The BBC Light Entertainment department has long been the televisual equivalent of your dad dancing at a wedding: Tired and out of touch but confident it still has its finger on the pulse. One of the biggest mistakes it has made in recent years is the stock it has put in retired sports stars. Evidently executives have been smugly congratulating themselves for some time for transforming the nervous, stuttering Gary Lineker into something like the urbane eyebrow-raising enigma that fronts much of their post-Des Lynam football output. But one success story does not make a station. For every Lineker, the Beeb have thrust a dozen Garth Crookses upon us: Hopeless, characterless embarrassments who have been saved a lifetime of landlording at their locals by a kindly corporation shovelling bucketsful of licence-payers’ money into their already bulging bank accounts.
There is no doubt that successful sport broadcasting is dependent on eloquent and expert punditry, but that does not give the BBC the right to turn Ian Wright into a game-show host – nor is it in any way an excuse for Sue Barker.
I will grudgingly give her Wimbledon – at least it is her area of “expertise” (although she was no Virginia Wade). But just because she once played tennis doesn’t qualify her to talk about it. More pertinently, it does not necessarily follow that, just because she was something of a fox back in the day, she will proceed serenely into graceful middle age. She may have once rivalled Chrissie Evert in the frilly knickers stakes, but there are clearly an army of be-cardiganed BBC Executives, salivating at the slightest hint of crepey orange-peel cleavage, who think she can still cut it today.
Professionally, through the sheer monotony of being plonked in front of the cameras, she has lurched from being an utter disaster area to merely inept and annoying – a patronising, ill-informed embarrassment who doesn’t bother with trifling details like analysis or probing interviews and instead concentrates on grinning inanely, flapping around wildly in an attempt to locate the correct camera, and generally toadying up to whoever has the misfortune of sharing her sofa.
What perplexes me is that her star keeps inexplicably ascending. She is almost head honcho now, fronting everything from athletics to gymnastics; the boat race to the Holy Grail – Grandstand. Des Lynam must be spinning in his ITV1 UEFA Champions League grave. Perhaps it is because the contenders for her crown are all considerably more able but have less pizzazz. It’s difficult to see the gnarled, flat-capped betting shop natives getting in a lather over Claire Balding, while Hazel Irvine, with her penchant for leg warmers and ear-muffs, more resembles a chipmunk than a high-class piece of presenting skirt. Yet Barker endures. Much as it sickens me to say it, ITV have stolen a march on the Beeb in the female sports presenter stakes – at least Gabby Logan has the good sense to do her research (and she looks a great deal better in an Angora sweater).
But Barker needs to watch out: She may be seen as a sex bomb now, but she is five years and a serious vodka habit away from Judy Finnigan. I for one am waiting for the monumental menopausal breakdown live on TV brought on by the combined blows of an early Tim Henman exit from Wimbledon and Oddbins selling out of Smirnoff.
And the flirting! My GOD! During Wimbledon fortnight she gets so carried away with her male pundits that she resembles a voracious, tipsy aunt at a family barbeque. John Lloyd and Pat Cash find themselves having to edge nervously along the sofa to avoid the relentless, desperate knee touching. I actually think her bosses have cottoned on to this, which is why they make sure the men are usually safely locked in the commentary box while she is ensconced in the studio avoiding hungry glares from Pam Shriver.
I understand the Beeb’s policy on ex-sports stars for sports output, but, even so, I’m pretty certain I could do a better job. I would quite easily be able to elicit more insightful analysis from, say, Colin Jackson, for the simple reason that I don’t want to jump his idle bones. I imagine simple, well-structured questions would probably put him more at ease than a sexual assault from a lustful Donatella Versace-a-like in a cream trouser suit. But, alack, I never wiggled my pretty tush all the way to a French Open victory in 1976, so if I wanted a job presenting athletics, tennis or any other sport on the BBC, I guess I would be shit out of luck.
Anyway, I’m not so worried about her banal wittering on the sporting outside broadcast circuit – there are plenty of other similarly mindless numbskull athletes who have swapped the noble field of endeavour for a microphone, a TV camera and the glazed, rabbit-in-the-headlights gaze of a presenter way out of her depth.
But it’s Question of Sport that I cannot forgive her for. Like most long-running BBC programmes, it has gone from basic, inspired, nay, pioneering telly to the kind of PC claptrap that is ruining sport, music and just about everything else for a whole generation of viewers. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’d feel mightily short-changed and not a little insulted as a young sports fan if I tuned in every week to watch my idols of the terraces and was instead forced to endure half an hour of cringe-worthy bowing and scraping by a pitiful middle-aged lady making fuck-me eyes at Frankie Dettori.
Surely it used to be better than this! Surely it wasn’t always so lightweight, so asinine, so devoid of soul? When did we give in to the smarmy, dumbed-down bells and whistles and the lazy recruitment of charmless nobodies like Matt Dawson? I remember the Golden Age of David Coleman, Bill Beaumont and Emyln Hughes – Wooden sets, comfy Pringle jumpers and serious, well researched questions that any self-respecting sports anorak took pride in knowing the answers to.
Sure there was japery – Hughes was ever the jester, exchanging saucy scouse banter with Princess Anne; Beaumont was laidback but more than capable of the odd sardonic wisecrack; and Coleman presided over matters with a school-masterly authority. If a Hughes gag was off the mark, he gave it short shrift, but he was also prone to a delightful fit of giggles if anybody tickled a rib.
No more. Now what we have is a self-congratulatory smug-fest fronted by a tittering, simpering imbecile - a gushing stooge whose idea of pant-wetting humour is an Ally McCoist double entendre.
And the questions are so easy:
Barker: Now, Michael Owen – Home or away?
Owen: Home please, Sue.
Barker: Right. Who was Liverpool’s leading goal scorer last season?
Owen (embarrassed): Erm… I was.
Barker (manically): That is correct! It was you!
Huge round of applause from studio audience
MacCoist: Most of them tap-ins, eh? Eh? (punches Owen playfully on the shoulder)
Owen (nervously, rubbing shoulder): Er… Yeah.
Barker (shouting): Ha Ha Ha!!! Oh Ally, stop! You really are awful!
MacCoist: Still I can’t really talk – I once scored a spectacular long range pile-driver…(beat)…from the edge of the six-yard box!
Barker (doubled over, tears rolling down face, gusset sodden, orange make-up running, writhing around in her chair, cleavage heaving, aroused to point of explosion): Oooh! You are SO naughty! One day, I tell you, one day you’ll kill me!
Entire viewing public (praying): If only.
Barker: A menace to the sanity of sports fans everywhere
Classic Question of Sport: Note the way the captains appear happy and at ease. This is largely because David Coleman is unlikely to be groping desperately at their genitalia under the desk