Sunday, January 21, 2007

SPORTIN' LIFE: Talk Is Cheap, The History of Football Commentary

Radio 4 presented a nifty little hour of radio tonight on the 80th anniversary of the first live broadcast commentary on a football match. Quirky and pleasant and replete with great archival material, particularly from the Whacko-tached Raymond Glendenning, a man so bluffly upper-class he would probably have addressed even his own great-granddaughter as 'old boy', but it lacked something. To go all Garth Crooks about this, there were more questions than answers.

First up; how does John Motson get away with not only sounding like such a prig and a pedant but also linguistically limited in a job that one might imagine requires textual facility? You just knew that he'd been given medication to prevent him from opening every single sentence with the words 'and you have to shay...'

Secondly; why do the laws of physics prevent one from climbing into the radio and giving Alan Green a punch up the bracket or a Bafta for self-righteousness in a leading role or both? (He notched up twenty-plus uses of 'I' or 'me' - then I lost count, me. Catching, isn't it?).

Thirdly; why not make this a series? This all felt slightly rushed; it attempted to tackle the existential questions of the footy-commentating art and its development of linguistic tics, style, presentation etc, but extending its remit to other sports would have been instructive. There is, of course, the motormouth gibberish of tennis on the radio; the elegant brilliance of John Arlott or Richie Benaud in cricket (plus the knockabout larks of Test Match Special), the near-impossibility of conveying boxing via the voice. Radio and TV techniques were inadequately contrasted, with one surreally pot-and-kettle Motson contribution about 'using fewer words' on telly than on radio - this issuing from someone whose production of irrelevant verbal drivel on TV is as near to a monopoly as you are likely ever to get. At least Tony Blair doesn't talk that fast.

Iconic moments, oh, there were many and glorious in number and quality - Kenneth Wolstenholme in the 1966 World Cup final the centrepiece, naturally. But there were omissions - Archie McPherson' s (possibly apocryphal) audible off-mike scream of 'yeeees! we've scored!' when Rangers took the lead in the 1973 Scottish Cup Final being among them. Summarisers' roles were given too short a shrift, from the staggeringly boring (Alan Shearer) to the useful (Mark Lawrenson). Journalistic skills were marginalised - the habit of contemporary commentators like James Drury and Clive Tyldesley to talk in obviously pre-scripted headlines, for example. And why nothing of Idwal Robling, the Welsh winner of BBC Sport's 1971 Commentator Competition? Or that peculiar growly intonation of Brian Moore (and he's rrrright in there!')?

Furthermore, foreign commentaries were placed out-of-bounds; thus excising Thomas Zimmermann's legendary freak-out when Germany scored the winning goal in the 1954 World Cup Final ("Kopfball. Abgewehrt [...] Rahn schiesst... Tor! Tor! Tor! Tor!"), a moment as central to German popular culture as Wolstenholme at Wembley a dozen years later is to the English. Latinate commentators' floridity ('goooooooooooooooollllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll') - so often used as comic relief - was not even touched on. Broadening the show's remit might have also included British examples of audible emotional involvement. Of course this may have brought in Tyldesley's almost Tristanesque transfiguration at Manchester United's burglary of the 1999 European Cup, but it may also have made room for Cliff Morgan's thrilled exhilaration at That Try, scored by Gareth Edwards for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973 - simple, but so passionately engaged in unfolding genius. ('the half-way line... David, Tom David... brilliant by Quinnell... this is Gareth Edwards... a dramatic start... what a score!'). 1974 - Harry Carpenter's ecstatic 'oh my God! and... he's won the title back at 32!' as Ali's uppercut poleaxed Foreman in Kinshasa, when such oaths were simply not done on the BBC. Then there was the very underrated Jack Karnehm's sotto voce 'good luck mate' as Cliff Thorburn hunkered down for the black to conclude the first (mainstream) televised 147... Barry Davies, the excellent former soccer commentator, could also made more of his ashen-voiced contribution to the astounding scenes at the Heysel disaster in 1985; 'there are reports that some people have died'. The same Davies, by the way, who asked 'where were the Germans... but who cares?' when Britain won an Olympic hockey gold medal in 1988, one should add, a clip that didn't surface when national bias was raised...

I could go on, but that's the job of the man at the mike.

I'm being pickier than Alan Green now. There was much to criticise but more to enjoy in this well-spent hour. No Hugh Johns, for a start. Colemanballs was at least mentioned. There was a commentary, scarily real and in scarier close-up, on the fire at Bradford City's Valley Parade in 1985, a catastrophe largely and scandalously forgotten now, presumably because it did not involve a significant number of Liverpudlians. Another joy was hearing again the musical voices of Maurice Edelston and Peter Jones (no Bryan Butler though - 'and as you join us here, loive, in the rough, tough, hurrrly burly cauldron of...'). And there was Mr Big Match, Mr Sunday, the man you always associated with the taste of mint sauce and roast lamb. Brian Moore (whose head, as Half Man Half Biscuit put it, really did look like the London Planetarium). Of course you couldn't see BM's bonce on the radio. But this engaging show at least gave you a fair idea of the art of describing the unseen and the seen in the right way when one has a microphone and a headset.

More, please. And, in football parlance, more Moore too...

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