Pitch side in Warsaw, and a middle-aged man fixes the camera with gimlet-thin eyes and an air of truculent self-assuredness, heavy perspiration bringing a gleam to his newly shorn bonce under the stadium lights as he pours forth his wisdom. “Those guys will be in the dressing room right now” begins the BBC’s roving pundit for Euro 2012, Alan Shearer, having conspicuously failed to notice that the “guys” in question had been warming up behind him for a good five minutes. With this, it was clear that the tournament was upon us – the first piece of memorably idiotic punditry being the traditional curtain raiser for such affairs. Not on a par with Paul Gascoigne welcoming viewers to Japan/Korea 2002 with the bon mot “I’ve never even heard of Sennyagal”, perhaps, it nevertheless heralded the start of three weeks of bluster, hyperbole and one-eyed jingoism that constitutes the black cloud of punditry which lingers over international tournaments.
Shearer sweating in the pitchside fug is, it seems, a sight we shall grow accustomed to in the coming weeks, with he and the embryonic Jake Humphrey scuttling between patches of turf to loiter diligently as the Beeb’s token men on the ground. It’s a curious double act, Shearer reciting the names of unfamiliar players with the glee of a toddler learning a new word whilst Humphrey gazes deferentially as if in the presence of a balding deity. Never the most charismatic screen presence, poor Al looks even less comfortable here – staring anxiously into the screen like a man who’s spotted a ghost hovering above the camera as Humphrey gasbags to his right.
That the presence of Shearer and Humphrey pitchside has been the Corporation’s sole on-screen presence at the tournament thus far makes the selection of the pair even less explicable. Perhaps they were the only two willing to fly economy, given the collective forelock-tugging towards the in-no-way-compromised Coalition’s complaints about cost effectiveness at the Beeb. Indeed, so showily understated has the coverage been that is has become ostentatious in its own right. The straight-off-the-shelf CGI opening credits, the truncated timeslot, the twinge of bitterness in Lineker’s voice as he acknowledges the BBC punditry team has been anchored in Salford Quays; even disregarding the mirroring of England’s downgrading expectations it’s hard not to feel that there’s an element of political point-making going on here. These are the BBC’s very own Austerity Games, and they’re keen to let it be known. If things don’t improve, they’ll be running a telethon alongside the coverage by the quarter-finals. “Alan, Clarence and Lee haven’t eaten for three days. Stranded in Salford, they’re three miles from the nearest supply of clean water. Please do give generously.”
It’s not just in relation to the studio location that These Straightened Times have dominated the mood of the BBC’s early coverage. Abetted somewhat by the fact that the opening fixture involved Greece, the tone was set from the off as the pundits ramped up the narrative agenda. “It’d be great if the Greeks could do well, because they’re a nation on their knees”, Hansen droned – rubbing salt in the wounds of a nation so down at heel even a Scotsman can patronise them about football. The charitable concern continued, “They haven’t had much to shout about with all the economic problems engulfing their country” – the inference presumably being that everything here is tickety-boo. At least from a Greek point of view the cultural touch-point of fiscal collapse is a step up from “they invented gayness”, so baby steps.
Alongside financial doom-mongering, the other narrative strand likely to define the tournament is that of race. Hansen’s oblique reference to “a lot of controversy” introduced the issue within a minute of the Beeb’s coverage commencing, prompting the assembled throng to furiously fudge their way around the matter like resignedly bemused elderly relatives tutting about “That Racism” that the young folk are getting worked up about. Jonathan Pearce was quick to take up the baton on day two, helpfully informing viewers that “I’ve heard no racism yet” in a tone that immediately reinforced the perception that racism was exactly what we should expect from these dastardly Eastern Europeans. This is meat and drink to the likes of Pearce, a man whose view of football seems entirely defined by the peripheral narratives that swirl round the game and who, frankly, gives the distinct impression that he’d much rather be back providing an idiotic backing screech to a death match between Sir Kill-o-Tron and Count Crush-Bot on Robot Wars. Despite this, and for all the post-Panorama angst, the only piece of racism caught on camera has – rather unfortunately for the BBC – been Mark Lawrenson breaking off from his sheet of pre-scripted ad-libs to revel in his own Big Ron moment:
Most egregious of all, however, has been the BBC team chortling knowingly about the idiocy of English optimism in bygone tournaments, as if such overblown expectations of the cult of “Stevie G”, “Lamps”, “JT” and the rest of that depressing cavalcade of self-regarding underachievers had absolutely nothing to do with them. At least normal service now seems to have been resumed, with Harry Redknapp’s jingoistic fervour and teeth-grinding bonhomie – even Lineker tartly quizzing Redknapp if he was “surprised” owl-featured fraud Roy Hodgson was given the England job ahead of him was met with a fixed grin and a blanket of vague platitude – acting as a catalyst for an upswing that will doubtless grow to a crescendo should England nick anything against France. By the 47th reference to “good lads”, even mild-mannered viewers were left praying there was something to those Mayan prophecies after all. Come raining meteors and fall on Salford.
And yet, for all the manifest flaws, the BBC’s coverage has been like watching Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation in comparison to ITV’s shambolic effort. First, the inexplicable opening credits; a sequence in which what one assumes are wooden puppets – but which more closely resemble crude effigies carved from doner meat by an obsessive – of the giants of the European game jig about a fairytale landscape for no discernable reason. Gullit, Platini and Beckenbauer are all there, along with, erm, Roy Hodgson. It’s enough to fill you with patriotic fervour, as well as making you feel peckish.
Then there’s the studio – a mid-market provincial café, in which the gathered luminaries perch uncomfortably atop oversized Mecanno chairs. Of these, Roy Keane’s descent into furious self-parody continues apace, whilst Jamie Carragher ploughs ahead with his metamorphosis into a permanently on-call controversialist. A kind of footballing Jeremy Clarkson. The set-up seems fuelled by the hope of laboured controversy, with Patrick Vieira added to the roster in the hope that he and Keane quickly descend into finger-stabbing, “see-you-fuckin’-out-there”ing, doubtless stirred up by macrocaphalic windbag and disingenuous professional everyman Adrian Chiles under the guise of the ubiquitous, wait for it, “banter”. Given that each talking head has around fourteen seconds of airtime between the need for such hyperreality is just about understandable, but no less palatable. Brief respite is at least provided by the eminently sensible Roberto Martinez and Gareth Southgate, especially with the latter’s trend-bucking knack for verbose non-specificity and uncanny resemblance to a partially deflated balloon, but by and large it’s been turgid stuff.
ITV’s in-game coverage has been no less execrable, with Peter Drury spending most of last night’s game patronising Irish fans to within an inch of their lives. Drury is ITV’s Pearce, with his relentless clinging to every twinge of controversy and infuriating habit of applying stress at arbitrary points in player names – “PAV-lee-a-CHENK-o” – in an effort at appropriated gravitas. At least he’s yet to come up with anything as nauseatingly self congratulatory as his yelp of “sing sing Africa” that greeted the opening goal of the 2010 World Cup, so small mercies and all that.
It’s only been three days, but already I feel beaten down. There’s little doubt that the standard of coverage continues to deteriorate, just as the amount of time, technical sophistication and effort invested continues to rise. Herein lies the central problem; that in the era of liveblogging, twitter and timeshift viewing the peripheral elements of TV coverage – punditry chief amongst them – are increasingly redundant. With corners of the Internet colonised by Wilson-inspired tactical savants, analysis that comprises of Lee Dixon superimposing a luridly coloured digital arrow over a full-back before embarking on a tangential yarn about David Seaman’s love of fishing quickly loses its lustre. Likewise, it’s not just the adverts that increasing numbers are skipping past on PVRs – the half-time kettle surge of years gone now replaced with a collective strain on the nation’s fast-forward buttons. In response, the TV companies are attempting a fightback, but in the process reducing everything to colours and noise, the superimposition of an external, one-dimensional narrative on a game that stubbornly refuses to yield to such a restriction.
Where the cycle stops is anyone’s guess. It’s a safe bet it won’t be tonight, when Clive Tyldesley will be covering England for ITV. Things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.
Posted by Ron Hamilton