Sport on TV : Under the Moon, over the tolerance threshold

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The Independent Online
HOW best to characterise Under The Moon, Channel 4's new late- night sports Chatathon? The thumbnail description is important, for very few people reading this column will have sat through the thing in its entirety. It was 200 miles of rough road, it was a season ticket to Brighton and Hove Albion, it was in the finest tradition of old-style British heavyweight boxers. In short: it was bad, and there was a lot of it.

In charge - if that is not overplaying their role - were Danny Kelly, a bright journalist who unfortunately looks like Christopher Biggins's sports-geek little brother, and Tim Clark, a bald and smarmy comedian who couldn't be fonder of himself if he was a cat with a cream-flavoured bottom.

Kelly's broadcasting style is based on barely restrained panic, which does not make for relaxing viewing in the context of a two-and-a-half- hour live show. Clark is more laid-back, in a smug kind of this-stuff- is-beneath-me sort of way, and no doubt frequent pulls at a bottle of beer helped to keep him calm.

The show is essentially a phone-in, a concept that in television terms makes very good radio. The trouble with television phone-ins is that you have nothing to look at while the caller is talking except the presenters, and when the presenters look like Kelly and Clark that is a serious problem.

Another drawback - and this matters on the radio as well - is that, by definition, the only callers you attract will be those who are fond of the sound of their own voices. "No knuckle-draggers and no time-wasters," Kelly optimistically requested at the top of the show at midnight. Clark chimed in with "Be smart, be good and be funny." Dream on, chaps. The first caller was from Tyne & Wear, and he was - you would never have guessed it - "devastated" by Kevin Keegan's decision to spend more time with his family.

And so it went on. Newcastle fans were upset; Middlesbrough fans were quite chuffed; Scottish football fans couldn't see what all the fuss was about. David Howells of Spurs, a guest, had nothing of any interest to contribute; Jo Brand, another guest, pointed out that Keegan may have been forced to leave early by Newcastle's plans for a Stock Exchange listing. To her great credit, she later admitted that she had got the idea from a Channel 4 news bulletin earlier in the evening.

Brand was the one glimmer of light in the fog of commonplace observation and uninformed comment. She talked sense and dealt tolerantly with the sexist messages that Clark insisted on passing her. But even such a consummate pro could not disguise the occasional expression of boredom or bafflement: at one point she was asked a question and discovered fiddling absently with her shoelaces. Cricket, Jo? "No, I'm not a cricket fan. I don't watch it."

But she was probably a lot more clued up about the game than James from Luton. "Michael Atherton yeah?" he opined. "Hasn't got leadership qualities." Spotting the chance of an intriguing debate, Clark asked: "Who has got leadership qualities?" There was silence from Luton. "I dunno," James muttered at last. "I don't know enough about - leadership qualities in cricket." Poor James. No one had told him that asking a question on the air might involve him in answering one himself.

On and on they droned. A Middlesbrough fan declared, re Newcastle, that "They've spent a lot of money and won nowt, so Keegan had to go," which is surely tempting fate for Bryan Robson's exotic foreign assemblage. In similar vein, a bloke called Tom Binns came on to review some sports videos, and declared Unseen Fantasy Football "a pile of pants". By the same definition, Under The Moon is an underwear mountain.

As the audience - the deluded bozos who were phoning in, and the odd flu-ridden burglar - dozed off, Clark brought the phone-in section to a characteristically confused conclusion. "So that is a problem," he wittered. "We're, ah, I think that's going to be our last caller as well, erm, 'cos it's coming up to 2.30, and it's got that time, that part of the show, haven't we? We've loved it..." Kelly stepped in with a rhetorical flourish. "Hasn't it been great?" The unseen audience snored their response. "Well, we've enjoyed it, and we hope you all have too."

Actually, the best way to enjoy Under The Moon is under the blankets, with the television sound turned right down - better yet, with the set switched off.

The Greatest Show on Earth (BBC1) was infinitely more compelling. A look back at the Atlanta Olympics, it was - bomb footage apart - an enjoyable exercise in schadenfreude, as Billy Payne and his fellow organisers coped with geographically challenged bus drivers, crashing computers, forgetful competitors, a shortage of sticky rice and a stadium full of grass that was the wrong colour. The moral of the great adventure: the grass is always greener when it's painted that way.