News of England’s Ashes victory spread rapidly though Cortona’s ancient streets last Monday evening, as those with satellite TV rang the mobile phones of friends and families to pass on the momentous news. It was not, of course, Italians calling; Tuscans observed uncomprehendingly as the holidaying English roared at the result; and one resident Englishwoman let out a primal Home Counties scream of joy in a clothes shop, unnerving the proprietor. Only those with Channel 4 were in the know; the BBC World Service, I was told, boringly reported football results. Mysteriously, Test Match Special on Radio Four long wave doesn’t seem to be available abroad and, as we know, for the next four years Test cricket will be on an expensive Sky subscription channel only. Well done, the government and the England and Wales Cricket Board, the ECB, for handing Test cricket to a minority just as England becomes the number one team in the world. What fine minds these people have!
Normally, one is content to listen to TMS with or without Channel 4’s excellent pictures, but the Ashes series was so dramatic that it was made for television, and I must confess I watched Channel 4 more than I listened to TMS, despite the radio coverage maintaining its annual excellence. I caught some of its coverage during the Trent Bridge Test, and all its commentators and pundits were on form: Henry Blofeld with the vivid and colourful phrase — a ‘peeved Brett Lee looking like a disgruntled teapot’ after a thick edge from Geraint Jones went to the boundary; the wonderfully diverting chatter about extraneous movement outside the ground: ‘Have you seen another red bus, Bill?’ ‘Yes, it’s red in front and green at the back.’ ‘Oh, that’s a very classy bus.’ Rod Marsh, the superb Australian former Test wicketkeeper and batsman, was a pleasure to hear in the studio. Having done so much for the resurgence of English cricketers through the Academy, he was demob happy. Discussing why players leave the field during play, he made the point that drinkers never went off because they often had a hangover and were dehydrated. It was the non-drinkers, he thought, always rushing off to have a pee because ‘they were on the water’.
When Australia were down, Jonathan Agnew told Marsh that he couldn’t expect sympathy from the British after all the cricketing humiliations of the past 18 years. ‘I don’t,’ replied the robust Marsh. ‘I’m a big boy now.’ I hope Marsh will become a regular on TMS as he’s one of the better Australians, like Michael Slater and Richie Benaud. We’re told Benaud is retiring now that the brilliantly innovative Channel 4 team has lost Test cricket and he’s in his early Seventies. I hope someone brings him back for our domestic Test series because he’s been one of the great Test commentators of all time, not to mention his distinguished cricketing career. He’s wise, shrewd and impartial. I read that Michael Grade, the BBC chairman of the governors, is encouraging his new head of sport, Roger Mosey, to bring Test cricket back to the BBC when the Sky rights run out in 2010. I’ll believe it when I see it. The BBC has been so badly run in the past 15 years that I doubt it has the commitment, though Mosey is a talented and formidable operator.
Grade has also been active in another sphere, ordering an internal inquiry into remarks made by the Today presenter John Humphrys to a gathering of public-relations men on a cruise liner moored in Southampton, published by the Labour party’s house magazine the Times. While it might have been unwise for a serving BBC presenter to describe Gordon Brown as ‘quite easily the most boring political interviewee I have ever had in my whole bloody life,’ and to say, ‘All you have to say is “John Prescott” and people laugh’; that all government ministers were liars, and that Peter Mandelson was widely disliked by his fellow politicians, the fact is that everything he said was true. Whenever I hear Brown on Today, I mentally switch off; Prescott is almost illiterate; Mandelson’s honesty has been called into question and he becomes menacing when challenged; and all government ministers have been trained to dissemble. The comments were captured on a video that was passed to a former deputy of Alastair Campbell at No. 10, a ghastly creep called Tim Allan, who now runs a public-relations firm called Portland PR.
The suspicion is, of course, that this is part of a continuing vendetta by Campbell, a truly evil man, in my opinion, and his driven, obsessive, almost deranged acolytes, against Today post-Hutton that Grade should fiercely resist. I’ve had my misgivings about Humphrys’s style of interviewing, but he does at least try to penetrate the lies of politicians, even if the results are mixed. The truth is that radio and television political interviewing has been destroyed by the spinners. Were the BBC not so keen to please the government before the charter renewal next year, the corporation might not be so deferential. The other question raised by this smear campaign against Humphrys is: who in their right mind would wish to become a client of Portland when the man who runs it is prepared, at the behest of the government, to pass on confidential information to the press?