Sport on TV: Jumpers, old clips and a question of cash

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THOSE seeking evidence of further incursions by the men with grey suits and calculators into the BBC's funding of sport on television would have had a bulging dossier by the end of last week. Leaving aside the question as to why we've had zero hi ghlights of the cricket from Australia - and one presumes it was cost rather than an act of clairvoyancy - the BBC seem to be operating in a parallel universe to British Rail, with both institutions having fallen under the control of the same malevolent Mekon minds.

"Exhibit A" came in the venerable form of A Question of Sport (BBC1), which was celebrating its 400th edition. Actually, "celebrating" is something of a misnomer since the accountants had plainly stepped in to prevent the programme budget extending to such things as bunting, dancing girls, a case of sparkling Australian white or even a new jumper for David Coleman.

Even a relatively modest idea, like making up the two teams from former captains, must also have been scuppered, because we were left with a distinctly run-of-the-mill line-up. I mean, would you invite Dennis Wise to your birthday party knowing that at some stage you'd have to call a cab to take him home?

Indeed, apart from a mumbled reference to the figure 400 by Coleman, the anniversary was registered only by two special questions from the past for the captains, Bill Beaumont and Ian Botham. Bill got a rugby clip from the first colour transmission of aninternational, while "Beefy" was given what was mysteriously described as "the last surviving footage" of the England v Rest of the World cricket tournament in the early Seventies. (Such a competition seems ironic given that the Rest of the World no longer have to gang up to beat us).

Bill and Both effortlessly gobbled up the nostalgia, but there was an underlying sense of tristesse, as they say in panto, about the use of the clips, harking back as they did to the days when BBC Sport commanded the air-waves. The Proustian connection was taken up by Coleman, who asked both captains for their favourite memories of past programmes.

This cued in less lovable clips showing Beaumont with a collar and tie and a Zapata moustache, and the lean, leather-blousoned Botham being wound up by Willie Carson. Bill's favourite clip - and this offered evidence of the inadvisability of a sport in which your head gets kicked - was the time when the programme "was graced by the presence of the Princess Royal". Unfortunately, it was also the time when the programme was marred by the chuckling matinee of Emlyn Hughes, for whom the past is a suitable resting place.

So the overall feel of the programme was less one of national fiesta, more fin de siecle. Coleman sounded bored and Bill and Both seemed to have lost their edge. Indeed, Botham couldn't identify the youthful (and black) talents of Dalian Atkinson, Stan Collymore or Duke McKenzie - "some boxer" he guessed at the photo of the little man with the big red gloves.

Quite apart from the fact that this doesn't herald too well for his prospective appointment to the job of Sri Lankan national cricket coach - what will he make of those multi-syllabic Sinhalese names? - the more relevant notion seems to be that it's timefor Botham, Beaumont and Coleman to step aside for younger men or women to give the programme new life. The names of Will Carling, Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen, David Gower and Peter Scudamore come to mind, with the plucky Ray Stubbs as host. But no doubt the accountants will have the last word about that.

Elsewhere on the channel, the cost-cutting was easier to detect. Natural Born Footballers (BBC2) was in fact a re-cycling of interviews done for the television fanzine Standing Room Only. Dressed up with fancy graphics and sub-titles for the deaf, this presented Bobby and Jack Charlton who, the text asserted, "were the two most popular players in England in their time".

Well, I'll give you Bobby, but as I recall Jack, as centre-half for Don Revie's Leeds United, was the player who first created the sharp practice of standing in front of the opposing goalkeeper for corner-kicks, which didn't make him very popular at all.However, as the short segments revealed, his reincarnation as jovial "Big Jack", the folk hero of Ireland, has completely eclipsed what little off-field charisma his brother still enjoys.

Finally, we come to "Exhibit C", a bizarre product of BBC's Pebble Mill studio. They Who Dare (BBC2) featured exotic slow-mo film of "some lunatic", as Botham might say, throwing himself down a tropical waterfall in a canoe. With Orff's "Carmina Burana" as background, the programme looked like something you might stumble across on the in-house television of a foreign hotel. Only cheaper. A hysterically awe-struck commentary, read by Terry Molloy, who I'm told enjoys another life as Mike Tucker in The Archers, thrashed around in the swirling waters, telling us that the mad canoeist enjoys "extreme kayaking" because "he feels that inside all of us are secret places..." I must remember that the next time I try to have a bath without my kids jumping in. But for the official BBC end-credit you might have guessed that the programme was a piece of flotsam from the independent market, which had previously been seen late one night on Eurosport. But no, licence-payers, it's all ou r s, I'm afraid.