SPORT ON TV: A love of mangled syllables and tortured vowels

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The Independent Online
THE PROBLEM with sports impressionists, I find, is that though they generally pin down their subjects pretty well, their scripts are usually about as funny as a skin complaint. Once or twice I've had to switch over rather than watch the truly excruciating Kevin Connolly, for example. So it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch last night's Alistair McGowan's Football Backchat (C4).

The programme bucked the trend by being funny in parts - a cruel take on Stan Collymore, for example, when asked about the difference between the atmosphere at Liverpool and Aston Villa: "It's really similar," McGowan has him saying, "it's like about 70 per cent nitrogen and 20 per cent oxygen and eight per cent carbon dioxide. It's all I've had all me life really." (It's a bit of an old standby, though, the one about thick footballers.) And there's a nice conversation on the training ground between Paul Ince and David Beckham. The Guv'nor asks, "What's Posh Spice like then?" and Beckham replies, "She is posh, like, she don't just say, `take us from behind' she'll say, `take me from behind, please.'"

McGowan's slack-mouthed Beckham impersonation is brilliant - indeed, some of his impressions are so good, the quality of the script hardly matters. The acme of his repertoire is Trevor Brooking. I savoured every mangled syllable, every tortured vowel and crushed consonant, the way his sentences tail off into sounds hitherto unheard by man or beast. He could have read Exchange & Mart a la Brooking and still cracked me up.

There was a bit of a dated feel to the programme, though, explained by the fact that it's been available on video since last year. So there's much use made not only of England's Far East tour before the last European Championship, but even of footage from the Cutting Edge Graham Taylor documentary. Do I not like that, one might say. Eric Cantona's a bit vieux chapeau as well, n'est-ce pas? Surely the thing to do was commission a new programme based on the World Cup rather than raiding the local video store. McGowan must surely be slightly embarrassed about having such old stuff put out during Friday's post-pub prime time.

There was something of a breach of the Trades Descriptions Act over on the BBC too this week. Monday's Match of the Day Special was billed as reviewing the weekend's action - which meant the goals from Saturday. As Ray Stubbs put it in the course of one of those over-extended metaphors so beloved of sports anchormen, they had been "contractually red-carded" from showing a single second of the games on Sunday and Monday. What's going on? I suspect one or two suits at Sky are coming over all stroppy, but their counterparts at Television Centre really should get it sorted.

The main problem with Match of the Day Special, though, (apart from having no match of the day, special or otherwise) is the BBC's usual fault of trying to pack too much in. The treatment given to such items as the putative European super league were so perfunctory as to be worse than useless, taking up space that would have been better used for treating a couple of subjects in depth (and super league debates were going on a couple of weeks ago, but have abated for the moment, so it was off the pace even to bother).

One welcome innovation (innovation for the BBC, that is) was to get a journalist on (though one should be the limit - witness the sometimes gruesome spectacle of hacks chewing the fat on Sky's Hold The Back Page). Not surprisingly, Patrick Barclay of the Sunday Telegraph made the most articulate contributions, particularly in an extended discussion (i.e. at least two or three minutes) on Glenn Hoddle's drop-Gazza-and-tell story.

Barclay came out in defence of the England manager. "It's not exceptionally revealing," he said. "There are no real secrets." Besides which, he rightly pointed out, Gascoigne's own version appeared two days after the incident. And anyway, as Barclay said, "It's a public game, and we're not talking about the sanctity of the confessional box, we're not talking about the War Cabinet, we're talking about a football team." That wouldn't have gone down well with Bill Shankly. For all Barclay's measured persuasiveness, however, and though Harry Redknapp agreed with him, it was difficult not to side with Mark Lawrenson's purist approach. "The England manager should be above it all," he said.

In a half-hour programme, the worst waste of space was an item presumably intended to be a jolly. Picking up on the suggestion made by the Crystal Palace chairman, Mark Goldberg (presumably as a joke) that players have tracking chips inserted in their ears, there were numerous imaginative ways this flimsy topic could have been dealt with, but surely, surely, not a single one of them involved an interview with Peter Reid, the Sunderland manager - a good bloke, clearly, but no Jerry Seinfeld, not even a Tommy Docherty. To see Stubbs trying to extract witticisms from Wearside's Mr Happy was embarrassing. Perhaps they should have got Alistair McGowan to do him instead.