Wimbledon 1997: Golden days brighten the grey afternoons

Wimbledon on TV
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For many broadcasting organisations the obliteration of an event for which they had paid millions of pounds by a meteorological freak would be cause for panic in the boardroom, hysteria in the production gallery and outbreaks of the vapours on the studio floor. But over many damp years the BBC has managed to turn the rainy day at Wimbledon into an art form with its own peculiar charm. While those with tickets for the tennis last week will have greeted the grey skies with dismay, many armchair fans will have been delighted.

Gone was the lottery of live action, which might serve up a five-set thriller but is more likely to provide a smash-and-grab straight sets demolition job, especially early in the Championships when the Grand Slam champions regularly gobble up smaller fry from the Satellite circuits with barely a burp. Instead the BBC can wheel out footage of the greats in their prime, and viewers can bask in happy recollection of a time when rackets were wooden and personalities weren't.

So on Thursday afternoon, while the players watched Countdown in their swanky lounge above Centre Court, the viewers at home revelled in McEnroe v Connors from 1981. Back then the SuperBrat had enough curly hair to necessitate a bandanna, and a powerful conviction that he was the victim of international conspiracy of myopic line-judges. Connors had yet to develop the wonderful crowd-manipulative skills of his twilight years, but was seen as the elder statesman who would teach the young pup to mind his manners.

To prove that he was no fuddy-duddy, Jimbo was armed with a metal-framed racket, a technological marvel of the time which to the viewer of today resembles something that might be found in a kitchen or allotment: a salad- strainer, perhaps, or a device for keeping weevils off a cabbage patch. The balls were white, and seemed to travel slowly; the play was more graceful than the attitudes.

At the end of the match we were brought back to the present, but the transition from Golden Age to grey afternoon was inevitably eased by Desmond Lynam, the masterful Master of Ceremonies.

Des was not put out that it had rained on Auntie's parade. It takes a bit more than a downpour to ruffle his demeanour. Let there be a deluge of Biblical proportions, let the winds crack their cheeks and cataracts and hurricanes spout on the Wimbledon Park Road and Des would glance out of the window, raise an eyebrow and murmur: "Nasty out."

Film buffs may recall Broadcast News, in which William Hurt played an anchor man who rose above better-informed but less laid-back rivals to front a crucial bulletin with flawless calm while chaos raged in his earpiece. Lynam could have won an Oscar in the role: could Hurt smirk and say "Barabanschikova" at the same time?

Lynam's ease was infectious. Sue Barker, who might have been expected to stiffen up a little under such challenging conditions, was at her smiley best, like the vicar's wife at a sodden but still unusually successful fete ("Indoors if wet").

Barker's party piece, in the role of Suzanne Barker, was to become a weathergirl and present a gloomy forecast from the Wimbledon studio. In an amiably amateur touch, the map of Britain was projected on to what seemed to be a green tablecloth strung up between a couple of chairs.

"Suzanne" did a fine job considering that all she could see was a tablecloth, noting a speck of summer snow in the Highlands, getting the location of Wales bang on and declaring with a fine alliterative flourish that the "spits and spots of rain will stay with us in SW19 for some time to come".

Where she came slightly unstuck was pointing out where the sunshine was, understandable given that there wasn't a lot of it about. The best of the weather, Barker said, was "where my mother lives", according to her gesture, in about 60 fathoms of water many nautical miles south-west of Land's End. But Mum, watching at home in Devon, will have been too filled with pride at her daughter's latest career move to have noticed. And Bobby Charlton will have been pleased by the geographical slip: at least his daughter won't have to give up the day job.

After that it was back to the stuff that the fans really thrill to: comedy out-takes cut together to rock music by the video-tape editors, who really have been earning their corn this week. If you come across a group of haggard individuals chanting and stomping in the technical vehicle park at Wimbledon, don't be alarmed: it will just be the boys from VT doing a Sundance.

Then it was time for Lynam to wrap up, and a 15-minute break before the rain restarted on BBC2. "It's awful, isn't it?" he sighed, wryly. But it wasn't: when it pours, Des reigns.