Tuesday, January 23, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE; SKI SUNDAY


SKI SUNDAY
BBC2, 21.1.07

This may be one of the saddest confessions you have ever heard (no, really) but Ski Sunday changed my life. Despite the turbocharged rantings of Ron Pickering, it inculcated a love of snow and of the Alps that now borders on the unhinged. In 1989 I did it, Interrailing to Switzerland, and since then I now consider any Alp-free year a wasted one. The sight of the cyclopean wall of the triple-whammy 14,000-foot peaks of Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch that dominates the Lauberhorn downhill course at Wengen can - I am not making this up - reduce me to tears. Mention the names 'Zurbriggen' or 'Stenmark' and I can babble on all night. This programme has led to a great increase in my understanding of German culture, Mahler, Goethe etc, although there have been snags - there may have been one or two too many airings of the Scorpions' 'Wind of Change' in smoky gaststätte than is strictly healthy.

Which is why the demise of Ski Sunday is so depressing. 'Demise' is apt - the BBC claim that the programme is safe in its hands, but on current evidence this is a dubious claim. Shoehorned into 25 minutes as part of Grandstand, Ski Sunday embodies just about everything that is bad about sports broadcasting, and does it without really seeming that bothered, like an excitable DJ at a rainy rave who just wants his money and to piss off.

Geography dictates that the British don't do skiing, not at home anyway; Britain's tallest mountain is roughly a quarter of Mont Blanc, the highest Alpine peak. Archetypal plucky Brit Konrad Bartelski in the 1980s became a synonym for calamitous crashes. The pills did for Alain Baxter. The absurd Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards and the even more absurd acclaim awarded him in 1988 just about finished skiing as a serious televised sport in the UK. Chemmy Alcott, the British ladies' No.1, isn't really in the world's top ten - but is not only quite good, she is also exceptionally pretty, articulate and full of vim; when the producers won't go with a charmer like Alcott, your sport's in TV trouble.

The BBC's ludicrous answer is to 'sex up' Ski Sunday with lots of ESPN-style 'extreme' snowboard-cross, the sort of loud indie music that was fashionable a decade ago and lots of camera trickery (ditto).

That the result is about as sexy as a pee-stained pair of surgical stockings is instructive as to how the corporation really feel about the whole Ski Sunday brand. Matt Chilton, one of the amorphous Motsonesque generation of young Beeb commentators that talks exclusively in headlines, is bad enough; Graham Bell, former British ski trier (I won't say 'racer' as any Googling of his results will prove), is engaging as co-frontman; his mate Ed Leigh, is just brashly and boy-racerishly annoying and I suspect employed for that very reason. At least once upon a time you could turn this show on and lingeringly imagine its host Hazel Irvine slowly disrobing in a Kandersteg sauna. Or, before her, exactly when the great David Vine was going to big-up a racer who would then, on cue, hurtle into some pine trees at 90mph.

Skiing is, per se, not a particularly telegenic sport; it has less tension and cumulative human drama than soccer, rugby or tennis. The issues are simple- who will go fastest? Will anyone break their neck and/or die? The saving grace is the scenery, particularly at Val Gardena and Wengen, and in the case of ski-jumping, the breathtaking aesthetic beauty of the endeavour - by the way, Eurosport viewers really should check out ski-flying, basically doubling the length of the jump so that lycraed-up loonies can travel half the length of one of the smaller British counties over what is basically an ice-covered cliff.

By comparison, snowboarding isn't that gripping; the half-pipe twirly stunts are as formalised as dressage and are as disappointingly dull as Keith Emerson doing his old organ stunts; the snowboard cross (four in a line) resembles speedway insofar as the first one to the first bend always wins; the only amusement comes from the possibility that one of these born show-offs (tellingly not a trait of top-class skiers) will go arse over tit while being that bit too clever, as Lindsey Jacobellis of the USA (who'd have guessed?) did in last year's Olympics, falling and losing a gold medal about four millimetres from the finish-line because she got too smart-ass.

That doesn't stop Ski Sunday from yelling at you a lot; on Sunday Val d'Isère, one of the very tackiest resorts in Europe was given a serious puff because of its nightlife. Any enthusiast of winter sports knows how French over-development has ruined the Grandes Alpes, but this was never mentioned. Graham and Ed were too busy shouting; the sport of paragliding with skis, which does not even seem to have a commonly-agreed name around the world (I couldn't remember its name after five minutes) was given quite astonishingly indulgent coverage.

But this is now the ailing show's remit; please please try and grab the kids, while remaining unaware that of them either can't afford to go to the mountains or simply don't care. Do not cater at all to the vast majority of those interested in skiing, who are usually skilled, or experienced, or monied, or all three - the core of Ski Sunday's old faithful - or those who just adore the scenery. No item lasts more than a few minutes. Of archive footage, always a winner with sports viewers, there is none; why not Klammer at the Innsbruck Olympics? Why no Girardelli, no Tomba, no Killy?

A week back there was, admittedly, a fine and superbly-filmed 150 seconds or so on Ski Sunday about the WAB, the Wengernalp-Bahn, the lovely little electric narrow-gauge train that follows the Lauberhorn course - but that it stood out so plainly against not-very-well-done appeals to Generation Xers to get on the piste made it seem all the sadder as to how far this show had fallen. Not a word was given, for example, as to how one might train to paraglide with skis and even if there is a grassroots for the sport at all. ly That would have gotten in the way of more shouting and guitars. This is the most telling sign of a sports show that doesn't really care anymore.

One senses this sad state of affaits may be to do with the galloping media Europhobia in the UK, where, the Med or other property-friendly places apart, the Continent, and German-speaking lands in particular are seen as outlandish and comical except by those who can afford their costliest watering holes (Gstaad, St Moritx, Zermatt). Who really wants to know about a bunch of Mitteleurop nutcases? The fatuous celebrity of Edwards was a case in point. As Alcott has rightly implied, he was the worst thing to happen to winter sports in the UK, effectively proving, to Middle England, that ski sports were just silly and/or exclusive. America, with its vain and showoffy resorts like Aspen and Beaver Creek (plus the fact that everyone speaks English and there are celebs around) might be the natural home for Ski Sunday nouveau, but here the major races are run in late autumn, when no UK broadcaster wants to even touch on the idea of snow.

Of course global warming might well render all this irrelevant anyway. But as the nation that invented competitive skiing - or at least formalised it - and as suckers for kitschy scenery, and who take more and more skiing holidays every year, skiing deserves better from the telly than this husk of what was once a cult show. It's time that Ski Sunday got its soul back. And it can start by getting rid of that deplorable bloody remix of the theme tune. God - it's a crime against music. It's... it's like having a dump on the Hahnenkamm.

1 comment:

Murray Hudson said...

Paul,
Excellent piece on Ski Sunday, though a little unfair on Alain Baxter who lost his medal through an inhaler not pills. As a former BBC sport producer I think you hit the nail on the head about the BBC's attitude to skiing. The demise funnily enough came when the BBC lost the rights to Formula 1. The same staff would work on the motor racing and move to skiing during the winter months. It kept expertise and knowledge going from year to year. Once that was gone any understanding of the subtle points of ski racing were lost. Another important point is that the fate of skiing at the BBC is dependent on whether the network controller skis. The BBC radio Five Live show ' Off Piste' was supported by Jenny Abramski, herself a skier. When she moved onto bigger and better she was replaced by the former BBC radio Football producer Bob Shenan who never skied. The show was quickly replaced by another shouty football phone-in despite having the Mary Nightingale as presenter. Mary as we know was soon snapped up by ITN to front their news programme. Unfortunately, the next generation of British ski race fans will probably never exist. A great shame and a loss to all.