THE Football League Show, which continues to resemble a panicky undergraduate essay thrown together during an all-nighter, ran a feature on Stockport County manager Paul Simpson and his family on Saturday.
It was an engaging watch, as Simpson revealed how one of his first tasks on taking over at Stockport was to get down to the training ground with his wife Jacqui and clean the place up. We also learned that their eldest son Joe is a qualified referee, while younger son Jake is on the playing staff at County, and looks a bit like his dad.
There was just one thing about the item that really got my goat. Someone had decided it would be a good idea, all the way through the piece, to play the theme music from The Simpsons. Because, you see, that’s their name. (And Simpson’s wife has a blue beehive. Not really.)
At first, I wondered if the item’s producer was being incredibly literal. This is not impossible. I once saw a local TV news programme that decided to accompany a light-hearted piece about Monday morning blues with I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats. And when a local radio station launched its own dating service a few years ago, the advert was backed by Where Is The Love? by the Black Eyed Peas.
But I figured that the producers of the Football League Show are a bit smarter than that. So the only other reason for using such an odd piece of music was that they were being humorously irreverent.
There’s an episode of The Royle Family in which Jim, welded to his armchair as ever, delivers the following eternal truth: “That Chris Evans is everywhere. He’s like shit in a field.” Humorous irreverence in TV football coverage is a bit like that.
Now just as a bit of dung can be good for a field, so a bit of humorous irreverence can liven up televised football. (For instance, I’ve long held the view that, if Sir Alex Ferguson won’t speak to the BBC, then Match of the Day should recreate his post-match interviews by transcribing whatever he says to MUTV and then getting an actor with a sock puppet to read it out. But does anyone listen? No.)
But a field can have too much dung, and it is nice to see a bit of grass. Too often, on TV, on radio and in print, humorous irreverence becomes a substitute for analysis and critical thought.
It happened during the World Cup, when Hansen and Shearer spent the entire build-up to the BBC’s coverage of Algeria v Slovenia by boasting about how little they knew of either team, while ITV wasted valuable moments between ad breaks before the England-USA game with a feature on Adrian Chiles going through his pre-match routine, an item so dull that even Christine Bleakley would have struggled to raise a smile at it.
Nowhere is this humorous irreverence more in evidence than on Match of the Day 2 under the stewardship of Chiles’ replacement, Colin Murray. MOTD2 has always been irreverent, allowing comedian Kevin Day to produce features so lacking in substance that the poor presenter almost always has to introduce them with a variation on the catch-all phrase “Kevin Day spent an afternoon at [insert name of ground]”.
At times this season, though, the programme has veered towards irrelevance – as if someone in the production office fears that the football itself is not enough of a draw, so there must be crazy madcap ideas galore before the viewer gets bored and buggers off to spend an hour on Facebook.
So two weeks ago, we had Murray inviting Phil Brown to draw the show’s running order out of a paper bag. Never mind showing the best game first. Let’s turn the whole thing into a game show.
And while we’re at it, make it interactive. Last night, the show ended with clips of various viewers who had submitted their own version of the Match of the Day theme at Murray’s request. I’m sure the bearded guy in the baseball cap who did a human beatbox version was thrilled to get his face on TV. The rest of us have already got Britain’s Got Talent if we want to watch that sort of stuff, thank you.
With Chiles departing to host the big games on ITV, where he looks about as comfortable as a comedian on Newsnight, Murray is the new poster boy for humorous irreverence. This is thanks partly to his role as presenter of the increasingly annoying Fighting Talk on Radio Five Live, in which print hacks with limited broadcasting skills join semi-articulate former sports stars and struggling comedians for an hour of gabbling inanely over each other.
I very rarely get through an episode of Fighting Talk without feeling an urge to scream at the radio. A few weeks ago, the panel consisted of the cumulative wit of Martin ‘Mad Dog’ Allen, Des ‘thundering opinions, subtlety not included’ Kelly, Martin ‘recycled whimsy about Sky’s darts coverage’ Kelner and John ‘even less knowledgable than Henry’s Cat’ Rawling. Fearing that I might drown in humorous irreverence and crash my car, I had to switch off after 12 minutes.
Last Saturday’s show was slightly better. But it’s a sign of how Fighting Talk is struggling that, despite the presence of two national newspaper journalists and a comedian, the wittiest person on the panel was Gail Emms.
(Question: In the light of tabloid allegations about his private life, Wayne Rooney may go to live with Sir Alex Ferguson. Which sports personality would you least like to live with? Emms: OJ Simpson.)
In the course of an hour, I learned nothing, laughed little, but was force-fed enough humorous irreverence to clog my arteries.
You could blame Fantasy Football League for this – a lot of people working in television now were growing up when Baddiel and Skinner were at their height. But at the beginning, at least, there was affection in the way they took the mickey out of the game.
(That was before Baddiel and Skinner began to view their guests as stooges and the show lost its way. To that point, there’s a remarkable passage in Skinner’s autobiography in which he expresses genuine surprise that Johnny Rotten, when a guest on the show, refuses to just sit there and be his straight man.)
If you want to go back even further, you could even blame Saint and Greavsie – a show which now bafflingly gets held up as a hark back to an age when football was more fun. Fun? Fun?! Do you know who was the special guest for their final Christmas special in 1991? I’ll tell you. Stan bleeding Boardman. In 1991! When Vic Reeves was the king of comedy! When Danny Baker was hosting 6-0-6! Stan bleeding Boardman.
I’ll stop halfway in between, though, and blame They Think It’s All Over, the BBC sports quiz show that featured Nick Hancock reading variations on the same gags every week for 10 sodding years, and introduced Gary Lineker to the world of light entertainment.
It was a show that taught us no joke is too old for Rory McGrath to repeat, and that when sport meets television, there must always, ALWAYS be a punchline.
Lineker is an articulate man with great football insight. One of the best moments of the BBC’s World Cup coverage came courtesy of Lineker following John Terry’s public call for a crisis meeting with Fabio Capello over England’s tactics.
John Motson, at the tournament as a pundit, asked Lineker if it was true that England’s senior players had asked for a similar meeting with Bobby Robson at Italia 90. As one of those senior players, Lineker was able to reveal that they hadn’t demanded Robson change the approach – rather that he had gone to the players and suggested it to them.
I actually felt as if I’d learned something. Which is more than I feel whenever Lineker rounds off yet another edition of Match of the Day with the sort of pun that Richard Whiteley would have rejected as too corny.
Still, it’s all just a laugh really, isn’t it? Have another Duff beer.