Sport on TV / Grand farce of fibbing, leaping and diving

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The Independent Online
THE Atherton saga has some of the flavour of a play set in a public school. ('What's that in your pocket, Atherton?' 'Nothing, sir.' Later, back in the dorm. Gooch Major: 'Cripes, Atherton. You're a fibber and a rotter and I jolly well hope the beaks gate you.') It also bears two of the chief hallmarks of British comedy - dirt by the handful and ball-related innuendo. And all week, those in the media who would paint the matter as the biggest public outrage since the abdication of Edward VIII have had to fight the incident's inherent character as farce - When Did Mike Atherton Last See His Trousers?

Still, on television as in the papers, the fight has been waged heroically. In last Sunday evening's close-of-play press conference, it was announced that Atherton hadn't done anything wrong but that he was going to be fined for it. And at the Old Trafford press conference on Friday lunchtime Atherton reaffirmed that he had done nothing untoward, but went on to apologise for lying about not having done so. Through all the confusion, the news crews clung on with an avidity and a hushed awe normally reserved for political manoeuvrings, royal dramas and Gazza's latest nightclub-sustained leg injury.

The awe was especially hushed on Friday, thanks to some spectacular broadcasting incompetence. Only Sky News would go along to cover a press conference and then forget to pack a microphone which could pick up the questions from the floor. Atherton read his statement and afterwards, for five long and less than gripping minutes, the camera stared dumbly at his face while the members of the press probed him inaudibly. We could only guess at the question which elicited the answer, 'I took my trousers into the meeting with me,' but presumably it was the News of the World reporter, seeking some sort of 'England Cricket Supremo In Naked Confrontation' angle.

The man from Sky News had his own microphone, so eventually we did get to hear someone's questions. The most sentimental of these was fascinatingly revealing about the way cricket, and those in its immediate vicinity, occupy a place immune to the passage of time. What, the man from Sky wondered, did Atherton, as a former Manchester Grammar School boy, think the present school intake would make of all this? Rather touching, the belief that this is still a world in which the England cricket captain serves as a role- model for youngsters. Where have these people been for the last quarter of a century? Today's models are Snoop Doggy Dogg, Drug Druggy Drugg and that woman in the leather basque in Nintendo's interactive virtual reality scenario 'SewerKrushers'. You can imagine most of today's teenagers hearing about this business with the smudge of dirt and thinking, 'so what's the problem?' If he'd gone crazy in the slips with a can of Mace gas or if he'd iced Dickie Bird in a drive-by, then maybe there would be something worth hassling him about.

Directly after the conference, Sky News took us to Monaco where Alan Sugar had just won the Premiership Chairmen's Round- Europe Yacht Race and was clutching his trophy - Jurgen Klinsmann. 'Jurgen was looking for a challenge,' Sugar said, which seemed to hint at a future role for the striker alongside Teddy Sheringham in what will doubtless be the Premiership's finest synchronised diving team.

In The Salmon Run (BBC 2, Wednesday), Jack Charlton became the first man in history to be bleeped for foul language during an angling programme. The scene was a rippling Scottish river, filmed from above through delightful foliage. And down below on a boat, with a remote microphone tucked somewhere in his waterproofs, Charlton was fishing for salmon and chatting with a pal - something about how you had to work bleeping hard to get any bleeping where when he was a bleeping player.

In an otherwise straightforward programme about the pleasures of the rod, a more blatant and unnecessary piece of character establishment it would be hard to imagine. The scene's inclusion seemed linked to a nervousness the programme had about wealth and class. Charlton clearly adores his fishing but also felt obliged to spend a lot of the programme apologising for being rich enough to afford it (there are riverbanks in the Highlands where it can cost you pounds 2,000 per week to dangle your hook). Actually, the chances are you were busier wondering how he reconciles his tasks as journeyman of the waterways and manager of the Republic of Ireland's football team - until you realised the close relation between standing thigh-high in cold, muddy water and having a conversation on tactics with Tony Cascarino.

The first programme of the series offered wonderful shots of salmon the size of nuclear submarines flinging themselves through the spray. Extraordinary these implausible, lithe and apparently gratuitous leaps into the air. I wonder if Jurgen Klinsmann goes salmon fishing.