Sport on TV: Why it's just a question of knitwear

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The Independent Online
LET'S face it, many of those who would never miss A Question of Sport (BBC 1, Tuesday) are tuning in neither for the questions, nor the sport, but for the pullovers. No other quiz game in television history has mounted such a sustained and detailed tribute to the art of quality knitwear. Imagine fast-forwarding through a video of the programme's all-time greatest moments: it would be like flicking through two decades' worth of Woman's Weeklys.

So there was nationwide disappointment this week when the lights went up on the new series to reveal David Coleman in a simple, inoffensive pale blue V-neck. If Coleman can't do better than this later in the run, then we might as well go back to black and white sets.

It was left to the guests to maintain standards, and particularly warm gratitude in this respect must be extended to Newcastle United's Peter Beardsley for daring to wear a shirt which looked like an accident in an infants' painting class. Before he is invited back though, he should be instructed that shirts don't really count, unless worn in tandem with some outrageous combination of wool and man-made fibres.

A Question of Sport started in 1970. It is television's longest running quiz - 'a firm favourite' as the continuity announcer put it, though mild dissenters can sometimes be heard. We're now solidly in the Bill Beaumont/Ian Botham era, but some purists continue to lament the absence from the captain's seat of Emlyn Hughes. Famously expressive, Hughes played the game as if the points were somehow index-linked to his salary. By contrast, Beaumont and Botham, both of them large and ponderous, are alleged by their critics to bring to the contest all the zest and animation of a pair of grazing buffalo.

It's true that Beaumont wears almost permanently the pained expression of a man who has just sat in something wet. And Botham slobs about on his elbows a lot and mumbles about how useless he is. But actually, this need not be a disadvantage. Most television quiz games are conducted in an atmosphere modulating between high-pitched tension and turbulent hysteria. A Question of Sport may be better for your health.

This week's guests all played blinders, particularly the snooker player John Parrott. You've got to hand it to anyone who could look at what was, to all intents and purposes, a picture of a tree and confidently spot Seve Ballesteros between the branches. Parrott should have had points deducted, though, for flattering a member of the opposing team. 'Class player,' he said, referring to Beardsley. 'Should definitely still be in the England team.'

This kind of exchange is facilitated by what seems to be a more flexible, conversational approach from Coleman. Every now and again, he held up the game for a natter, quizzing, for example, Mike Atherton, England's cricket captain, on the forthcoming tour of the West Indies. 'Looking forward to it?' he asked. In times gone by, this would have been a drab and obvious question. These days, following the near collapse of English cricket, it takes on the character of a gritty journalistic enquiry. All credit to Atherton for managing to hold something resembling a smile while saying that, actually, yes he was.

Weepy with nostalgia, we watched the old certainties come out again. There was the Home and Away round ('Definitely have to go away please, David') and the Picture Board ('I'll try four, David'). There was the Mystery Guest round, in which celebrities put on a disguise - normally involving a boiler-suit and a fork-lift truck - and pose for obscure facial close-ups. (Easy points here, so long as you're intimate enough with sports stars to identify them by their ear-hair.)

And best of all, there was What Happened Next. The old stop-the-action game remains a moving testament to the boundless unpredictability of sport. Unfortunately, it runs up against the slightly more circumscribed confines of Bill Beaumont's imagination. We saw a golfer beside a pond. The image froze. 'He falls in,' offered Bill. Somehow you suspect Beaumont's agent won't be putting him up for guest appearances on Whose Line is it Anyway?

It would be easy for the makers of A Question of Sport to assume that we were all 'playing the game at home'. But this may be to misunderstand the mentality of televised sports viewers, many of whom are at home precisely because of their aversion to playing the game.

Personally, this week I managed to score a less than convincing 1.5, idly picking off a cinch Mike Gatting question and awarding myself the half after identifying Mel Gibson during the Picture Board round. (The correct answer was Geoff Marsh the Australian cricketer, but it seems only fair that there should be compensatory points for lookalikes.) Maybe I could have tried a bit harder, thought a bit longer. But frankly I couldn't be bothered. After all, the best thing about A Question of Sport is that it offers the same pleasures as actual televised sport - the chance to enjoy the skilled exertion of others without lifting a finger yourself.