In the realm of fantasy with Tarby and Statto

ON FRIDAY night, Fantasy Football League (BBC 2) returned after its winter break, the programme leading the way in adopting a continental-style season, sitting out the dark months to avoid the complications caused by mud, snow and general foulness - or, in broadcasting terms, a series of The Word on Channel 4. And it was certainly welcome back. Football has itself become so fantastical in the intervening weeks (bungs, corruption, drugs, violence, Chelsea doing well in Europe) that what started out as the football fan's favourite comic half-hour now finds itself the last bastion of sober and appropriate analysis.

When you've seen Cantona clash with Simmons in the stands at Crystal Palace, or the shots of Segers and Grobbelaar arrested at dawn, the sight of the former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle, dressed as the Statue of Liberty and singing "My Way", is suddenly strangely reassuring.

Performances by Astle bracketed this edition, his murderous, scat-karaoke version of the Lambada threatening to close down not just the programme but the entire network. In between came the usual stuff - appearances from a couple of the regular, fantasy team managers (no Paula Yates this week, detained recently by fantasies of a quite different kind, so in stepped the author Nick Hornby) and various bits of chat and nonsense from the presenters David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, seated on the couch in their flat-style set.

Cultural commentators have sometimes lumped Fantasy Football League in with other manifestations of the contemporary form of young, male behaviour known as "new lad-ism", with all that that implies about the programme's thoughtfulness, tact and general standing in relation to women. This is to misrepresent and diminish the programme and to overlook the fact that one of the heroes at its heart - Statto, the figure called in to adjudicate on all matters statistical - is a man who spends the entire show in dressing gown and pyjamas. Statto is about as laddish as the late Arthur Marshall and the way in which the programme harbours a warm place for him is indicative of a broad, imaginative scope.

Television theorists, meanwhile, would wish to consider the programme as a canny piece of post-modern targeting - an after-the- pubs-shut, Friday entertainment which simply holds a mirror up to its audience. You sit on the sofa at home with a bottle of beer in your hand and your feet on the coffee table and the camera cuts to David Baddiel doing exactly the same. But this again is an analysis with limits and one which makes the programme seem less interesting than it is. To speak personally, it's not often in my house that the doorbell goes and Jimmy Tarbuck comes in.

Not that I'm entirely crestfallen about that. The political attitudes of comedians tend to be sulphorous and somewhere to the right of Pol Pot, and Tarby's sta-prest trousers had hardly touched down on the sofa before he was off on some noisy tirade, which may or may not have had as its launch point the sentencing of Eric Cantona. "There's got to be a law for one and for all and not just for that lad," he fumed.

It was hard to know whether Tarby was saying the magistrate had been harsh in handing Cantona a two-week sentence, or whether he felt that the sentence was OK as long as it was applied across the board to offences of this nature from now on. Or maybe he was saying that all of us should be sent to jail for two weeks, regardless, just to teach us all a lesson or two about the randomness of life and the dangers of regarding the law as an ass. Answers on a postcard to: "What the hell was Tarby on about?", at the usual address.

All in all, it was a relief to pop off for the "Pheonix from the Flames" slot in which, this week, Malcolm Macdonald performed a back-garden re- enactment of some of his five England goals against Cyprus, while he was ribbed mercilessly for his appearances on Superstars. There was a moment of consternation seconds later when Baddiel announced that they had run out of Tom Webster clips: Fantasy Football League has built Webster (a haplessly humorous 1930s sports commentator) to cult status, to the point where just saying his name gets a laugh. Luckily, Baddiel was only teasing. The programme then spoiled us with a football Webster and a top-notch tennis Webster: "This is the final of the men's doubles. And the way they're moving around, it's as though they've had trebles." Scintillating.

Much talk of Nigel Mansell's seat during Sportsnight's slick and exhilarating preview of the Formula One season (BBC 1, Wednesday). As the McLaren team have discovered too late, their snazzy redesign didn't take into account Mansell's sheer bulk. There's no room for his broad shoulders in there, let alone the tinned sweets. And Lord knows where he's going to hang the air-freshener, given that strange, snubby shape of the new car. (Johnny Herbert had a point when he argued that the new McLaren "should be illegal because it looks so ugly".) Even so, Murray Walker is backing Nige. And it's a brave person who contradicts Walker on these matters.

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