“On the ball”

ITV have launched a football preview programme with an old name and no new ideas, as Andrew Pitchford reports

I know it’s early days, but can there ever have been a football preview programme as stultifyingly tedious as the all-new On the Ball, ITV’s networked reanimation of the old Brian Moore classic? Since the demise of the Saint and Greavsie double act, the commercial stations have been toying with the idea of introducing another competitor into the pre-match routine on a Saturday lunchtime and, after years of pondering, researching and focus grouping (or maybe after one lunchtime meeting and several fat cigars), they have finally come up with a package which boasts as its unique selling points the very blonde Gabby Yorath and the occasionally blond Barry Venison.

Beyond their mutual understanding of split ends and hot brushes, this gruesome couple share no rapport or understanding, and yet the programme has little else to offer. The producers, you see, have spurned the very thing that makes a decent football programme, lots of football. This is a shame as action footage is the very thing that the ITV networks have in abundance, as the increasingly popular Football Extra ably demonstrates. But no, On the Ball consists of footage of the glorious exploits of our national sides or of Premiership clubs in Europe, footage we will already have seen unless we are for some reason unaware of the existence of Sky or other terrestrial channels. The opportunity to show us something new, to offer something slightly different, has been wasted.

Instead, the producers offer us a mixture of dated action and “how did you feel” interviews, spiced only by the use of an array of bizarre camera angles, which show Gabby and Barry from the side, through the window and up their respective trouser legs. As part of an experiment this season, I have tried my best to replicate this approach in order to determine its effect on the quality of Second Division football. I have tried a variety of different angles (head normal/head tilted at 45 degrees); different lenses and filters (glasses on/glasses off); different strobe effects (hand waving madly at different speeds in front of face); and even the fast close-up effect (legging it down the gangway while a corner was in progress) – and none of it made any difference to the quality of the entertainment on offer whatsoever. Quite why the producers of On the Ball think it will make a difference to the Gabby and Barry disaster is beyond me.

The only other significant feature of the “show” is the weekly appearance of a current professional footballer, but judging by the frightened looks on their faces these people could just as easily be refugees from an alternative Mr Benn outlet, where the shop-keeper suggests they try on a Versace top or an outfit from Ciro Citterio, and where the dressing room door leads not to some ultimately friendly medieval landscape but to a plastic studio from hell overlooking the Thames.

They are then subjected to a series of autocued questions, to which only a cliched response is possible, a ritual exposed to its wooden core by the moment in the first show when Barry was half way through asking Rio Ferdinand if he really was the new Bobby Moore (honest) when Gabby, who had been twitching and waving madly in an attempt to catch his attention, finally tapped Venison on the shoulder with the style guru in mid sentence. Resisting the temptation to tumble under the challenge, Bazza turned to face the camera and realized that he’d gone way over time and that the programme was ending. Of course, in any other circumstances Barry could have nagged and hassled the referee into adding an extra minute or two, but this is television, and the advertiser’s clock waits for no man. Nor woman, as it happens, so Gabby was left to pick up the pieces and speed-read the final goodbyes with the credits already rolling.

Sadly, however, they were back the next week, and the producers seem to think that the format will grow on us. I’m convinced that this is unlikely, and that Gabby and Barry will soon be consigned to the dustbin of television experiments, but I can’t help feeling that their ITV employers won’t heed the message, and that they will just assume either that the football bubble has finally burst, or that they simply can’t compete with Ray Stubbs. Yet again, the opportunity for a decent alternative to the BBC’s Premiership coverage has been missed by the other major terrestrial player. When all they ever had to do was ask us what we wanted…

From WSC 141 November 1998. What was happening this month