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Your Number’s Up

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Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) may be good for the environment, but there’s nothing wrong with some old-fashioned light bulb humor:

“How many editors does it take to change a light bulb?
Two. One to change the bulb and the other to send out a rejection slip to the old bulb!”

A more topical variation would be: “How many BBC commentators does it take to cover one rugby union international?” The answer, it would appear, is roughly one reporter/pundit/presenter for every pair of England players on the pitch. At Twickenham on Sunday the BBC decided to ring the changes on that other old gag about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman. Smooth-talking front man John Inverdale was instead joined by an Englishman (Jeremy Guscott), a Welshman (Jonathan Davies) and a Scotsman (Andy Nicol).

Up in the commentary box was part-time tennis commentator Andrew Cotter, with the perpetually grumpy Brian Moore as his sidekick. Meanwhile, blonde bombshell Jill Douglas was pitch-side with the hunk of manhood that is former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio—Lorenzo Bruno Nero Dallaglio, to give him his full name.

Hugh GrantI must admit that I missed the beginning of the match, which England won 22-16, so there may have been even more experts secreted about the ground. Perhaps there was a celebrity hunter being paid to spy on Zara Phillips, the fun-loving Royal fiancée of current England captain Mike Tindall. Someone obviously had an eye on Hugh Grant, because he was lured into the commentary box at halftime for a little chat with Cotter. But in these days of universal austerity and a frozen BBC licence fee, do we really need quite so many experts to guide us through one 80-minute rugby match between “auld enemies” England and Scotland?

Sports coverage has to strike a balance between providing technical analysis for the die-hard fans and allowing casual viewers to enjoy the atmosphere—or razzmatazz—of a big event. Unfortunately, those who manage BBC Sport are so lacking in any sense of proportion that they’ve forgotten that quality and not quantity is what really matters.

Many of the great names I remember from my youthful days of watching sport have either been pensioned off or taken their mellifluous tones to that great commentary box in the sky. Only last year, rugby union lost the great Bill McLaren, whose lexicon of classic quotes merits its own blog. (“That one was a bit inebriated—just like one of my golf shots” is one to savor.) It’s been nearly 20 years since the BBC’s “voice of tennis”, Dan Maskell, sighed over an exquisite half volley or a rasping backhand down the line. These days, Boris Becker, John McEnroe and others offer us “color” with their expensive suits, risqué humor and occasional insights. Sadly, genuinely great commentators are as rare as British Grand Slam champions.

But just two days before the pundits were swarming all over Twickenham, news broke that the BBC might consider dropping its coverage of Wimbledon and Formula 1 after 2014 in a bid to save money. Apparently, the Corporation needs to achieve savings of 20 per cent over the next four years, and switching to a cheaper brand of coffee in the canteen probably wouldn’t make much of a dent.

It’s tempting to dismiss this story as scaremongering, designed to get outraged sports fans protesting in the same way that the listeners of 6 Music did when the station was threatened with closure last year. But before anyone thinks about scrapping Wimbledon coverage, perhaps he/she should take a long, hard look at the routine overstaffing that the BBC apparently views as essential.

Was I the only person gobsmacked by the sheer number of political editors, correspondents and reporters who were wheeled out during last year’s UK General Election? Yes, the uncertainty that followed Polling Day was extraordinary, but surely we could have made do with half the number of journalists speculating, hypothesizing and just needlessly filling air time.

I think most sports fans would agree that having the cameras in the right place at the right moment is more important than endlessly recycled opinions from former stars. Events on the field at Twickenham last weekend seemed almost peripheral to the need for constant interruptions and interjections from all those assembled experts. (Was Mike Tindall’s halftime substitution really tactical or was he injured?) With A.D.D. now endemic amongst TV directors, there’s always the danger that yet another ill-timed replay will cause us to miss the live action.

With just 499 days to go until the 2012 Olympics, the BBC isn’t likely to be scaling back, cutting down or making do with fewer staff any time soon. So let’s hope that the real stars—those teams of visiting athletes—are not trampled underfoot by armies of reporters in search of a mic, a camera and an audience.

Photo credit: nndb.com

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About Susannah Straughan

  • In its heyday BBC Radio Test match commentary was almost as good during the (frequent) rain delays as during live play.

    The cakes, the “Primary Club” and descriptions of the umpires and their foibles kept my mind off the black clouds and the soggy wicket.

  • Test match cricket commentary is a particularly delightful form and much fun can be had over the course of five days.

    My favourite line of commentary is from an England v West Indies match which generated the immortal line “The bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”.

  • andy

    In his prime Peter Allis was a wonderful commentator as was Jim Laker.

    It seems strange to me that when I started watching cricket the partnership of Jim Laker and Richie Benaud were going strong. Both seemed ‘old’ to me at the time.

    Sadly Jim passed away shortly after and a great cricket voice(and ex player) was lost. Richie continues to ply his trade along with the likes of the excellent Bill Lawrie in Oz to this day. They must be well in their 80’s.

  • I’m afraid Motty seems to be largely a radio man these day, though I do enjoy his contributions.

    Peter Alliss has a wonderfully soothing voice, though he’s apt to make mistakes in commentary these days. I probably should have mentioned the late, great John Arlott and Jim Laker, who made cricket coverage on BBC radio and TV such a joy in the days before technology took over.

    Fingers crossed that England make it to the next stage of the World Cup, but I’m not entirely sure they deserve it . . .

  • With so many TV channels now available (when I was a kid it was just the three), the amount of material available to fill any of them, whether the subject matter be news, sport or 23-year-old women who dress like Rosa Klebb, is stretched very thin. So there’s inevitably an awful lot of fluff no matter where you look.

    I miss the colourful commentators of old too. Motty is one of the last of the old guard. The BBC golf team was always entertaining: I still fondly remember Peter Alliss watching Jean van de Valde try to play from the middle of a stream on the 18th at Carnoustie, thereby blowing his chance to win the 1999 Open: “Oh, Jean, Jean, no! What are you doing?” or words to that effect. Classic.