Sport on TV: Blokes and banality on fantasy island

I'D GOT back from the pub just before the advertised 11.15pm kick-off of Football Fantasy League (BBC2, Friday), only to see a haggard old woman unwrapping a pack of - non-inflatable - bananas. The advance publicity for sport's newest game-show had largely passed me by, so for a short while I was guessing that this might be a visual clue to a question about terrace racism in the 1980s. But then it became apparent that Newsnight was running late with a Moscow food- shortage report.

Then, reassuringly, we were into the credits - John Motson's voice, a panning shot over a can of lager, a half-eaten tray of chips, a full ashtray. Eat your heart out, Middlemarch. After some snappy Zelig-style visuals in which the co-hosts David Baddiel and Frank Skinner appeared in real-life clips as touchline supremos, we were off.

What was promised was a game in which fans got to become big-time managers and to buy and pick their own team from the pool of Premiership players. Quite why this is called a fantasy in the week when Ian Branfoot was finally hounded out of Southampton wasn't yet clear.

Our two stand-up comedians - here sitting down and not being particularly funny - gradually got round to a clarification, and that's when confusion set in. The fans doing the choosing would be from the bottom deck of a Hello celebrity box, plus 'Motty' of course. They had apparently been given pounds 20m each and had attended an auction at the FA Premier League HQ.

Now my head was reeling. Twenty million quid each? Who'd given it them - Robert Maxwell? And an auction of players, with no grasping agents, megalomaniac chairmen, or panting tabloid hacks? This was fantasy indeed.

Brief, unenlightening clips of the auction followed showing the celebs - Roy Hattersley, Sue Johnston, Mandy Smith, Peter Cook, Roddy Doyle - bidding. But we were never exactly admitted to the process. And then someone called Andrew Ridgeley - he was once a member of a popular singing combo called Wham, m'lud - appeared holding a case of money.

Ah, so it was him putting up the dosh] Ridgeley's appearance - seemingly French-polished - also explained the mystery of what he's been doing since the break-up with George Michael. He's been in a secret clinic in Nevada swapping skin colour with Michael Jackson.

After more barren banter, Baddiel began to explain the rules, warning that they might seem confusing. Sure enough, a garbled account of points scoring followed based on the real- life performance of your chosen players - if I can remember, there were three points for a goal but four points for each defender and a goalkeeper in the event of a clean sheet. I'm no Einstein, but this seems to swing the rewards in the direction of those players getting no- score draws.

Now a few things began to fall into place. The start time of Fantasy Football League is pitched precisely at the lads coming back from the pub after 10 pints of Old Badger and a few Night Nurse chasers; the studio set replicates a sad, bachelor bedsit complete with stolen parking cone; and the blokeish audience sounds like it was bussed in from a Shepherd's Bush snooker hall.

So you're supposed to be too pissed out of your brain to bother about what's actually going on. The symbolic entrance of Peter Cook as a celebrity player confirmed this. Often wheeled on as a supportive prop for shaky new enterprises - the first Danny Baker chat-Show - Cook was given too little time to unfurl his surreal wit. And Mandy Smith, aka Mrs Pat Van Den Hauwe, seemed unaware of the Home Secretary's new Criminal Justice Bill, clinging to her right to remain silent, which was probably one of the show's few plus points.

With telephone calls from Basil Brush, and football statistics offered by a bloke in a tartan dressing-gown clutching a glass of milk, Fantasy Football League can scarcely be said to be running away from its nerd quotient. On the contrary, it revels knowingly in the anorak/bore-in-the-kitchen-at-parties essence of the fantasy football game.

All of which would be forgivable if there was anything in it for a TV audience, something simple like participation. But the references to the game, the chosen teams, the points-scoring, were so perfunctory that you ended up with something akin to A Question of Sport without the questions.

Worse still, the viral spread of fantasy football, from its baseball stat-freak origins, through books and radio, newspaper games and television rendered the programme as little more than a marketing exercise. Indeed the last time I had such a queasy feeling was when I met a bloke in the 1970s who'd signed up a skate-boarding franchise in the conviction that it would be the next big Olympic sport. If I could remember his name, I'd look for him in the programme credits.

Giles Smith is on holiday

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