State occasion becomes the office party from hell

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The Independent Online
It got him off the hook. After all the embarrassments, arguments, and threats to his position as supreme leader, all it needed was a few dozen cruise missiles on Baghdad, and he was saved from ignominy.

Yes, John Birt has a lot to thank Bill Clinton for, as his pampered love- child, BBC News 24, found some purpose, just after the waif he abandoned, BBC Sport, had finally wasted away. This cultural "cleansing" was symbolised by the vast hours of live footage of Iraqi night skies, in contrast to the rag bag of borrowed clips which propped up the BBC's 45th Sports Review of the Year on Sunday. "Show me the money!" has caught on as a catch phrase, and within a few nights last week we could see where all of ours had gone.

But while it must have been painful for the BBC sports department to display dozens of credits of other broadcasters, this was nothing to what the viewers had to suffer as the corporation tried to pretend that the programme was still a state occasion. The Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre had been booked. A red carpet was laid out. Guests signed their autographs on a sheet of glass. Bombastic music played. You were left with the sense of an imperial power that was still in denial about the loss of its former colonies.

In terms of programme content, it was a bit like turning up for a black- tie Christmas Party only to find warm Vimto and Twiglets on offer. The equivalent of being cornered by the office anorak arrived with the British four-man bobsleigh team trying to explain how they had won a bronze medal in the Winter Olympics. And the evening's naff cabaret slot, usually conducted by Mr Tompkins from accounts, was provided by an impressionist who was obliged to tell you the names of his victims, to provide much-needed clues to their identities. The Office Party from Hell was completed by inane interviews with the company's "reps" - in this case sports stars being asked blindingly obvious questions while a sound defect replayed the noise of something akin to a dishwasher in the background.

At least viewers at home could stand up and get some circulation back into their legs. The guests in the auditorium, acting as living wall-paper for the event, were obliged to sit through two-and-a-quarter hours of verbiage before the entirely predictable conclusion of Michael Owen's "Sports Personality of the Year" award. There must have been one hell of a stampede to the bogs once the show had gone off air.

In the wreckage left by Birt's betrayal of BBC Sport - and I couldn't spot him among the assembled suits - this programme, in its present format, has no chance of reaching its 50th anniversary. In best Birtian fashion, it should be become bifunctional, leaving one pre-recorded review of the year, and one small-scale awards ceremony. Even the supposed novelty of a phone-in vote only extended the arse-aching ennui of the evening. "The Nation has decided," Des Lynam announced pompously in his newly found Kipling persona. Yes, they had indeed decided, Des - to switch off, to make a cup of cocoa, and to subscribe to Sky Sports.

The other sports programmes of the week didn't exactly cover themselves in glory either. On Tuesday night, with the Graham Kelly resignation breaking, Channel 5's misleadingly titled Live and Dangerous, couldn't find the imagination or the news sense to break away from its set agenda, England's disastrous cricket tour in Australia. We were reassured by one of the presenters, however, that the programme would be "discussing the Kelly issue at length on Thursday with..." - yes, yes? - "...with Carlton Palmer".

Instead they ploughed on with Dickie Bird relentlessly plugging his already hugely successful book and the discarded spinner Phil Tufnell, blearily offering some insight into why he had been left behind. Tuffers turned up the following night too, as Channel Four's sport and chat magazine Under the Moon aired for the last time, supping what was probably not cocoa from a David Seaman mug. Those who nick-named him "The Cat" for his alleged lack of agility, must now accept that it really refers to his habit of being out all night.

Danny Kelly, the quick-witted host, took the programme's demise with a breezy disdain, while the eye-catchingly clad Lisa Rogers deserves to go on to better things. Her recent response to a Man U fan's whingeing e-mail - "What did you win last season? F**k all!"- won her one of my awards of the year.

But the prize of the week went to the ITN crew who compiled a "new hope for English cricket" report, by filming at the Lord's indoor school. A blazered official predicted that the future was in good hands before we cut to a shot of a 10-year-old in the nets. The youngster promptly played a forward defensive prod that edged the ball at a comfortable height to where first slip would have been. England expects.

Greg Wood is on holiday