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Bits and Pieces
In the mid-1980s Gerald Sinstadt returned to the BBC, and may be able to
claim some credit for the groundbreaking coverage of the 1990 World
Like Bough, his career imploded after unnecessary newspaper coverage
of an incident in a cinema in Islington, where films slightly – but only
slightly – more racy than those you might see in the local multiplex were
being shown. A police raid caught Sinstadt relaxing in the gentleman’s
fashion, offending no one as far as one can tell, and charges were dropped.
But the damage was done. In the Independent William Hartston wrote a
brilliantly sarcastic open letter to Islington police: ‘As we lie in our beds
and listen to the tinkling of smashed quarter-lights, as we try to ignore the
ringing of car and house alarms, we can at least reassure ourselves that the
porn cinemas of Islington are being kept safe for our children.’
Does it always end like this? Well no, but often enough to give
the living-in-a-Travelodge-by-the-ring-road scenario created by Steve
Coogan for the Alan Partridge character the ring of truth.
Des Lynam had his moment under a cloud during the 1998 World
Cup, when he entertained a female neighbour to a night in a Paris hotel.
Not just any hotel, but a ‘£200-a-night’ hotel, according to the Sun.
The hotel’s nightly rate might not seem particularly significant in this
matter to you or me, but is hugely important to newspapers. One of the
first stories I covered, as Chepstow district reporter for the Western Daily
Press, was one I got through personal contacts, about four boys caught
smoking cannabis and suspended from Monmouth School. I thought I
had done a bang-up job getting the story, and covering it rather comprehensively
and went to the pub to celebrate, only to receive a phone call
from the news editor later that night cavilling at my failure to mention
how much the
school fees were.
It was not a mistake I made again. Even
if I was reporting on one of Nationwide’s skateboarding ducks I made
sure I got the age of both the owner and the duck, and if possible the
up-to-date market value of the owner’s house.
Another important issue in a kiss-and-tell story is frequency of sexual
intercourse. In real life, sex can be satisfactory, quite enjoyable, mildly
disappointing, routine, infrequent, non-existent, fairly diverting, or any
variant, but in tabloid-world there is no room for such shades of grey. The
love-rat in question is either ‘a flop between the sheets’ or a ‘six-timesa-
night’ man. It’s the law. Des was fortunate enough to be placed in the
latter category. The publicist Max Clifford, who speaks fluent tabloid, said,
‘Des has been scoring at home and away’, which frankly shocked no one as
we always thought of Des as the Leslie Phillips of sport. Ding-dong.
Not that his love romps, as Max would undoubtedly dub Des’s indiscretions,
seemed to affect his popularity. Des merely shrugged, admitted
to a ‘serious error of judgement’ – or six serious errors of judgement a
night over two years if the Sun is to be believed – and carried on with
In my view, there has never been a better front man for BBC Sport than
Des Lynam, and there is a very good reason why his career failed to flourish
when he defected to ITV in 2000. The tone of the BBC suited Des.
You are not trying to sell anything on the BBC, other than the excellence
and the immutability of the organisation. On ITV you are flogging the
stuff in the commercials, on Sky you are shifting subscriptions, working
yourself up into a lather over the unmissable quality of the programme so
people will sign up, but on the BBC, all you have to do is what Lord Reith
prescribed all those years ago: educate, entertain and inform.
If anything, the emphasis at the BBC is on underselling. All that stuff
Wogan used to do on the radio, about the awful BBC coffee, the mild
jibes at management, the jokes about the dodgy weather forecasts, and
the jocular deconstruction of the business of broadcasting, does not
work on commercial radio – I know, having worked for both – and the
same is true of TV.
On ITV, Des would never have got away with his downbeat intros.
When England played Tunisia in a midweek afternoon match at the World
Cup in France ’98, our hero kicked off the BBC coverage with a knowing
wink, asking, ‘Shouldn’t you be at work?’ After the hard sell in the
commercial break, and the sponsors’ bumper (the name check the sponsor
gets each side of the ad-break), such underplaying would seem odd. Similarly
masterful was Des’s intro to the unforgettable Euro ’96 semi-final
between England and Germany at Wembley. It was a midweek match, a
when work took second place to waiting for the kick off.
I remember suffering PMT (pre-match tension) all day, and Des’s welcome
cleverly defusing the situation. ‘Some of you may have heard there’s a
football match on tonight,’ he said with his trademark nudge, nudge.
By Euro 2000, Des had moved to ITV, citing frustration with the
constant moving of Match of the Day to a late-night slot, and the BBC’s
apparent lack of interest, during the era of John Birt (twelfth director
general, 1992–2000) in securing important sports rights, especially to big
football matches. I was at the BBC on and off during the 1990s, working
for Radio Two and local radio. Though I didn’t feel obliged to read all the
edicts emanating from Birt’s office, preferring to catch up with them after
they had been leaked to Private Eye, I got the impression that the ‘entertain’
element of Reith’s famous dictum was taking a back seat. Flannelled
fools and muddied oafs were clearly not right at the top of Birt’s agenda.
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