Thursday, December 21, 2006

SPORTIN' LIFE: Goodbye James

Goalaccioooooo!!!!!! Paul Stump says a qualified addio to Football Italia

Any day now, like an unwanted guest at a Christmas party, Football Italia will sidle anonymously away into the Christmas ether even before the DJ's got going, clutching a bottle of cheap spirits, shyly and shamefacedly, never to be seen again. Bravo's axing of a show that, in its mid-90s heyday attracted nearly four million viewers to Channel 4 on Sunday afternoons (Four million. I'll repeat that for the benefit of Russell Brand) is a cause for regret. Football Italia was - lest we forget - the first as-scheduled terrestrial broadcast shown in Britain after the death of Diana, at 2pm on The Day After (Inter won against I forget whom, and shiny-barneted Uruguayan Alberto Recoba scored a left-foot, long-range screamer).

We know why Football Italia was good; we know why it had its time in the peninsular sun; we know (sort of) why it failed. James Richardson was a hitherto unseen type of presenter; Chrysalis's Neil Duncanson a fantastic producer; the theme tune was a funky firecracker; Serie A was, until c.1998, the best league in the world. Football Italia was, like the opening of the Chunnel and the sensationally successful 1994 visit of Le Tour to Britain emblematic of a progressive new Europeanism.

It couldn't last, and didn't. The stars left; standards fell; bungs and bribes crowded in; and despite Football Italia's young AB1-2 audience's pretence to cool internationalism (founded on not much more than Easyjet dirty weekends where speaking the lingo was not mucho necessario) hidebound, swing-low-sweet-chariot, anglocentric insularity did the rest.

Shameful, all of it. Richardson, an intelligent and discerning man, was the first British sportscaster to ally the argot and discourse of fanzine and music paper fandom with football coverage - tellingly his heyday was also that of Fantasy Football League. It was possible for Richardson to insert puns on the oeuvre of Elvis Costello into an otherwise urbane discussion of Italian football issues. He didn't shout; didn't overdo; he knew his limits. Obviously a professional journalist, not an ex-pro, Richardson sussed and sampled Michael Robinson's Spanish schtick in the phenomenon of El Despues del dia. JR never slew the chimera of the panellists' old pals' matiness à la Football Focus - and was somewhat let down by a less than glittering array of pundit sidekicks, despite Butch Wilkins' engagingly epiphanic wonder which made almost everything 'quite remarkable' - but at least tilted at its creaking windmill. In 1995, all male media studies students wanted to be James Richardson.

Sadly Football Italia's legacy has been to scarcely touch the tabloid mainstream of football media, and those eager students are now in jobs at broadsheets. Unfortunately they seem to be stuck in their Union Bar mode - shirt out, necking Moretti and Grolsch, discussing Super Furries albums or Bill Hicks bootlegs. One need only glance at the clodhoppingly bad attempts at 'irreverence' that form things like The Guardian's 'Clogger' column and the acres of mediocrity that passed for 'humour' during the last World Cup, which allowed redbrick standards to run riot. Richardson, Baddiel and Skinner did po-mo references to obscure 80s bands a decade back, and what's more, they did it with a bit of style and had novelty on their side. For well-turned laffs by people who quite clearly know what they are doing, read The Guardian's Jeremy Alexander or the Torygraph's Martin Johnson; the former's excellent TV sport critic Martin Kelner at least has professional experience of comedy at the sharp end beyond an expensive bar in north London, at least enough to spot a bad line at a hundred paces.

But isn't this all much of a curmudgeonly muchness? So low has the Grauniad's sport bar been lowered on the altar of user-generated content that they actually considered making a fight of their staggeringly awful 'over by over' cricket commentaries in the face of the ICC's excellent decision to sanction this tatty phenomenon in which talented sportswriters like Sean Ingle are forced to pander to the moronic bloggery of the underinformed and underoccupied, the 2:2 media studies failures for whom the laptop is the equivalent of a day-long residency as the Barmy Army's trumpeter - and yes, more references to obscure pop culture, bad gags, and approximately zero added to the sum of human knowledge about sport. Gaz from Skelmersdale (hi, Gaz!) thinks Glenn McGrath looks like a member of Ned's Atomic Dustbin. And a representative of a national newspaper (presumably also an NUJ member) indulges this drivel? Richardson, worryingly, now works as a podcaster for the Guardian, a de facto member of an outfit that endorses material of a trivial shoddiness that would never have passed muster in the Chrysalis salad days of 1993-4 when the only excuse for including nonsense was if it issued from the mouth of comically-hatted Don Howe.

To blame JR and his friends (and whither the underrated mic maestro Peter Brackley now?) for this dumbing-down that dares not speak its name is akin to blaming Lord Reith for Ant and Dec, and so let's not. Shooting the messenger is never a rational option. And, let's be fair, Richardson the messenger is simply a national broadcasting treasure - his unsung and largely unseen contribution to Eurosport's cycling coverage this summer was expectably exemplary. Imitation may be regarded as the sincerest form of flattery, but Football Italia and Richardson have, as yet to spawn even remotely worthy mimics. But that is no reason not to mourn this weekend; and no cause for a shameful exit.

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