Chris McGrath: New C4 team should not shut the stable door on horseplay
View From the Sofa: McCririck has gone, raging impotently against the dimming of the studio light
When the runners and riders were listed for the first race ever broadcast by the new Channel 4 Racing team, it is easy to picture one or two of the discarded presenters permitting themselves a bleak smile as they fixed a New Year's Day prairie oyster. Top of the card, horse No 1: Let's Get Serious. For while the cull of the previous roster barely fell short of ethnic cleansing, in its distaste for males and wrinkles, the new producers are mistaken if they feel that youth necessarily guarantees a lighter touch.
True, horseracing had legitimate grounds for anxiety when its most recognisable face might have been a cantankerous watchmaker in some macabre Gothic fairy tale. But John McCririck has gone, raging impotently against the dimming of the studio light – and the new team instead finds its focus in Clare Balding, whose ubiquity increasingly tests the theory that you can't get too much of a good thing.
If the captain is familiar and cherished, circumstances certainly conspired to test the sea legs of her new crew. The abandonment of Cheltenham made exorbitant demands of their resources, human and technical. The swanky new mobile studio sat marooned in front of a waterlogged course and deserted grandstands. Its day will come. But for now Nick Luck and his three companions were becalmed as they gamely experimented with their new table-top touchscreen, in no way helped by a mysterious policy of indifference to the four races actually beamed from Musselburgh.
Having salvaged the programme, these were treated as an irritating distraction. The producers had plainly decided to attempt a landmark impact with as much magazine content as possible. We were even spared a commercial break for the first 35 minutes. Balding, moreover, had been dispatched to provide a live link from Seven Barrows, in Lambourn, where Nicky Henderson trains many of Britain's top jumpers – including Sprinter Sacre, an animal of such outrageous pulchritude that to exhibit his naked flanks, gleaming in the sunshine, had a nearly blatant quality of calculation.
That was less comfortably true of a poignant feature on Isabel Tompsett, making heroic progress after suffering terrible injuries in a fall 18 months ago; and unpalatably so, of the atrocious collage of verse, music and slow-motion footage that had ushered viewers into a new era at the start of the show.
That little flourish was imported from the BBC at its most portentous. Of course, racing has only become a Channel 4 monopoly because the BBC more or less decided the sport to be beneath its dignity. But Channel 4 must guard against being infected by a new piety. There was never the remotest danger of the programme taking itself too seriously when John Francome could aim those casual barbs at the rhino hide of Derek Thompson, and Alastair Down could maintain such wry perspective.
It would be grossly unfair to reach conclusions on the basis of any single broadcast, never mind one compiled under such trying conditions. Today was always going to evoke the awkward Christmas civilities endured when the resented cause of a divorce is introduced to the rest of the clan. It almost felt as though Cheltenham had been called off to avoid desecration of Down's favourite armchair.
Already, however, you sense the craving for a younger "feel". Presenters and jockeys duly endured a series of those reliably idiotic snapshot questionnaires, set briskly to music. But if the cardinal sin of modern television is age, then it must be hoped that it will not be redeemed with the wrong kind of levity.
Fortunately, those familiar with his work on a specialist racing channel know that Graham Cunningham – the outstanding bonus of the new regime – harnesses his acuity as an analyst to terrific verbal energy, and sometimes to an instinct for downright mischief. Vitally, his sophistication extends to his humour, and it must be said that the confident, urbane Nick Luck plays him well.
Rest assured, there will be no diminution in passion; nor in expertise. Lest "auld acquaintance be forgot", however, those now holding the reins at Channel 4 could do worse than remember how their predecessors rode confidently between the flimsy trappings of youth, on one side, and an adolescent weakness for deadly earnest, on the other.
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