Cameron Carter struggles to see the funny side

It’s been a bit of a month for weak jokes. On September 15, John Helm interrupted his commentary on Bolton v Lokomotiv Plovdiv on Five to make a pun that is even now being investigated by forensic humorists in search of traces of comedic activity. John said: “Lokomotiv look rattled. Excuse the pun – Lokomotiv, rattled.” That was the entirety of his joke. Now we all know that his co-commentator that evening, Terry Butcher, is a brave lad who carries on playing when his head is broken, but even Terry bottled it when it came to asking for some form of explanation. Instead a wondering silence ensued until John returned to his day job.

Two days later and Football Focus’s Manish Bhasin appeared to be finding it increasingly hard to keep the fear and depression off his face on reception of weak items of banter from Mark Lawrenson. It’s not just attempted humour he’s up against. Sitting through Graeme Le Saux’s difficult concept of a “default goal”, Manish looked like a man with his foot trapped under a sleeper with the 10.42 from Didcot vibrating the runners. I’m sure, polished conversationalist and professional that he is, Manish doesn’t habitually grunt in lacklustre fashion, but this is all he had to give by the end of Graeme’s tactical lecture, not so much turning back to the autocue as falling into its arms.

The weak joke theme continues with the start of a new series on ITV1 – Mike Bassett: Manager, a spin-off comedy drama by the writers of the 2001 film Mike Bassett: England Manager. At a time when ITV are proudly celebrating 50 years of giving to the British public (ie Surprise, Surprise, Coronation Street and half the career of Bruce Forsyth), their light entertainment team is gifting its loyal viewers six episodes of rock-bottom football farce. Obviously, in the thin air breathed at the very top of television, the idea is a sure-fire winner. The elusive adult male audience will be pulled in by the promise of football (because that’s what ITV adult males like, you see – football), while the women (ITV executives don’t really like women either) will just love Ricky Tomlinson and Amanda Redman in a story about a loser with a good heart. However great this looked on paper, there is sadly no disguising the fact that the end result is just as silly as the film, forcing most of its humour through improbable circumstance and dialogue that appears to have been cut and pasted from a football joke book.

Only seconds into episode one and Bassett, returning from a chip shop and fending off his wife’s plea to remain in Spain, utters the still-born line “Careful love, you’re squashing my sausage”. In the next few minutes we learn his new club, Wirral County, are sponsored by Wirral Rubbish; the inept, tubby right-back is in the team because he’s the sponsor’s son; the centre-forward hasn’t scored for eight months (a “football choreographer” has been added to the crew to train the actor to scoop ludicrously over the bar from three yards out); Bassett has previously taken Newcastle Utd down two divisions in two years, etcetera etcetera. Realism is entirely abandoned whenever a line or set piece demands it, then reforms quickly in order to set up the next screamer. Horrifically, the press release states that, to gain greater plausibility, the script names real teams as Wirral County’s opponents. It seems a shame to go to those great lengths only to ask us to believe in episode two, for example, that an unscrupulous agent once sold Bassett a player who was in a coma, and in episode three that the goal-shy centre-forward suddenly recovers his touch, scoring a hat-trick – of own goals!!! This really is a programme for people who use exclamation marks.

Unfortunately for a comedy drama, the writers can’t do pathos (I refer you to the climax of the original film, where Mike Bassett recites Rudyard Kipling at a press conference), neither do they score well at bathos. Yet they attempt both in one fell scene in which Bassett soulfully urges his wife to follow her dreams of becoming a hairdresser before telling her to get his dinner on. And remember, when you come to watch it, this dialogue probably went through several revisions.

Wisely, with actual match action always a huge stumbling-block in football-related fiction, the producers here have opted to keep it to an absolute minimum. So, regrettably, there’s nothing to recommend the programme to the sentient football enthusiast. Except perhaps Manish Bhasin, who might use it to practise staring down impoverished repartee.

From WSC 225 November 2005. What was happening this month

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