Essays: Wood Lane's wonder boys |
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Wood Lane's wonder boys

WITH more than half of the 170 scheduled hours of television coverage already delivered safely into your living-room, there can’t be much doubt that the star personality of these Games — the single soul in whom elegance and endurance are fused by the flame of the Olympic spirit — is Britain’s gallant little Frank Bough.

There’s been controversy about this man. It’s been questioned whether one commentator, however gifted, should be asked to talk for the full 26 hours, 385 minutes every day of the Games. Rumours of anabolic steroids and jaw-strengthening injections have threatened to cast a shadow over the achievement of this astonishing boy from Wood Lane who did his training on ‘Grandstand.’ But as day follows day Bough’s stature grows. By now he’s within an ace of overcoming that worrying upset caused by changing his speech-pattern between telecine cues, and as he finishes each evening in a flurry of collapsing elocution many people are beginning to say that Frank Bough — the boy from Television Centre who puts the emphasis on his prepositions and breaks into a shout when you LEAST expect it — could push BBC commentating back up there among the medals where it belongs.

Despite, however, the never-failing entertainment value of his deathless hunger for a British victory, Bough is by no means the most accomplished footler in the BBC squad: indeed, whole minutes go by when he unfascinatingly sticks to a recognisable version of the English language, and it’s only in moments of sudden stress that we start hearing about Mark Spitz going for his fourth goal meddler the Games here in Munich. Also there in Munich, and often to be found riding shot-gun for Bough in the presentation studio, is plucky David Vine — the boy who learned is enunciation from Eddie Waring on ‘It’s A Knockout’ and crewed for Michael Aspel on all those beaudy commatitions that laid the foundations for Mike’s career as an encyclopedia salesman. David, it turns out, can’t pronounce Shane Gould. He put in an entire day of commatition calling her Shane Gold, and after a long, weary night presumably spent having his urine analysed and tiny lights shone in his eyes he racked himself up to maximum effort and succeeded in calling her Shane Gld.

For the full effect of ill-timed patriotism, lack of content and slovenly execution which marks BBC sports commentating at its finest, we need to quit headquarters and go out on location — preferably to the swimming pool, where the same voices, which at winter sports take hours to tell you hardly anything about what’s going on in the snow, take days to tell you absolutely nothing about what’s going on in the water. Diversion here is on several levels. First, and most obvious, is the punishment handed out to the English language — which on the BBC has survived, and even profited from, all kinds of regional and colonial accents, but can’t be expected to go on flourishing under the tidal assault of sheer somnolence. After these Lympic Games we should be asked to hear no more of Spitz’s long, easy stryle, the brack stroke, or Gunnar Larsen of Sweding.

But your paradigm no-no commentary can’t be made up of fluffs alone (although if it could, Walker and Weeks would be the lads to do it). It needs flannel in lengthy widths, and it’s here that Harry and Alan come through like a whole warehouse full of pyjamas. ‘Every move of his,’ raves the voice over the action replay of Spitz knocking off yet another record he already holds, ‘is concentrated into just moving through that water.’ In sharp contrast to the losers, whose every move is concentrated into shearing sheep or assembling plastic model aeroplanes. The best camera at the pool was the overhead longitudinal one lensed and angled to speed the action instead of slowing it — the usual stodgy effect of a long lens was eliminated, and swimming has never looked more fluent. But this camera couldn’t get into action without Harry and Alan chiming in with something like ‘now you can see it, power personified with this boy as he comes back down this course.’ Incipient lyricism was blasted in the bud.

Heights of lunacy were scaled when a British hope called Brinkley set off on the first lap of a butterfly event. ‘And there’s Brinkley, quite content to let Mark Spitz set the pace.’ What was actually happening, of course, was that Brinkley, like all the other competitors, was already contenting himself as best he could with being totally destroyed, but thanks to our dynamic duo of commentators it was Brinkley who looked the fool. They just didn’t seem to realise how asinine it was to suggest that Brinkley would have done better at the end of the race if Spitz hadn’t forced him to go so fast in the first half.

The brute fact so far has been that the swimming commentaries have added nothing to the pictures except file-card tidbits about little Lodja Gdnsk of Poland being born in Pfft and just missing out on a medal at the pan-European dry-pool Games at Flart. But the voices-over on the swimming are a Principia Mathematica of condensed argument compared to the vocal gas enshrouding the visuals from the diving pool. For years now, home-grown commentary on diving has lacked expertise the way Troy lacked electricity, and I’m afraid the gag’s wearing thin. ‘Here she comes, into the back position,’ says our irrepressible voice as the diver walks to the end of the board and turns around, ‘and look at those toes working at the end of the board: and there she goes, round into the twist and round and down and ... in.’ It’s television for the blind: you get a flaring mental image of all these characters sitting there with dark glasses and white sticks, nodding with gratitude while the evocative powers of Weeks and Walker (‘above all, to make you see,’ as Joseph Conrad put it when he was still with ‘Panorama’) lend substance to that pale blue window pulsing vestigially in the eternal gloom.

The matey tone of BBC sports commentating has always been infected by the desperate energy of the aspiring patrician. The new-style blokery (David Vine springs lithely to mind) is not the people’s choice, but the aspiring patrician’s idea of what the people’s choice should be. Thus does the old-fashioned ever seize on newer ways of being out of date and preserve its patronising attitude in perpetuity.

It needs to be said, good and loud, that the BBC’s blockbuster coverage of the Munich Olympics has been a pain in the ear. The directors face daunting technical problems in selecting from the lavish camerawork the Germans have laid on: to assess their accomplishments accurately you’d need to know all the other choices that were open, so apart from noting a tendency to switch away from a Russian gymnast and hurry off to watch a British canoe caught upside down in what appears to be a rotary washing-machine (‘I don’t want to be a pessimist’ said our commentator, ‘but I think British hopes of a medal are fading’) I prefer to leave that part of the job uncriticised. But the accompanying talk has rarely reached adequacy.

This doesn’t matter so much when it’s only a question of Gould or Spitz swimming fast, although a knowledgeable voice telling us what’s actually involved in swimming fast (by which I don’t mean a load of banana-oil about going through that water or coming back down this course) would certainly be a help. But it matters like the devil when we get to the gymnastics, which at Munich have caught the world’s imagination like nothing else. The problem of how a nation which can persecute a genius like Solzhenitsyn can produce an untrammelled enchantress like Olga Korbut isn’t easily solved, but while we’re working on it, it would be nice if the BBC could get on with the business of telling us what really gives, instead of paraphrasing what’s there before our eyes.

When the stadium full of brutal hand-clappers stopped the show after Korbut lost the medal on the uneven bars, it seemed to me that the judges had a point: she’s as lovely as Tourischeva and Burda and as brilliantly supple as Lazakovitch, but it’s my guess that her dazzling ideas don’t yet link up into a convincing continuity. It would have been nice to be told this, or told the contrary.

The Observer, 3rd September, 1972

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]