Sport on TV: Sue the drama queen as the Beeb goes native
Sunday 04 April 1999
They probably reasoned that if they were going to act like Sky Sports and schedule almost seven whole hours of non-stop tennis, they might as well include all the populist froth as well. And just in case there were some pedants out there pointing out that three of the first four players on court would do their swearing at the umpire with a transatlantic twang, they had Mark Cox in the studio as well.
This was a cunning reminder of how laughably one-sided the tie would have been in the days before Greg Rusedski donned the red, white and blue, with a youthful heir to Cox's record of lifelong underachievement providing the back-up for Henman. Recalling his days in the Davis Cup team in the 1970s, Cox talked about the extremes of emotion that came with representing your country. There was the desperate depression when you were beaten and, apparently, the "ecstasy" which followed success, though how he would know about that is anyone's guess. Perhaps he has read a book by someone who has experienced it.
Once the action got under way, of course, the current crop could not do much better, and the hot air started to leak from the BBC's balloon at an alarming rate. There will probably not be a better match in Britain all year than the one between Henman and Jim Courier which opened the tie, but both broadcaster and audience would have settled for a serve- volley insomnia-cure if the Brit could have emerged victorious.
Yet amid all the patriotic fervour, there was one small haven of vague neutrality. Up in the commentary box, John Barrett was doing his level best to be fair to everyone, including the boorish spectators. "Not too hostile," was his description of the 9,000 people packed into the hall, when if they had been any more hostile, Courier's head would have been on a spike before the end of the second set.
The occasion had also, Barrett felt, "brought out the best of national pride", which must mean that cheering every Courier double-fault like Paul Scholes' hat-trick for England, and booing the American when he queried some shocking line calls, is now something to be proud of. Dan Maskell, you feel, might have begged to differ.
The tone did not improve during the break between matches. Part of the filler was a pop-video of top players doing their thing, designed to persuade British youth to swap its football boots for tennis rackets. The sound- track was "Would You...", the recent hit which included the fairly direct lyric, "Would you go to bed with me?" Perversely, this was the only three minutes in the first four hours of coverage which did not include a cut-away shot of Henman's girlfriend.
Things went from bad to worse when Rusedski arrived on court, but at least the BBC passed one test, by staying with live coverage way beyond the scheduled end of the transmission. The thought of the headlines in the next day's Sun had they done anything else probably stiffened their resolve.
That said, Sky also brought us some marvellous moments last week, from events which would have been lucky to make it as far as Ceefax back in the old pre-satellite days. There was the Test match from the West Indies, which was one of the finest ever played, and the TPC golf at Sawgrass, where Sky had even gone to the trouble of taking some of their own cameras to broadcast through at least some of the American network's incessant ad-breaks.
No matter how many times, or from how many different angles, you see the 17th hole at Sawgrass, it never loses its excitement. We can be sure of this, because in the course of four days, they showed it at least 200 times, and from a dozen points of view. The 17th, for the dwindling minority of Sky holdouts, is like a sixth Great Lake, with about 10 square yards of sloping, lightning-fast green somewhere in its very distant middle. David Duval, the leader by a stroke, stepped up on the final day and put his tee shot within five yards of the flag, which in its way was even more awesome than Brian Lara's innings in Barbados.
Lennox Lewis had a little less polish in An Audience With Lennox Lewis (ITV) last night, although he was always going to struggle to equal the professional raconteurs who normally fill this slot. He is, after all, paid for the punch in his fists, not in his conversation. And while An Audience With Lennox Lewis was not the most entertaining show ever made, it was still a damn sight funnier than the one with Victoria Wood.
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