Sport on TV: Gloss of Stirling lights up the roaring Fifties

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The Independent Online
SETTLING into the sofa yesterday evening with four-and-a-half hours' worth of supplies close at hand, you could only wonder how Channel 4 had ever hit upon the idea of a Stirling Moss night, even if it was the eve of the new Formula One season.

The average C4 viewer, after all, was not even born when Moss retired from the cockpit in the early Sixties, while the fact that he never actually won the world championship is a little inconvenient in an age when only wimps finish second. Then again, maybe they considered doing "The Life and Loves of James Hunt" and realised that they would need to scrub the afternoon schedules too.

But before you could say "Gentlemen, start your engines", it was obvious that the programmers knew exactly what they were up to. One generation's nostalgia can easily be the next generation's yawn, yet somehow there was something here for everyone. You did not need to remember rationing to be fascinated by the Corinthian spirit of the post-War racers, who lived (and frequently died) in that strange technological twilight zone that was not quite colour but wasn't quite black-and-white either. There was mortal danger everywhere. These days Schumacher and company merely drive around in high-performance cigarette adverts. Back in the 1950s, the drivers were expected to smoke the wretched things too.

In awesomely cavalier fashion, it appeared that Moss had even managed to light up in between taking the chequered flag at Monaco in 1961 and returning to the pits to disembark. This seemed all the more admirable when Murray Walker reminded us of the fairly limited safety features in a Moss-era racing car. "They were mobile death traps. There were petrol tanks over the drivers' legs, behind them and alongside them. There was no crush protection, the drivers had no safety belts, they wore T-shirts with bare arms, and they wore linen trousers and helmets."

It has to be said that Moss's helmet looked rather too robust for linen, but it was a good point (so good, in fact, that Murray had already made it four days earlier in The Murray Walker Story on ITV). Of course, Bernie and the boys attempted to inject a frisson of peril a couple of seasons ago by re-introducing the refuelling stop, and who knows, they may yet insist that a minimum of two mechanics have a fag (the sponsor's brand, naturally) between their lips whenever their man is in the pits. None the less, you could only conclude that to even climb into a car in Moss's day, you had to be, by any reasonable modern definition of the word, bonkers.

That alone, however, cannot explain why it was that all the drivers went about their work with smiles on their faces. Ultimately, the message was clear, even if it is probably not the one that ITV Sport was hoping for. Old-time racing was fun. Now it's just a job.

It is hard, certainly, to imagine a modern F1 driver setting off on the real-life Cannonball Run that was Italy's Mille Miglia, a contemporary film of which - with Moss as a very incidental character - was arguably the finest moment of the whole evening. There was footage too from the 1955 British Grand Prix at, of all places, Aintree, from Casablanca, Goodwood and the Nurburgring, and threaded through the whole experience, a running discussion with the man himself. Ageing but not aged, and able to get away (almost) with talk of "waving at the crumpet", Moss was so cool he belonged on a catwalk. As someone pointed out, the rewards for drivers have escalated just as dramatically as the risks have declined, but then Stirling did it for love, not money. If silk scarves are this summer's essential accessory, look no further for the reason why.

Moss was not the only icon to emerge from semi-obscurity this week, as one of the most famous sporting faces from the Seventies and early Eighties returned to the screen on Sky Sports 3. The buzz swept through the thirtysomething to fiftysomethings (or at any rate, the ones with dishes): Dickie's back, and this time it's personal.

Dickie Davies's Sporting Heroes launched with a rare - in fact, almost unique - interview with Steve Ovett, whose reluctance to share even his outer thoughts with the media is well-known. It was, inevitably, a pally affair, but it was still refreshing to find an entire hour (well, 40 minutes if you take out the ads) given over to a straightforward one- to-one. On the standard modern chat show, Ovett would have been sandwiched between a magician and a soap star, whereas 60 minutes of Sky-style broadcasting left you with a decent impression of the man (and a subliminal desire to buy 10 tubes of toothpaste).

Sky popped up again on Wednesday in Trouble At The Top: Rovers Return (BBC2), but only as the faraway land of milk and honey - sorry, cash and more cash - which is Super League rugby. It is to be hoped that football fans did not simply hear the words "rugby league" and turn over, since this fascinating film offered a possible glimpse of the future for anyone who supports one of the 70 football teams who do not enjoy the benefits of Premiership status.

Hull Kingston Rovers, as we swiftly discovered, are a team in trouble, and Edward Klempka, an administrator with Coopers & Lybrand, was the professional suit who had been sent in to save them. Dwindling crowds, departing managers, predators looking to buy the club and kill it - Klempka and Hull KR saw it all in the course of a thoroughly depressing season. But was Graham Kelly - or any football administrator - watching this grim prophesy of what the future holds for many League teams? Unlikely. Manchester United were playing on Wednesday night.

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