Cameron Carter describes how English television is coping with losing a World Cup bid

No one came out of the World Cup bid very well. BBC, ITV and Sky News presented the visit to Zürich of David Beckham, David Cameron and Prince William as if it were a modern-day nativity play: three revered men (bear with me here) travelling east on a semi-religious quest to bring England home advantage at a future World Cup. On December 1 the BBC showed the three, plus a more-than-usually irrelevant Alan Shearer, self-consciously networking at what could have been a Lutheran non-alcoholic cocktail party.

Describing England's main rivals, the BBC cut straight to pictures of Vladimir Putin apparently lecturing a roomful of nervy mid-level bureaucrats on the consolidated results for the fiscal year. Surely, the news team seemed to be saying, surely FIFA won't give the glittering prize of the World Cup to this bunch of stiffs when we have handsome golden Beckham, our well-connected prime minister and Princess Diana's boy schmoozing the halls in evening wear? And yet the boring old Russians somehow won and all we could respond with was some old FA chairman refusing to apply for his own job. Does FIFA realise how hard it is to get a member of the royal family to tell a joke? Even a weak one about getting married next year?

It turned out that we had more retaliation: on the next Match of the Day, Gary Lineker made two wounding quips about the affair. A few seconds in, he had promised us, as usual, a feast of entertaining football. "Not that promises mean much these days." Ha! Did you hear that, FIFA delegates? As if that were not enough, Gary made us all proud by twinklingly suggesting how, as a nation, "We'll try to contain our excitement over a World Cup in Russia". Yes, that's right, Russia, you may have the World Cup, but England is the home of grudgeful sarcasm and you cannot land that type of wit with an overall majority on a two-part vote.

On ESPN's Talk of the Terrace, former rugby union international Brian Moore was even more brutal. In a short discussion of the bid, initiated by Kelly Cates and Nat Coombs, Brian cut to the chase. "I'm sorry, they [FIFA] are corrupt," he said, just as if he were down the pub with his mates. Cates and Coombs are to be praised for the way they appeared to listen attentively while mentally racing through the various options of phrasing the legal disclaimer when Moore had finished.

Talk of the Terrace is an awkward show at the best of times. It wants to be raw and nice, hip and approachable at the same time. It's like a scruffy, hungover TV programme that has been brought home to meet your parents. An indie band called Young Guns played us back in after every ad break, the lead singer leaning in a precariously louche manner on his mic-stand because it was an instrumental and he didn't have a tambourine. There appears to be a belief within television that having four white boys in the corner performing a song about a shallow ex-girlfriend confers on even the most basic single-celled programme a contemporary edginess. When they played us out at the end, with the singer actually singing this time, it only meant that the scattering of men in replica shirts in the studio audience looked embarrassed, caught between nodding politely and standing entirely inert. One wonders who is the mad alchemist that brought this grouping together. Brian Moore and indie music were never meant to meet, especially in a football-based chat show.

Football Behind Bars (Sky Three) could have been just another randomly generated reality show – like Young Fishmonger of the Year or Owls in Vehicles – but it rises above this to become something emotionally intelligent. Ian Wright, in a series of casual hats, embarks on a journey in which he encounters Sociology, Philosophic Discourse and Self-Analysis. And yet he does not bat these obstacles away, he faces them and engages with them in a bid to turn his academy of young offenders away from the cycle of reoffending and towards a productive life outside of prison. And Wright is very good at talking to the prisoners.

Rather than making the mistake of listening, which is possibly not his strong point, he plays to his strengths by interrupting, telling and cajoling – and not only does he make a lot of sense, the young fellows listen to him. The combination of football and social realism has given rise to some godawful films (When Saturday Comes, Mean Machine), but here it makes a quietly inspirational TV series.

From WSC 288 February 2011

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