Sport on TV: Bubble, bubble ... toil and trouble ahead

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The Independent Online
Let us stop the action, as they have done for years on A Question of Sport (BBC1) and consider what happened next. The scenario is this: the regular presenter steps down after many years. Does the BBC (a) Take the opportunity to shake up a tired old format in response to increasingly lively opposition? (b) Drop the programme altogether? Or (c) Parachute in a new presenter and carry on as usual?

No prizes, or even points, for deducing that the corporation have followed path (c), substituting Sue Barker for David Coleman and proceeding as if satellite television, They Think It's All Over and indeed the 1990s had never happened.

Barker is a breath of fresh air in that she is under 60, switched on and not given to wearing diamond-pattern Pringle sweaters. But not even her greatest fans would claim that she is any great shakes in the charisma department. Competent, pleasant, smiley, but still the televisual equivalent of methode champenoise: all bubble but precious little character.

She is not helped by the prevailing saloon-bar atmosphere of AQOS. Denise Lewis was a guest, so naturally the two captains, Ally McCoist and John Parrott, had a good snigger at the heptathlete's recent undraped appearance in a men's magazine. The photographs in question had clearly unhinged Parrott. "I saw them at breakfast-time one day," he recalled. "I was sitting there reading my toast, when..." he couldn't finish the sentence, but presumably the sight of Lewis wearing little but a smile made him take a hefty bite out of his newspaper.

There was more humour in a similar vein when Lewis and her fellow team- member, the golfer Alison Nicholas, leant over McCoist to compare notes. Barker was swift to prove that she is one of the lads. "Are you sure that you don't want them to confer for longer, Ally?" she giggled.

But there was just a hint that Barker will be prepared to stand up for herself in the future. McCoist was asked to predict what happened next in a scene from a football match. "A riot?" he suggested. "Fisticuffs? Are you looking for more?" "I am looking," Barker said, in the tones of Miss Jean Brodie, "for an answer."

It would be harsh to expect too much from Barker on her first outing, and probably unrealistic to expect iconoclasm from a known associate of Sir Cliff Richard. But the real handicap to any presenter of AQOS is the programme itself. In an age where the quiz show has been reinvented as part satire and part chat show, AQOS looks increasingly prehistoric, plodding along with the same old format, the same old graphics and what looks like the same old set. The real Question of Sport is: why watch it?

Extra Time (Sky 1) is a sports quiz that cannot be accused of plodding unoriginality. But a number of other offences may have to be taken into consideration. The format is promising: two teams who have previously contested an epic sporting encounter are brought together to answer questions about the event and settle old scores. The presenter, Mark Steel, is a sarky adenoidal type with a good line in deadpan delivery. His accomplice is as far from deadpan as it is possible to get, the orator of the oche, the manic street preacher of darts, Sid Waddell.

So far, so interesting. Unfortunately the show seems to have been done on the cheap. The desks behind which the teams sit look like rejects from Ikea, and the budget doesn't run to a scoreboard so poor Sid has to do all the sums in his head. And crucially, the quiz is restricted in its subject matter to contests that have previously featured on Sky. This may turn out to be no bad thing - re-runs of Liverpool and Newcastle's Premiership football clashes would be welcome - but the producers seem to have started at the bottom of the barrel.

Last Friday's show, for example, revisited an event that precious few will have noticed in the first place, Fish-o-mania 1996. A pair of young fishermen, quickly dubbed by Sid "the bream team" took on a pair of older fishermen. You can gauge the quality of the proceedings by an early question. Steel asked: "Where did all the competitors catch salmon the night before the event?" One of the senior anglers mumbled, "At the do", and Steel declared, "That's right. At the Doncaster Moat House Hotel." The studio audience roared with laughter, which suggested either that they were fishing junkies or that someone had put something special in the pre-programme orange squash.

Things only got more bizarre. There was a "Name That Fish" round in which the teams successfully identified two carp as Mary and Heather, who have apparently been caught so often that they have acquired celebrity status. If they were human they would have been called Tracy and Sharon.

But the programme was best summed up by the round entitled "What's Going On?" There's an awful lot of rubbish in Extra Time, but there are also more ideas than A Question Of Sport has produced in a decade. A combination of the two with a few bob spent on graphics might be well worth watching. Only A Question of Time?