Symbolism, stereotypes and Scottish bluff

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The Independent Online
ITV'S "World in Union" theme now has some snazzy African-style drums rumbling through it and, as a result, sounds as if it's being sung under a railway arch. But the message is the same: rugby as a symbol of intercontinental harmony. So welcome, then, to Rugby World Cup 1995, in which the nations of the globe gather as one and, forgetting all division, racial or philosophical, stick their knees in each other's faces. The ruck starts here.

ITV is the only terrestrial channel to have emerged from the franchise scrum with tickets and the early evidence is that this is not an exclusive they intend to squander. You could fill a goal-end at Twickenham with the number of ITV presenters at present dotted round South Africa. There's Mark and Mary in the studio in Johannesburg alongside "our own" Gordon Brown; there's Nigel up the road with the Irish side; there's Jim in Durban with the English, Gareth in Bloemfontein with the Welsh, Ken in Pretoria with the Scottish . . . and all of the team captains appear to be available for consultation, 24 hours a day, on-camera at their hotels at the flick of a switch. The shut-down of the highlights programme on Thursday night was like a satellite version of the closing scene from The Waltons. ("Goodnight, Will Carling." "Goodnight, Gavin Hastings.")

Even Trevor McDonald from ITN was out there for the first day, bringing authority and seriousness of purpose to the proceedings. And a good job, too. Trevor caught the opening ceremony, which wasn't for the faint-hearted. It featured massed tribal dancing, many people committing symbolism in colourful jodhpurs and a serious outbreak of miners' helmets in bright plastic. It was as if an expensive outdoor production of Oklahoma! had been overrun by a Village People convention. Trevor also got to talk about the aftermath of the home country's victory in the opening game against Australia. "Cape Town is ablaze tonight," he said. It's not that long since Trevor had to say those kinds of things about Cape Town and mean them literally.

The political significance of the tournament's setting has not escaped our presenters. Alastair Hignell, the daytime compere, has been referring to "symbols of the new South Africa" on the one hand, and to "reminders of the apartheid past" on the other. Going into the tournament's second day, it was, by my count, Symbols 4 Reminders 1, though almost certainly the balance will shift in direct calibration with the fortunes of our home nations as the World Cup unfolds. In other words, for as long as our plucky boys keep the flame alive we can expect the screen to throng with images of peace and new-found reconciliation. But in the event of England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales receiving a merciless pounding from, say, Tonga, I predict a dramatic upswing in visual and verbal reminders that the host nation was not all that long ago a very lousy country indeed.

In these early days, tourism has been high on the ITV agenda; and when it has, screaming has been high on the viewers'. On Friday afternoon we followed the Irish team to a large and poverty-stricken bazaar, apparently to bear out Hignell's waggish claim: "You know, the Irish can enjoy themselves anywhere." The players wandered about, wincing at the products on a medicine stall and encouraging an open-air barber to shave most of their hair off. Then, unable to see why, if everyone else was being stereotyped, they shouldn't stereotype themselves, the players sang "The Wild Rover" in a nearby bar to a riotous clinking of beer glasses. "See ya, curly," said one of the team on the way out, ruffling the hair of a small local boy. It was a queasy moment, rivalled only by that in which members of the Ivory Coast side were filmed tossing coconuts to each other.

The Ivory Coast players were displaying, presumably, what "our own" Gordon Brown had described loftily as "their natural flair and athleticism", not to mention "their great air of excitement". "Our own" Gordon, who wears a kilt and jackets of a greenness infrequently seen outside the panto season, is clearly being positioned as ITV's personality pundit. I suspect it won't take much of him before many people conceive the desire to heave their sets through their front windows. But you've got to say one thing for "our own" Gordon; he predicted the night before the game that Scotland would take 80 points off the Ivory Coast. At a going rate of a point a minute, this sounded like absurd Scots bravado yet, in the event, his assessment erred nine points on the side of modesty.

But 89-0 must be fairly hard to swallow. Sadly, there was no immediate post-game interview with the Ivory Coast manager, so we never got to hear him attempt to put a brave face on it. ("Well, the Scottish got that lucky bounce early on and naturally the lads' heads went down a little," and so on.) Don't expect Britain's representatives to get off so lightly.

Exactly like Ajax, Alan Parry left it deep into Wednesday's European Cup Final (Champions League, ITV) before slotting home a winner. "That's a priceless goal worth millions of pounds," he shouted. Pricelessness rarely comes any cheaper. Buy now while stocks last.

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