Sport on TV: Hale and Pace fall at the first but finish in front

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The Independent Online
HALE AND PACE come pretty low down the comedy food chain, swilling about in the primeval pool with the single-celled organisms, the Starrs, Davidsons and Barrymores. Still, you have to admire their raw, naked courage in setting themselves up as racing commentators in Jobs for the Boys (BBC1, Wednesday).

Martin Hopkins, a Grandstand producer, wants them to have no illusions. "Absolute horror," he says, when they ask him his reaction to the idea. "You're going to have to prove you can get away with it before we'd let you anywhere near a live race. All I can say is good luck - but you haven't a prayer."

After some not-terribly-helpful advice from Peter Alliss, they meet Ian Bartlett, the SIS commentator, who gives them each a six-furlong race to call. John McCririck, who is going to assess them, is as optimistic as Hopkins. "They have absolutely no chance at all," he says. "If they can call the winner, it's their fortune. I'm hoping for a blanket finish."

It is a chastening experience for them both, though Hale (the one with the facial hair, by the way) is particularly bad, adrift on a sea of embarrassing silences. Worse, they have to suffer a dressing down from McCririck. "It was embarrassingly inept!" he roars. "I was cringing listening to it! A blind baboon could have done better than that!"

In search of more advice, they visit Thruxton to see Murray Walker, who recalls the BBC experience in which they had commentators swap jobs. He was perfectly suited to horse racing, but given the choice, he says, he would have done the snooker, and he gives Hale and Pace a sample: "And Davis has drawn the cue back - and HE'S SLAMMED THE BALL INTO THE FAR CORNER!"

Over in France at the World Cup, John Motson has some sound advice. "You've got to leave yourself room to go one octave higher," he tells them. You have to give the right amount of information, "but be aware of the monitor - you've got to caption the picture."

Their first public test is at the dogs, where racing commentators are often blooded. They are at Wimbledon, where EastEnders' Wendy Richards marks their cards.

"There are people up there looking to pay their next six months' mortgage with their winnings - so if you make a cock-up, you'd better start running."

They take a race each, and under the easier conditions - the dogs are numbered one to six, with the same colour every time for each lane - they pass muster, Hale doing especially well to conquer his pre-race terrors. "I feel like pulling out my tongue and ironing it, it's so knotted," he says beforehand, while afterwards, he is relieved to note, there are "no lynchings".

After a trip to Wimbledon for the tennis, where a dry run under the gaze of Sue Barker and Pat Cash is encouraging, they practise at Folkestone for their Grandstand audition. Their lack of racing knowledge is letting them down, Bartlett tells them, but it is not just that. Hale is worried, and rightly so, because he just has not got it - that sense of assurance, of being in control, of being both oracle and fan.

"We don't employ second-rate professionals," Dave Gordon, Grandstand's executive editor, warned them on audition day at Newbury (I wonder if the entire team had been asked to play hardball, because they are deeply sniffy about the whole venture).

Hale is feeble, while Pace is not a great deal better - "We could feel the ship sinking under us" - though he wins the producer's round with a rousing finish.

Three months later, at Aintree, they get their chance. Pace gets the main gig, with Hale in the paddock. "Tense? Am I tense? No. It's much worse than that," says Hale, so Pace must be truly terrified. Indeed, the pair look like it is two minutes before sun-up on the morning of their very public execution.

In fact it all falls wonderfully into place. Hale has done his homework on the horses, and he is relaxed and fluid, recounting a nice anecdote about one of the runners, who travels with a pony to calm it down. "He's telling a story - that's just what he should be doing," says Clare Balding as she watches up at Ascot with Peter O'Sullevan. Pace starts slowly, a little solemn, but confident, building it up nicely, spotting a couple of fallers, and calling the end of the race perfectly. "Very impressed," says Dave Gordon. "I drove away from Newbury thinking they'd never, ever do it. But they've surprised me."

As Hale hands over to Steve Rider - "That's the first professional hand- over for about three years," Rider says - there is general amazement and jubilation in the Grandstand control room, while Pace is in tears, no doubt already suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. "I'm never doing that again," says Hale.

The final frame is left to Pace, looking like Munch's "Scream" when Bartlett tells him he can do the next race as well. They have got away with it. Now why don't they do us all a favour and switch jobs altogether?