Cameron Carter traces the social history of Britain through 25 years of friendly faces presenting football programmes on TV
In 1986 presenters and pundits sat stiffly, in wife-selected jackets, behind desks, because the desk is the key western symbol of wisdom. In 2011 we have lounging gigglers like Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson who do not even wear neckties, or the man-child Jamie Redknapp who is allowed to wear expensive fashion-clothes and constantly interrupt his elders in a career-long attempt to prove his right to be heard. The desk has gone.
Anything even faintly resembling a table is now made of glass and is present at ankle height for feng shui purposes only. Glamorous world football ambassadors such as Clarence Seedorf, Leonardo and David Ginola are scattered around the studio as a finishing touch. Retired centre-backs are using irony to our seated faces. Have we moved with the times? Or were we pushed?
Before the Premier League, all this was fields. The Wiltshire accent is underused in TV and, indeed, film noir, but in the 1980s Mick Channon was on ITV’s A-list. Used chiefly as a playmaker for heated debates, he had the ability to whip up an exasperated plea for reason, not from carefully negotiated logical progression so much as from sheer strength of accent. The passion Channon could generate from scratch was considered good TV, especially when following England through the 1986 World Cup.
His inability to pronounce key players’ names – even Gary Lineker’s for the first week of the tournament – rather than being a drawback, only served to make him sound just exactly like a bloke down the pub. Remember that Mick was operating largely during the Cold War and the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 reignited fears of the nuclear threat. What the island nation of Britain needed at this time was strength of opinion, not lily-livered accuracy.
Football on TV in the mid-1980s was simple and to the point. A couple of live Cup matches a year, Match of the Day on the BBC on Saturday night and The Big Match on ITV after Sunday dinner. Brian Moore was ITV’s version of Frank Bough (obviously before Bough began dressing as a geisha girl at all-night parties): solid, reliable and relaxed in front of the camera without stooping to mateyness.
Brian never gesticulated – in fact he sat as if he had been handcuffed to his chair by people he secretly admired – and he never, ever leant on anything. But 1987-88 was the last season for The Big Match and it was at this time that bidding for the television rights of football meant that the easy certainties of Saturday night and Sunday afternoon were unravelled.
Brian always sat behind a desk. In a way, when his desk was taken away, so was ours. “Black Monday” on Wall Street lost 22 per cent of the total stock market value, Charles and Diana separated. Condoms were being advertised on TV, for the love of God. The desk had been swept away and
everything we knew was wrong. The desk would not be back.
For turbulent times you need a calm, wavy-haired man at the tiller. Elton Welsby was this man. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union begun to crumble. Neither was it safe in Britain. The Poll Tax riot of 1990 showed that, where a Chinese student on his way home from the shops could stop a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square, British students could just as equally run away from police horses in Trafalgar Square in their own quest for justice.
The country needed a diversion – live League football for the first time – and a safe, soft pair of hands. Elton had a face so meaningless it could disincentivise a charging bull at 50 paces and the temperament of a Victorian governess. Introduced each week by an ill-advised marriage of meandering electric guitar and tinkly piano, on easy days he would be found in his box with Terry Venables or Trevor Francis – or maybe with Denis Law, switching, with old-world courtesy, the direction of his comments vigorously between Elton and the camera.
On more challenging days Welsby found himself struggling to form a two-way dialogue with a tired and emotional Brian Clough. Throughout this complex period, Elton quietly paved the way, without fully appreciating his own role, for the forthcoming family-friendly, metrosexual pub-food audience that the game would be throwing itself at in the modern era. Elton may not have been many things, including a credible figurehead for English and European football, but he was live and he was exclusive.
The Premier League and Sky landed in 1992 and, to cater to the big pub screen audience, Andy Gray introduced the new cinematic surround-sound football voice. Gray made his event utterances sound as if he were, simultaneously, digging a shallow grave while shouting above the noise of a weir. It was an annoying voice for anyone who perhaps had an ear more attuned to birdsong at dusk or the music of Thomas Tallis, but it did get the message across that everything covered by Sky was vital and important. There was no point slipping away into the next room because Andy’s voice would follow you there to let you know, even against your will, that someone was a very lucky boy to stay on the pitch after that tackle.
Gray’s slow-motion replay demolitions of real-time refereeing decisions mirrored the burgeoning surveillance society of the mid-1990s and led almost directly probably to the current YouTube culture whereby you walk into a dung pit in Mogadishu on Friday evening and a group of Movement Studies students in Teddington are laughing at the pictures three hours later.
Here was the BBC’s response to Andy Gray and shouting in general. Garth had sociologically grasped that, following Italia 90, the middle-class was watching and they were not in the market for boyish banter and football in-jokes.
Although he would occasionally refer to Mark Bright as “Brighty”, Garth was clearly a serious thinker who believed that one had to break through this small talk of away form and wing-backs to reach a more profound level of meaning, beyond unprovable beliefs. He has thus far been thwarted in his efforts to attain an Incontrovertible Truth in the presence of Ray Stubbs, simply through never having enough camera time.
Gabby Logan & Barry Venison
In the brave new world of New Labour, On The Ball returned to ITV at lunchtime with a shockingly female presenter. Young, glamorous and perfectly manicured, Barry Venison seemed to be co-hosting mainly to make Gabby look, in comparison, a real old boots-and-braces blowhard.
No one watching football preview shows in 1986 could have predicted that this is what Saint & Greavsie would look like at the end of the century. Perhaps it was some form of compensation for not getting the sky-cars and telekinesis helmets we had been promised by science fiction for so many years. At the same time that use of the internet was growing exponentially, Barry’s repeated use of the disclaimer – “It’s just one man’s opinion” – chimed perfectly with the burgeoning culture of blogs and message boards, hosted largely by those with either diminished responsibility or an unquenchable thirst for making subjective and unprocessed thought available to everyone.
Just as 21st century celebrities routinely write a couple of volumes of autobiography before the age of 25 and promising young footballers are plucked from nursery schools to be nurtured in a club’s youth system, so current and very-recently-retired players are now selected above their more experienced counterparts for the analysts’ sofa. Matt Holland is perfectly neat and tidy and seems to know a bit about the game, but his face, prior to being asked for information, is that of a time-travelling medieval peasant who is having the concept of courtesy sugar explained to him.
This is unsettling for the viewing population who, when Matt first appeared, were looking for authority and certainty in the years following the death of HRH The Queen Mother and Gareth Gates being pipped for Pop Idol. Matt’s appearances are rarer these days. This is the competitive nature of the punditry world. There is always someone younger, with a shinier tie, around the next corner. “Get me a young Matt Holland,” goes up the producer’s cry, “or if they haven’t got any of those, get me a very young Gavin Peacock or a couple of Graeme Murtys, or a Danny Murphy if it’s getting late.”
From WSC 291 May 2011