Sport on TV: Fire and Brimson and frightened grannies

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The Independent Online
IT IS a very ill wind indeed which does not leave the odd blessing somewhere in its path. While England's rent-a-mob followers created havoc in Marseilles, and shame and embarrassment at home, one man at least was making the most of it. It may have been the first full week of World Cup coverage, but the most familiar face at the end of it was not that of Ronaldo or Zidane, or even Desmond Lynam, but rather that of Britain's premier rent-a-yob, otherwise known as Dougie Brimson.

By Friday evening, no news programme seemed complete without its dose of Dougie. His hooligan days, of course, are far behind him - some captions referred to him simply as a "football writer" - but he can hardly be accused of failing to look the part. The piggy eyes, it is true, are hardly Brimson's fault, but the shaven head presumably is, while the air of simmering truculence which surrounds him seems just a little too carefully calculated. He was presumably being hired to give an insider's view of football violence while also frightening the grannies, though in general he did rather better with the latter assignment than the former (which is probably what the producers wanted anyway).

Brimson-mania was a strange media phenomenon, not least in a week when the prospect of criminals profiting from their actions was an ongoing theme. The events in Marseilles produced all sorts of odd reactions, though, not least from the England coach Glenn Hoddle, who commented at a press conference - before David Davies waded in to save him - that "if it's three miles down the road, it's not a football issue". Several hundred sociopaths, it seems, all decided to book a Citybreak in France last week without even realising there was a match on.

It could hardly have been more of a football issue, since the violence turned England's first match at the World Cup finals since Italia 90 from a cause for anticipation and celebration into one for dread. It was difficult to enjoy even Paul Scholes's goal for worrying about what might happen in the stands or on the beach. And this, for heaven's sake, was when England were winning. Imagine the awful foreboding when it becomes clear that someone is about to knock them out. In the circumstances, even Jimmy Hill's Cross of St George bow-tie, which might otherwise have been dismissed as an old man's harmless indulgence, was just another reminder of tattoos on fat, crimson English torsos.

There was violence on the pitch too, mind you, most notably the homicidal tackle on Luigi di Biagio for which the Cameroonian Raymond Kalla was instantly dismissed. Despite the stud marks on the Italian defender's legs, however, there was a dispute in the commentary box as to whether the red card was justified. Ron Atkinson and Clive Tildesley seemed to feel that Kalla was going for the ball, an idea with which Jimmy Hill concurred during the BBC highlights programme. To which you can only respond, maybe so - but was it the left one or the right?

It was not a good week for Jimmy, whose fellow pundits hardly bother to disguise their contempt these days. Still, at least his bow-tie was not the sartorial nadir of the last seven days. How could it be, when this was also the week of Royal Ascot (BBC), and all manner of weird creations - Jeff Banks, for instance - were about to be unleashed on the Berkshire turf.

Banks got in fairly early with the funniest line of the meeting. After lavishing praise on the Queen Mother's overcoat, he added that "underneath, I suspect, is a dress". Suspect? What on earth does he expect a 98-year- old to wear to the races? A fur bikini? But it was his sidekick in fashion punditry, Lynda Berry, who delivered the finest put-down, as a woman in stilettos waded rather inelegantly through the car park mud. "Carriage," she murmured, "is all."

The serious business, though, was the racing, particularly for the producer, for whom this Ascot week marked an abrupt departure from the presentational style of the last three decades. There was no Peter O'Sullevan, now retired, and no Julian Wilson, who resigned late last year, seemingly because a new boss was making him feel rather like General de Gaulle in the final reel of The Day of the Jackal.

In their stead we have Jim McGrath, who is as close to a replacement for O'Sullevan as you could hope to find, while the double act of Clare Balding and Willie Carson takes over from Wilson behind the main microphone. The whole mood has changed, too, with a headlong lurch towards the sort of populism which is the stock in trade of Channel 4 Racing.

It worked, to a point. Balding is an experienced, accomplished broadcaster who can talk sense to the average viewer without being patronising. Carson, by contrast, is an ex-jockey standing on a box.

There were some worthwhile innovations in the BBC coverage, such as the betting-ring cutaways to find out where the serious money was going, and the helmet-mounted jockey-cam which, when it was not covered with mud, gave a truly original view of the action.

In the end, though, you could not help feeling that someone had failed to understand what was supposed to be fashionable at Ascot this year. The in-thing, according to Berry, was "metallic and transparent". The coverage, on the other hand, tended to be wooden and transparent.