History game pits Hitler against knitwear

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BBC documentaries about sporting history are a bit like classy foreign players in the Premiership: you wait for years for one to show up, and suddenly along come a whole bunch of them at once.

It seems that, faced with Sky's near-monopoly of the stuff that is actually happening now, the Corporation has decided to demonstrate that they are the past masters. Cue an avalanche of grainy black and white footage and a regiment of game pensioners with good memories (or active imaginations). The resulting programmes are a fitting monument to our great national sporting heritage. They are also cheap, compared with forking out for an England football international or the Ryder Cup.

Last week's episode of The People's Century established the credibility of sporting reminiscence as social history by focusing on Hitler's manipulation of the Olympics, clearing the way for Kicking and Screaming, Football/Fussball/Voetbal and 25 Years of A Question of Sport. Last week: sport as a tool of the state. This week: David Coleman as a tool of the leisurewear industry.

The best gaffes on Friday's compilation of the quiz show's most memorable moments involved mystery guests. "That's John Reid," Emlyn Hughes said. It was Princess Anne. Bill Beaumont was no better. "Jim Watt," he pronounced, as Anne Hobbs emerged smiling demurely from behind a tree. "Bryan Robson," he declared, as Gillian Gilkes swung to face the cameras. Should the BBC ever drop the show, all the producers have to do is retitle it A Question of Sexual Identity and take it to Channel 4.

Jonathan Davies has been a willing mystery man down the years, proving that he is as adept at changing clothes as he is at changing codes. Once he dressed up as Father Christmas, distributing gifts to the needy in a winter landscape. Perhaps this year they will ask Rob Andrew to play the part.

Secrets of the pre-show lunch were also revealed, like the time Ian Botham convinced a virtuously abstemious Paul Gascoigne that Advocaat (the drink, not the Dutch football manager) was non-alcoholic. The result: "Paul, home or away?" Befuddled grin. "Is the question too difficult for you?" Giggle. "Home or away? Just say home or away ..." Some moments later, Gascoigne wrote HOME on his notepad and held it up for the cameras. But it wasn't really an answer to Coleman's ever-more-urgent questioning. It was where he wanted to be.

Gazza would have felt at home in the Blackburn Olympic team for the 1883 FA Cup final. They breakfasted, it was revealed in Kicking and Screaming, on a glass of port and two raw eggs - and, so fuelled, they beat Old Etonians in extra time. The programme, the first in a series tracing the history of football in this country, was crammed with such nuggets of information: a goldmine for pub bores. "Did you know," they will be saying in saloon bars the length and breadth of the country, "that the Scots invented the header/that Aston Villa started life as a church team/that soccer was a public school slang term?" The kicking and screaming of the programme's title is the sound of drinkers heading for the pub door.

As a bizarre taster of the delights that lie in store in future episodes, the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon popped up. "George Best," he said, "was a phenomenon." Coming soon: Daniel Galvin on the enigma that is Matt Le Tissier.

Yet more nostalgia on Football/Fussball/Voetbal, which was also about the history of football, but this time in Europe. Linguistic pedants will have noted that the first programme in the series, in which Barry Davies told the story of football in Spain and Portugal, should more accurately have been entitled Football/Ftbol/Futbol. But that would have been silly.

The highlight of the first programme was the 1960 European Cup final at Hampden Park between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt, which the Spanish team, inspired by Puskas and Di Stefano, won 7-3. "Aye, it's all very well," one old Scottish football hack said after the match, "but would our punters stand for it?" Judging by Rangers' ineptitude in midweek, they still don't have the choice.

A contemporary sporting issue was addressed last week in the documentary They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (ITV). The answer was "Yes". They then ship them to Belgium, where unsavoury old ladies eat them raw with gherkins.

This was not exactly a revelation, but the racing industry's stumbling inability to put their side of the argument was. Tristram Ricketts, the chief executive of the British Horseracing Board, twitched every time he was asked a question. Jeremy Naylor, a vet, was interviewed standing next to a placid grey horse. Naylor was asked if the objectivity of his profession suffered from proximity to the racing world. He was silent for 20 seconds, and then asked for the question to be rephrased. Eventually the grey, no doubt enraged by Naylor's obtuseness, bit him on the arm. Even the advertisement break made a point. The grisly scenes of the knacker's yard were interrupted by a plug for Lloyds: "The thoroughbred bank".

Finally, a word about They Think It's All Over ... (BBC). It is now - but the teams will be back with a Christmas special.

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