National coverage falls through too many desk jockeys

Does the BBC’s coverage of the Grand National meeting demonstrate how it has lost its way when no longer televising major sports regularly? We review the past month’s television coverage of the climax of the National Hunt season

When, last week, Kevin Spacey declaimed the BBC for ill-using licence fee-payers’ money to promote West End musicals at the expense of other stage drama, he could have also turned his fire on the corporation for running a promotional video for the betting industry, such was the free exposure that Ladbrokes, Paddy Power et al enjoyed during its coverage of the three-day Grand National meeting.

Aintree saw the BBC, through its outsourced production company Sunset and Vine, make excessive use of a three-line whip to assemble a motley cast of presenters and pundits in the build-up to the world’s greatest steeplechase. It is an uncontested truth about such great sports events that the innate drama of the action itself is The Thing, and in this the BBC did not put a foot wrong over the big fences on Saturday. But what preceded it over the previous couple of days was too often worthy of a selling plate at Brighton than a great sports spectacle.

Coming on the heels of Channel 4’s exemplary coverage of the Cheltenham Festival, comparisons with the BBC’s broadcasts were odious.

Herein lies a lesson for the BBC in the way it handles sports coverage when it no longer covers them regularly.

Back in the days of Peter O’Sullevan, when everything was handled in-house by BBC Sport, and racing from top tracks including Newbury, Cheltenham and Haydock Park was a regular, staple element of each Saturday’s Grandstand and in midweek, it did so with a sureness of touch and confidence in its own authority.

Now, though, the BBC’s racing days are few and far between. At Aintree, it showed.

C4 has cornered the market, both in coverage and in “the talent”. In John Francome it possesses probably the best former-sportsman-turned-pundit on British TV, in Derek Thompson and Alistair Down two respected, unflappable and articulate front men, while in John McCririck it has one of Britain’s most recognisable characters, one who transcends sport, the Old Harrovian’s chauvinism part of a well-practised act (something which may have escaped the high-ups at C4 who have cut his contracted days, reportedly because of his blatant misogyny).

No one in racing takes McCririck and his clownish antics too seriously – after all, as Denman’s owner, Harry Findlay pointed out, he is a failed bookmaker, so his insight on betting might need to be taken with a fistful of salt. But what McCririck does for C4 is to offer those casual viewers of racing something to relate to and enjoy, even if they don’t quite understand it all. The viewers are not patronised.

What does the BBC do? Well, after hiring “Statto”, Angus Loughrain, to be its man on the rails, it has discovered the hard way that Loughrain lacks, shall we say, some of the charisma of McCririck. Statto’s own bankruptcy case over apparent betting debts saw him AWOL in Aintree.

So for Aintree, the BBC drafted in that professional Scouser, John Parrott. Along with the dropping of all references to the time-honoured use of the word “bar” to describe those long-priced outsiders not mentioned in the betting summary, apparently Parrott’s role in the piece was to de-mystify the jargon of betting. Pity, then, that most of the audience would have needed subtitles to understand what he was saying.

Worse was to come. There was a moment on Friday afternoon, when the producers had drafted so many jockeys into the commentary booth (was it three? Or four? More?), all speaking with barely distinguishable brogues, that it was impossible to determine whether the viewer was benefiting from the calm insight of champion jock Tony McCoy or some other under-nourished Irishman.

It is in this situation that a firm hand of a polished broadcaster is needed to compere the discussion. The BBC had Richard Pitman. The BBC ought to have known for 35 years (since it, rightly, shows the clip of the epic Crisp-Red Rum finish every year), but the tongue-tied Pitman really should never be left out in front on his own for too long.

And throughout, the degree of deference was appalling. At a pre-production meeting for another sports programme at Broadcasting Centre some years ago, one newcomer posed the question of whether “interviewees were supposed to be given the kiss-ass treatment, or full tongues?” When Rishie Persaud questioned National-winning jockey Timmy Murphy post-race without mentioning his alcoholism, it was definitely the latter.

Because of the over-population of the pundits’ desk, the BBC’s racing team’s stars were actually under-used: Claire Balding, thankfully without the encumbrance of the irritating Willie Carson, surely could have handled much more of the linking workload, while for the big race, with an extra commentator recruited, main man Jim McGrath was handing over his lip mike before the runners had even reached the first fence.

For all that, the BBC may have unearthed a genuine rival to Francome in Richard Dunwoody, who has something to say for himself, is not afraid to say it, and is articulate enough to communicate it. If he can be persuaded not to go on more long, icy polar treks, he could be a genuine boon to sports broadcasting.

Yet for all the seven-day feast of national hunt coverage on terrestrial television in the past fortnight, the highlight actually came on satellite channel Racing UK during Cheltenham week. They used the understated but exceptionally insightful Eddie Fremantle, the Observer’s tipster, to link between the races and highlight the important paragraphs in the form book, and they sent off Lydia Hislop to get one of the most remarkable televised sports interviews to be broadcast in recent times.

Apparently sitting in millionaire punter Harry Findlay’s conservatory, with whippets across her lap and a glass of chilled white wine in hand, she prompted Denman’s owner to hold forth on a vast range of subjects.

This film lacked the slick production tricks often used but which usually fail to disguise the facile vacuousness of so much televised sports coverage. Instead, it let its subject speak.

The interview lasted nearly an hour, was thoroughly fascinating, and included one tip which appears to have been overlooked elsewhere: Findlay’s determination, even before his horse’s Gold Cup-winning feat, that Denman will run in the Grand National, possibly as soon as 2009.

Let’s hope if he does, the BBC covers the event with fewer voices and much more substance.

Post your views on the relative merits of television’s racing coverage in the Comment box below

Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form