Thursday, 30 April 2009

Nicknames and snooker's identity crisis

As cricket’s ‘sexed-up’ alternative, the Indian Premier League, begins in its temporary home of South Africa, another quintessentially British sport has faced calls to reinvent itself.

Thousands of miles away from Twenty20’s pyrotechnics, the World Snooker Championships have been progressing to the calmer sounds of rustling sweet wrappers and coughing pensioners.

The Crucible’s gentle atmosphere, however, belies the tumult of the sport’s identity crisis. Those in charge at World Snooker have announced plans to trial a shorter format of the game, using six red balls instead of the conventional ten.

The decision is perhaps a reaction to Ronnie O’Sullivan’s request in January for the “entrepreneurial skills of Simon Cowell” to help inject some life into what the world number one claims to be a “dying” sport.

After all, the closest snooker has ever come to sexy is Kirk Stevens’ Saturday Night Fever-inspired white tuxedo.

O’Sullivan may have had a darts-styled introduction of a pub venue and bikini -clad women in mind but it seems that he had overlooked the unique glamour which snooker offers.

Tournament emcee Rob Walker is the man given the dubious responsibility of stirring excitement in the arena. If his cry of getting “the boys on the baize” fails to stir, however, he can turn to a rich source of nicknames.

Quarter-finalist Mark Selby has been dubbed the ‘Jester from Leicester’, a moniker which suggests a maverick cueman with a penchant for practical tricks at the table. In reality, though, Selby is a pale, wiry Midlander whose expression seldom changes from a look of deep gloom.

One of the sport’s newcomers, meanwhile, is the proud owner of a feistier pseudonym. Mark ‘The Pistol’ Allen has been referred to as a ‘street fighter’ by commentators but his contrived fist pumps make ‘Tiger’ Tim Henman’s self-motivational exercises look like the growls of an irate Romanian weightlifter.

There is one player who seems above the frolics of novelty alter-egos. According to the BBC, Ronnie O’Sullivan is a man so enigmatic that his profile pieces are required to be shot exclusively in slow-motion with the accompaniment of incongruously serious classical music.

O’Sullivan’s routine threats of retirement at the end of defeats are predictable but, without indulging in his melodramatic reflections, the BBC would have no icon on which to focus their coverage.

While snooker may have a dearth of brooding enigmas, we can be content with the plethora of wilfully naff nicknames, such as Stephen ‘The Wonder of Wiltshire’ Lee, Ali ‘Captain’ Carter and the, er, unforgettable Alan ‘Angles’ McManus.

As written for Leeds Student

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Dick seems not to know Best

It was announced in a recent governmental investigation that the FA’s ‘Fit and Proper Persons Test’ for prospective football club owners will require a tightening of regulations. After Dick Best’s appearance on Sky Sports News today, though, television producers may also need to rethink their screening procedures for pundits and contributors.

Best was speaking ahead of today's announcement of the British and Irish Lions squad for this summer's tour of South Africa. Asked why he had picked Delon Armitage ahead of Tommy Bowe in his Lions starting XV, the former England coach sniggered in the interviewer Phil Edwards’ ear, “You’ve always got to have a coloured boy in the team!”

As if the episode could become any more cringeworthy, the camera turned back to the studio, where the anchor Mike Wedderburn happened to be black. Visibly embarrassed, he uttered an uncertain “Yeeesss” before swiftly moving on to the next story.

The reaction was decisive but unconvincing. Wedderburn’s fellow presenter Millie Clode later apologised: "[Best] made remarks that he thought were off-camera. We would like to apologise for any offence this may have caused."

Sky appear to think that the real offence was having this racist remark made on camera, that a similarly offensive comment would have been acceptable away from our screens. Best’s casual racism was left to look like nothing more than a rugby club old boy’s joke. Armitage and Wedderburn might not find it quite so funny.

With such limp excuses, Ron Atkinson springs to mind. Atkinson’s commentary career came to a halt after calling Marcel Desailly a “lazy nigger”, yet instead of an earnest apology, there was only talk of the comment being meant for off-air discussion.

More recently, Carol Thatcher referred to tennis player Jo-Wilfred Tsonga as a “golliwog” while in the green room of the BBC’s The One Show, an incident which led to her being dropped from the programme. Thatcher, however, maintains that her comment should have remained private, that the remark was a “joke”.

Off-record or not, casual or malicious; racism should not be cast aside as jovial backstage chit-chat, and certainly cannot be brushed under the ever-bulging carpets of TV bosses.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Sheepish Sky sweep Shearer's past aside

There will be an eerie silence when Gary Lineker next invites ‘expert’ analysis from the Match of the Day couch. Viewers would usually ready themselves for a cliché splurge from the BBC’s preacher of the bleeding obvious, Alan Shearer, but these insights will now be confined to the walls of St James’ Park, now that the former England striker has been appointed Newcastle manager.

This appointment seems familiar. In January 2008, Kevin Keegan was heralded as Newcastle’s ‘favourite son’, ready to restore the club to its rightful place... twelfth place in the Premier League. King Kev’s tenure, however, lasted only eight months and sparked a period of disorder and drama turbulent enough to make Jacqui Smith wince.

Having gambled and failed with a fans’ choice, club owner Mike Ashley called on Joe Kinnear and Chris Hughton before buckling once again to supporter pressure. Inevitably, Shearer has already been lauded by the Toon Army faithful as the ‘messiah’ required to save them from relegation.

With the news coming too late on Tuesday evening for the majority of newspapers, it was left to Sky Sports News to expand on the hilarity at St James’ Park.

As well as its usual bombast, how the rolling news channel really entertained was by maintaining its tradition of pretending that anything happening away from their cameras does not exist.

Formula 1, the Six Nations and autumn international rugby union are a rarity – they are sports events not covered by Sky. Therefore, it seems rational to Murdoch’s minions to view these as pure fiction and, consequently, afford them no recognition.

When looking at a chronology of Shearer’s career, the presenters became noticeably quiet as they discussed his activity after retiring. Having read one disgruntled fan’s email demanding Shearer to “go back to the screens”, the anchors mumbled inaudibly before moving swiftly on to their next Sky Sports News ‘exclusive’.

An unsuspecting first-time viewer of sports broadcasting may have wandered why such sheepish behaviour surrounded the mention of a player’s relation to television. What could these people be hiding? I’d imagine a discussion between the channel’s researchers and producers sounding a little like this:

Researcher: “At least we won’t see Shearer on Match of the Day anymore.”
Producer: “What’s that?”
R: “You know, the Premier League highlights package.”
P: “You mean Football First?”
R: “No, Match of the Day – it’s on a Saturday night on the BBC.”
P: “On the what?”

In such moods, tuning into Sky Sports News is like watching a broadcasting corporation collectively stuffing its ears with its fingers and repeating like an unrepentant schoolchild, “lalalalalalala!”

Somebody, somewhere at the BBC must be delighted. Match of the Day may now even produce a soundbite containing a semblance, however small, of interest. That is, of course, if the programme even exists.