Tag Archives: Mark Lawrenson

Football with the commentary off


It seems that the art of football commentary in Britain has been slumping towards a nadir over the last few years, mired as it is in blandness, (Phil Neville, Michael Owen) gibbering inanity (Townsend), cynicism (Lawrenson) and a kind of unhelpful will-to-soundbites (Tyldesley). Perhaps this diagnosis has something to do with Twitter. The site can act as an echo chamber for negative opinions, like the ones Phil Neville was forced to confront after his stint in the BBC commentary box for England’s game against Italy; it remains the case that some lower-profile commentators, like the Beeb’s Simon Brotherton, Guy Mowbray and Kevin Kilbane, do a fine job. In a strange way, though, reading Twitter for digs at Townsend or Lawrenson – the single worst offender, in my book – can actually ameliorate the situation of having to listen to their summaries; without the lightness that Twitter can bring to bear on their verbal stuplimity the experience might merely be disappointing and draining.

Of course, watching the World Cup should never be disappointing and draining, so solutions are sought – baiting Lawro on Twitter might be one way of getting around this problem, and seeking out foreign streams online might be another. But the idea of simply watching the game on mute is oddly under-represented in the chatter around commentaries and commentators. And it’s a singularly effective solution: not only are the depressing quibbles about foreign cheats and the “in and around”s dispensed with, but a whole new awareness of what’s actually transpiring on the pitch can be acquired. There’s something quite counterintuitive about this: usually we turn to commentaries for help in comprehending the actions unfolding on our screens, to keep in track of who is playing the ball to whom, and perhaps for the odd gesture towards some back-story or real-life context for a victory or defeat. Obviously, this is all lost when the sound is turned down. But, to borrow an argument from Timothy Bewes’ book The Event of Postcolonial Shame, this all belongs in any case to the ‘subtractive conscious of a being who writes.’ Bewes is here drawing on the French philosopher Henri Bergson, from whose perspective, ‘insofar as we speak, write, act, or paint, insofar as we express ourselves in any form whatsoever, we do not add to knowledge of the world but detract from it.’ Experiencing the game with the commentary removed might, by this line of argument, and somewhat paradoxically, be to experience it in its fuller aspect.

To experience the game minus the commentary is also to experience football’s communication by means of a visual and embodied, as opposed to verbal and conceptual, language. Early film theorist Béla Balázs has a useful line on this: writing in the moment before talkies became cinema’s norm, Balázs was effusive about the possibility that silent film might allow society to reconnect with what he considered the ‘true mother tongue of mankind.’ In his 1924 book Visible Man, Balázs remarked that,

the situation now is that once again our culture is being given a radically new direction – this time by film. Every evening many millions of people sit and experience human destinies, characters, feelings and moods of every kind with their eyes, and without the need for words. For the intertitles that films still have are insignificant; they are partly the ephemeral rudiments of as yet undeveloped forms and partly they bear a special meaning that does not set out to assist the visual expression. The whole of mankind is now busy relearning the long-forgotten language of gestures and facial expressions. This language is not the substitute for words characteristic of the sign language of the deaf and dumb, but the visual corollary of human souls immediately made flesh. Man will become visible once again.

There’s a weird vein of white suprematism to Balázs’ argument about what form this visibility would take, and the writer would have rejected the application of his ideas to football, given his conviction that ‘while sport can make the body healthy and beautiful, it cannot make it eloquent, since it strengthens only the animal qualities.’ But bracketing these concerns for the moment, we can align those positive qualities that Balázs identifies with silent film with those that emerge when watching World Cup games on mute, where the only language on display, and the only language required, is that produced by movements of the body. Away from the blanketing influence of the media narrative produced by commentators, drifts, slippages and tightenings of tactical formations become clearer, efforts and strainings become more acute, sharp sequences of passes sing brighter. As Jennifer Doyle’s recent piece on last weekend’s USA-Portugal game asserts, ‘Soccer is a dialogic sport’. Turning down the volume on your television reminds you that this has nothing to do with the back-and-forth of Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend.

Posted by Luke Healey

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The Diligent Loitering of Alan Shearer

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

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