Sport on TV: Why Botham is king in the land of the bland

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The Independent Online
HERE'S a scenario for Terry Wogan's game-show Do the Right Thing, in which everyday dilemmas are solved. You are the producer of a popular BBC sports quiz. One of the programme's co-hosts retires from the game that has made him famous, and then a year later, brings out his autobiography. So, do you use the connection to get the first stab at portraying the autobiographer in a television profile? Or do you say 'sure, no problem', when the sports star asks if you can give his book a bit of a 'puff'?

I'm guessing, but something along these lines must have happened to Mike Adley, producer of A Question of Sport, in order for him to come up with last Wednesday's Botham (BBC1), a breakneck, unfocused sprint through the life and closing-times of Britain's most rumbustious cricketer, which, by the end, had added little to the general perception of the man as someone for whom you would quite like to buy a pint, while knowing that it might well end up poured over your head.

The programme's blandness of tone was fatally betrayed, from the outset, by the choice of a terrible AOR sound-track of the sort that usually accompanies, well, the 'Mystery Guest' montages in A Question of Sport. I've always seen Botham as more Chas'n'Dave than David Bowie, anyway.

But the real clincher was the heavily-trailed use of those family home movies of Botham as a boy. The pre-publicity in my region (a few miles from Botham's county, Somerset) had seemed to suggest we might see previously withheld footage of young Botham uprooting trees, overturning cars, or winning a yard-of-cider competition at the age of seven. But no, the enfant sauvage was shown playing with his sisters on a beach, splashing around in a paddling pool and cutting the grass. These may have been supernaturally normal, but they told you that family permission was being exerted over the programme's content.

The rest was the usual stirring cricket highlights already available on BBC videos, and a string of endorsements and anecdotes from people with whom Botham had made various levels of contact - smug teachers, one of whom blithely saw Botham's success as a 'triumph for the secondary modern system'; old school-mates; junior groundstaff colleagues at a feudal Lord's; fellow professional cricketers. None of these was particularly illuminating, while in the pictures, the hero continued to transmute from gangling youth to peroxide bruiser without pyschological explanation. At least Bob Willis's comment that, 'if he hadn't married early, I think Ian would have ended up in jail', sounded like dead-pan humour with an unwitting grain of truth.

Botham's tabloid adventures were touched upon, but the allegations of romps in the West Indies were shrugged off by Botham in the phrase 'nothing was ever proven', an interesting legal distinction from saying 'they weren't true'. No matter, wondering about Botham's private life is, and always has been, a B-movie diversion. What you wanted to hear more about were his deep friendship with John Arlott, a man of poetry and novels, and his courageous refusal to take the South African shilling out of loyalty to black friends. Perhaps Jeremy Isaacs should interview Botham on Face to Face? This programme was more Face to Arse.

The fight against racism was explored elsewhere, however, as All Black (BBC2, Wednesday) looked at the paradox whereby England's football leagues are packed with highly-skilled, much-celebrated black players, while the stands and terraces remain bastions of exclusion to black supporters. The presenter was actor Paul McKenzie, who once played a racially-abused player in an episode of The Manageress which I wrote six years ago. Things are better in reality than they were in the fiction, with the contribution of black players now fully appreciated, but it was depressing to see how few of them turned up for the launch of the campaign to kick racism out of the grounds. Not quite as depressing however, as hearing a (white) Manchester City director citing the idea of national service as the cure to all society's ills.

Action on the pitch dominated the rest of the week, with multimillion pound Blackburn joining multi-million pound Rangers of Glasgow in the European dustbin. Motty was reduced to orgasmic moans during the last helter-skelter moments at Trelleborgs (BBC1). Better this, though, than Ray Wilkins, on Champions' League Highlights (ITV), stumbling into the word 'drowned' during his analysis of a Gothenburg v Barcelona game which should not have been played after the Estonia disaster.

Europe finally got to Alan Parry, too, in Thursday's enthralling Aston Villa victory over Internazionale (ITV). After frothing over in his disparagement of Inter's striker Ruben Sosa for diving, he abandoned all impartiality and screamed 'You beauty]' as Phil King buried the conclusive penalty. Botham, you felt, would have joined in.

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