Cheap joke

Taylor Parkes explains why watching the centrepiece of ITV's primetime World Cup programming was not an enjoyable experience

The separation of football and the intellect isn’t always a wholly bad thing, but too many people make a career of it. Put that thought to the guilty men – including almost everyone who works in television – and the chances are they’ll scoff. “It’s only a laugh – that’s what footy’s all about, isn’t it?” Well… no, that’s not what “footy” is all about, not exclusively.

It’s a bit of a stretch to link the media’s increasingly blockheaded treatment of football to the blockheadedness of the England football team – plenty of better explanations for that. But it’s all part of the same thing, really: a thickening culture of bullish arrogance, absolute pride in not thinking. This idea that it’s all a bloody laugh. It’s eating away at everything now, and it’s only getting worse. Not so long ago, a World Cup meant a few old matches or half-decent documentaries dropped into the TV schedules somewhere. All that’s left now, it seems, are endless clip shows like The World Cup’s Most Shocking Moments, in which creepily boyish Richard Bacon and comedy natural Peter Crouch present those overfamiliar clips (now about as “shocking” as Del Boy falling through the bar), complete with sneery, know-nothing comment from preening young comedians.

Colin Murray, the BBC’s new golden boy, turned the nightly highlights show into another backslapping gagfest, largely dispensing with match analysis in favour of feeble home-brew humour: footballers, we learnt, have amusing haircuts and sometimes dive unconvincingly. Lee Dixon laughed, at least. The never-more-visible James Corden, like Murray and his backroom team of would-be comedy legends, suffers from that curious hubris which convinces every media oddjob they’re some kind of polymath. Corden may be a passable actor, but he’s not a naturally funny man nor a very likeable personality, and even he must be sick of the sight of himself. Yet ITV, having paid £6 million for his services, devised a show for Corden to front with his quick wit and personal charm and broadcast the results at prime time for the duration of the tournament. And with sapping inevitability, James Corden’s World Cup Live was truly, truly horrible, a cack-handed cross between Soccer AM’s infantilism and TFI Friday’s Class A shoutiness.

Abbey Clancy was hired to do what Abbey Clancy does; the backroom boys worked out some skits about how Uruguay’s players had long hair and looked like girls; a polo-shirted audience whooped with well-marshalled efficiency. “Lovely stuff!” barked Corden, banging his cards on the desk. Somewhere in Britain, another library closed. Ex-footballers with nothing better to do squeezed onto the sofa with sort-of celebs like Denise van Outen and Pixie Lott, the kind of people no one really cares about, without whom no TV show is commissioned (“Have you been watching the World Cup, Pixie?” probed our fearless host. “Well, I saw the England game,” giggled the vacant Lott).

In the aftermath of England v Algeria, Adrian Chiles trailed the show with a rather hopeful link: “If anyone can cheer you up after that performance, it’s James Corden.” I stuck around but somehow wasn’t cheered – instead I felt my immune system trying to reject my brain. Almost inevitably, Russell Brand appeared. He said things like “jizz” and “ballbag”, and everybody whooped again. Baffling to me, but then I’m not part of the football demographic. I know this because I have no urge to drink oddly-coloured alcopops after watching a man barge in for a shit while his wife is in the bath.

Amid the gormless triumphalism that followed England’s win over Slovenia, someone called Jack Whitehall (an instantly loathsome fluff-bearded whelp with a voice so hatefully smug and plummy he may have been a Class War plant) cracked a joke about how Germans are Nazis which would have offended Spitfire Ale’s admen. We got a real celebrity at last, Shakira joining JC and his ego in a grotesque salsa dance-off, the only humorous element of which was the fact that Corden is overweight, and thus looked “funny” shaking his booty next to a lithe professional dancer. While the man’s entitled (some would say forced) to pick up laughs in any way he can, this relentless belly-flaunting which is Corden’s main comedic thrust throws a curious light on his recent spat with poor old Patrick Stewart, who earned himself a volley of abuse for a lame crack about Corden’s size at an awards ceremony . “Christ almighty,” Stewart must have thought. “Hattie Jacques was never like this.”

However obnoxiously ambitious he may be, there’s something of the puppy dog about James Corden: no idea of his own limitations, never sensing when people are sick of him, responding to admonishment with hurt incredulity. You almost feel for him – underneath the insecure bluster, he may even be a nice guy. But no one’s forcing him to carry on like this, loudmouthed and bovine, everyone’s mate, greeting the half-witted cracks of his guests with false, desperate laughter. No one’s forcing him to breathe all over everything; to become, as he has, as ubiquitous as sadness. And what he has to realise now, as he weeps over England’s exit, is that he’s part of the problem. Sure, it’s only a laugh – but this overbearing oafishness bolsters the culture which has England stinking out one tournament after another, bullishly arrogant, proud of not thinking. Corden would probably scoff at the thought, but I guess you have a different perspective when you’re making a career of it.

From WSC 282 August 2010