Sport on TV: Snooker hidden behind Beeb's bear necessities

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HAVE YOU ever watched a young grizzly bear learning to pluck salmon from an Arctic river? They start off with cautious little dabs into the water, which at spawning time is bursting with fish. Soon, they get the hang of swiping them out in one quick movement, and then jumping on them before they can wriggle back to safety. It's fascinating, and rather cute, in a red-in-tooth-and-claw sort of way.

You couldn't help but like seals too, and moose, and humpback whales, and all the other wildlife which featured in Wildlife Showcase on BBC2 just after two o'clock last Thursday afternoon. But what was rather irritating was that while all the furries were doing their thing in Alaska and other far-flung parts of the globe, John Higgins and Mark Williams were playing the first frame of their semi-final in the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield.

This event, of course, is one of the few world-class sporting occasions that remains in the BBC's portfolio, and yet they seem to think that an old and probably oft-repeated nature documentary is more important. And then, just to rub it in, when the coverage finally started with the second frame, Ray Edmonds was good enough to inform us that the opener had been "a cracker".

It is a little ironic that while so many sports have been lured away to BSkyB, snooker has stayed terrestrial. This suits no one, from the devotees who want blanket, live coverage to the baize-o-phobes who think there is too much of it on already. But on the Beeb is where snooker will almost certainly stay, for the simple reason that there would be no way for the marketing people at Sky to jazz it up.

Well, to give them their due they would probably think of something - fluorescent chalk, perhaps, or replacing a couple of balls in every frame with lookalikes made out of Semtex. But would anyone watch? Of course not, because the very essence of snooker's appeal is its complete unsexiness.

Nowhere else would you find competitors with the pallid complexion and slightly bulbous eyes more often associated with fish which live at depths where light cannot penetrate. Or spectators like the one spotted during the opening week of the 17-day marathon who preferred reading a book - the Variety Club Guide to Writing Short Stories, no less - to watching the match. Or a pundit like John Virgo, who delivers each weary line as if he has spent the last five hours waiting for a train that has just been cancelled.

It is all part of the fun, and long may it continue. Perhaps, one day, a final will even grip the nation like the one in 1985, which persuaded many millions of Britons to sit up so late that it was barely worth going to bed. Such moments of sporting togetherness grow ever rarer, but another example - England against Argentina - was the starting point for Thinking of England (BBC2), which asked what it means to be English these days. The answer, in sporting terms at least, seemed to be: getting drunk, filling your face and not taking a blind bit of notice of what's going on.

There is an old racing joke concerning a jockey who is 10 lengths clear on the favourite as he passes the furlong pole. Suddenly, and in quick succession, he is hit squarely in the face by a 10lb salmon, a platter of luncheon meat sandwiches and a magnum of champagne. Thus distracted, he loses his whip, drops the reins and is beaten a short-head. "What the hell happened?" the trainer asks him when he gets back to the paddock. "Well, it was all going according to plan until the final furlong, guv'nor," the jockey replies. "But then I was badly hampered."

Down at Henley Regatta, it looks as if everyone spends their time getting very badly hampered indeed, and doing so as far away from the river as is decently possible. "Being English is all about discipline, all about doing the right things," said one of the thousands of men in blazers. "There's no hooliganism here, just people having a really nice time."

His point was illustrated by a shot of a woman walking halfway across the car park with the bones of a rather fine poached salmon in her hand, and then placing them carefully in a bin. Unfortunately for this impeccable image of the upper classes at play, the next scene involved a man who was trying to persuade his wife to show off her embonpoint to the camera.

"You've heard of Melissha Melinda," he drawled. "Melissa Mercouri, or whatever," ("she's an air hostess", said a friend helpfully). His unfortunate wife, all the while, was doing her utmost to stop him tearing off her jacket. But of course, he wasn't being a lout, because he was fuelled by Bolly, not lager.

Sport was only a small part of the film, which also took in WI fetes, hippy festivals and holidays in Blackpool. If the Henley set truly represent the best bits of Englishness, though, it is hardly a surprise that their beloved Rolls-Royces now contain German engines.