Sport on TV: Too much noise, too many empty vessels

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The Independent Online
IT IS probably not a sentiment with which Mary Whitehouse would concur, but the best thing about the first episode of Premier Passions (BBC1), the fly-on-the-Wear documentary charting the closing months of Sunderland's brief sojourn in the Premiership, was undoubtedly the swearing.

Not, you understand, the fact that it was there, because there was so much effing that pretty soon you forgot all about it. Rather, it was that the producers had not seen fit to bleep it all out, as the early-evening trailers had hinted they might. It may be, of course, that they had little choice, for bleeping out all of Peter Reid's profanities would have left him sounding like a Touch-Tone phone. Is he giving a half-time team talk, you would have found yourself wondering, or trying to send a fax?

But if this was the best part, it does not say much for the remainder, and the truth is that Premier Passions was an unfortunate but still remarkable televisual achievement. Remarkable, because they started with a canvas of obsession, frustration and a deep yearning for success, and any number of colourful characters with which to paint it, but somehow the final result still turned out to be thoroughly dull. This was not just a result of the Titanic effect, in that you started out with a fairly shrewd idea of what was going to happen at the end of episode six, but a singular failure on the producers' part to find anyone with something interesting to say.

Things really hit rock bottom when Tommy Porter, the head groundsman, provided a running - or possibly trundling - commentary as he repainted the white lines. Meanwhile, halfway up a ladder with paint roller in hand, or standing to attention behind the counter of a pie shop, ordinary fans shared their thoughts on supporting the team. "It's like, summ'at yewar boorn with, like," was about as enlightening as it got.

The other real-life dramas that now infest the schedules like plague rats have succeeded by finding a little star quality in the most unlikely of settings. The problem for Premier Passions is that the only really interesting action revolves around the manager and players, and even at a struggling side like Sunderland, they are far too familiar with the cameras to do anything but trot out the same old cliches whenever the red light comes on.

"If you don't stick the ball in the back of the net at this level," Reid informed us, "you get beat." Thanks, Peter. Yet even this might have been tolerable had it not been for a script which was so vacuous you could have used it to keep your Bovril hot. "Being in the Premiership is all about money," it seems. Well, well.

Inevitably, there were the odd moments of light relief, such as Reid's abortive attempt to sign an Israeli international striker on the cheap. He was apparently something of "a bargain at around half a million pounds", until it became clear that Reid had been browsing on the forecourt of Honest Ron's Used Player Emporium. As soon as they got him into the scanner, it transpired that the Israeli was the footballing equivalent of one of those dodgy motors which is the good ends of two write-offs welded together in the middle. All in all, it was something of a metaphor for Premier Passions itself, except that the people trying to flog this wreck had somehow managed to weld together the mangled bits.

There was a great deal more to stimulate the mind in last Sunday's Heart Of The Matter (BBC1), which studied the argument that drugs and sport are not necessarily irreconcilable. Wilf Paish, a former athletics coach whose eyes carried the gleam of the fanatic, presented a short film with the premise that since athletes will take drugs anyway, they might as well do so under medical supervision, a proposal which was then chewed over by various interested parties.

Paish pointed out that despite being almost bankrupt, athletics is spending fortunes on drug testing, but his film might have been more convincing had it not included an interview with a freakish body-builder who is allowed to train on steroids. Had they ever done him any harm? No, he said, because after all, he always made sure that he took his liver detoxifiers too.

Now, anything which requires you to detoxify any organ on a regular basis is probably not to be encouraged, but according to Paish, the "true cancer" in athletics is the money which the top performers can earn. The best of them, he reckons, are now nothing more than highly paid entertainers, and thus no different from pop stars who take drugs to enhance their performance.

The flimsiness of this argument was fairly well exposed in the course of a discussion which occasionally headed towards Pseuds' Corner - "the sportsperson's role in society is becoming increasingly absurd", one contributor said, "because we don't understand what they're there for" - but generally kept its thought processes sharp and direct. If only Premier Passions - or for that matter, Sunderland's strike force - could have managed the same.