Simon Hoggart

Compelling viewing

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Last Saturday. BBC1 was showing the most exciting women’s Wimbledon tennis final for many years and Sky Sports had what turned out to be a thrilling tied one-day cricket final between England and Australia. On BBC2 you could catch the Live8 concert. In all cases — whatever the loss in atmosphere or the excitement at being present at ‘historic’ occasions (in fact, I suspect most of them will have faded from the memory quite fast) — you got a much better view on television.

Those of us who recall fuzzy white players knocking a fuzzy grey ball over a dark grey tennis court can only marvel at the superb images from Wimbledon. The close-ups of the players mean they emerge as real characters and personalities in a way they never did before. The replays are so compelling that, when you are in the court, you are annoyed at being deprived of them.

Best of all is the expert commentary. John McEnroe is very, very good: sympathetic, ready to give criticism where it’s due, rarely overexcited yet always aware of the flow, the rhythms and the tension of a match. Dan Maskell, who commented on Wimbledon for around a thousand years, was famous for uttering the words ‘Oh, I say!’ at important moments. He was part of the old, Alan Week-style, ‘and this is absolutely marvellous!’ school of commentary, which had its own amateurish charm. It was certainly better than the overload of unnecessary and unwanted information that some commentators poured on top of you, like nutty slack down a coal hole. But it didn’t tell you an awful lot.

These days even the rain delays are worth watching. On Friday last week they filled in with a reprise of the 1980 men’s final between Borg and McEnroe, usually judged the greatest of all time, with McEnroe talking us through it. It was wonderful.

The ‘why oh why can’t we produce tennis stars?’ whinge usually lasts only two weeks. The ‘why is our cricket team so bad?’ moan takes a full summer, though, thank heavens it is muted this year. In the future one answer will be that only a minority can watch test cricket, thanks to the greed of the cricket authorities and the failure of the government to keep our national sport on a terrestrial channel, which they very easily could, though of course it might upset Rupert Murdoch, the nation’s one-man focus group.

That said, Sky’s coverage is very adequate, as you would expect with David Gower and Ian Botham among the commentators. The computer simulation of lbw decisions is particularly convincing, and you wonder how long the authorities will hold out against its use in matches —even though wonky umpiring decisions are part of the game’s attraction, like the incomprehensible names for field positions and Geoffrey Boycott’s clothing.

I didn’t catch all the Live8 coverage, partly because the sheer weight of angry piety wore me down. One of the lowlights came when Bob Geldof introduced a poised and beautiful Ethiopian woman who, he claimed, had had her life saved as a baby through the money raised by Live Aid 20 years ago. She was now a successful agriculture student. At this point the poor woman was hugged by Madonna, who then grabbed her hand and held it while performing ‘Like A Prayer’. One of the world’s richest women was enhancing her international standing by bolting herself on to a woman from one of the world’s poorest countries. Another lowlight also came from Madge when she declared, ‘So I’m going to say it again — are you fucking ready, London?’ Here the swear-word is deemed to indicate a tremendous, thunderous, desire to end world poverty before getting back to the performers’ lounge for some more of whatever they were serving there.

A high spot was Robbie Williams refusing to join in all this furious piety. He leered at the BBC interviewer Fearne Cotton, and told her she was ‘blossoming’. She tried to switch the subject to poverty in Africa. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ he said, ‘we all know why we’re here, but let’s talk about us. I’m single, you’re newly single, why don’t we get it on?’

Cut to Jonathan Ross, never fazed: ‘Make poverty history, or get Robbie laid. That’s the message from Live8 tonight...’

Of course Williams was simply trying a different way of burnishing his own image. But it did make a refreshing change.

Vorderman’s Sudoku Live (Sky One) was a fascinating example of how to make a truly disastrous television programme. Sudoku may be a great craze, but it is essentially a solitary activity which takes quite a lot of solitary time. Television requires lots of people bustling about and offers entertainment to those with the attention span of a butterfly with ADD. They had teams of people doing sudoku in the studio. How exciting is that? They had a giant sudoku puzzle at the back of the set. How were we supposed to fill it in? By writing in Tippex on the screen? Fearful that people would get bored, they brought on ‘Deborah Greeson, our glamorous, gorgeous, Coronation Street star!’ who, it turned out, had been selected because she had never done a sudoku puzzle! Next we were on the London Eye. Two weeks ago I suggested there might be a Watching Paint Dry channel. It has now arrived.

Enough. It was a valuable object lesson in how to get a lousy idea and make a lousy programme, and should be shown to media classes everywhere.