appear that way even at its more straightforward.

The programme mentioned only one item in support of the glamour claim; the Jilly Cooper novel Riders. But Cooper is not exactly renowned for her gritty, close-to-the-facts documentary style, so this was like claiming that beagles are thoughtful animals, producing as evidence a set of Snoopy cartoons.

In the event, what was revealed here was that showjumping is a lot less glamorous than you think (assuming you think it's glamorous at all) and quite a bit more absurd.

Much was made of the graft in the background. The Horse of the Year Show might look like a fancy-dress party but behind the scenes evidently there's muck and mud and endless training and a lot of driving to Leicester in mid-winter in a lorry with a bust heater. Tim Stockdale, Britain's number 15, reckoned he had broken nearly every bone in his body in his quest to rise into the top 10. He once jumped a seven-foot fence at Wembley with his collarbone strapped up and can no longer straighten one of his fingers as a result of stitching a wound himself in order to make the competition.

You would say he was a frantic glory-seeker except there didn't seem to be much glory around. Not only was there no press at one of the events Stockdale regularly attended, there was also no audience.

The programme also introduced us to Ronnie Massarella, who, with a name like that, should really have been leading a big band in the Sixties but who settled instead for becoming the manager of the British showjumping team.

Ronnie, we were forewarned by the voice-over, is "plain speaking", a term which is frequently a synonym for "plain stupid".

As it turned out, Ronnie laughed a lot while unleashing on us a set of sexual politics which might have raised an eyebrow in the court of King Arthur. It was put to him that women seemed to play a minor role in the British set-up. "I do like girls," explained Ronnie, who was filmed through an enormous tumbler of white wine at one point. "I'm very fond of them actually. But you can't get to them like you can men. You can give men a good bollocking and tell them what you think."

This was, of course, a completely dispassionate investigation into the sport with no desire whatsoever to make fun of the people involved. It must have been merely coincidence that each part of the programme before the commercial breaks closed with the sound of a horse snorting derisively.

Enter Oliver Skeete, former bus driver, sheet metal worker and bouncer who, at 38, has been riding horses for just three years (as he pointed out, you didn't tend to see a lot of horses in Acton when he was growing up) and is intent on becoming Britain's first successful black showjumper.

Skeete has decided that the sport needs a "personality, someone with a bit of character, a bit of panache, somebody who's going to promote the sport". We followed Skeete to a pony trial in a deserted barn. First prize: £10. The camera looked on in disbelief as our personality - riding Tascam Mini-System or Mazda Clutchbox Boy or some such - turned in a performance which was, literally, devastating. It left no pole untouched. You wouldn't want to query Skeete's control, but the horse did appear to destroy a couple of fences with its chest. "Going over a fence for me is better than having sex," Oliver said. And probably a much rarer experience.

The encouraging thing about Oliver was that although he displayed almost zero competence in the arena at least he could handle the autograph hunters. "I know how to keep them at bay," he said, and without professional distinction of any kind as yet, he has already found a publisher for his autobiography: Jumping the Odds; A Hero for Our Times.

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