Review: BT Sport’s Life’s a Pitch

It may be affable buffoonery, but BT’s impressive commitment to the long haul is evident at every turn.

Des Kelly picks up a brick.

You could be excused for mistaking the slab for something left behind by the construction staff who, three months into the BT Sport project, are still putting together the finishing touches to the Stratford-based studio.  

Instead, with little over an hour before the cameras roll, Kelly is working out how to incorporate the foam replica into his panel-based magazine show Life’s a Pitch.

As production staff gather material for the 10pm broadcast and Kelly tucks into a sparkling water, panel guests, former Arsenal striker Kevin Campbell and rugby union institution Brian Moore, arrive in the green room to watch the second half of Chelsea’s Carling Cup meeting with the Gunners at the Emirates. The result of the match will shape much of the discussion throughout the show.

Despite only striking towards its fiftieth live broadcast, Life’s a Pitch has already developed a reputation for the unusual. It is a wonder that both men look so relaxed.

Former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, not always one to play up to his wheeler-dealer public image, agreed to open up the first show of the series with a tongue in cheek interview through a car door. From there the shows have simply grown wackier.

Kelvin MacKenzie was superimposed onto a turnip to give Graham Taylor a measure of revenge for a Sun front cover printed after England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. And, with Halloween only two nights away, Kelly reveals that Martin Keown’s appearance later that week will be marked with each of the studio audience wearing masks depicting the former England international.

All of which is little more than affable buffoonery but the creativity is certainly preferable to Sky Sports News trying to fill their 24 hour schedule by asking Ray Parlour to do intellectual battle with Guillem Balague to decide whether or not the Premier League holds the best players in Europe.

When all is said and done, however, Life’s a Pitch isn’t reinventing the wheel. The combination of guest discussion and video highlights seasoned with a sprinkling of irreverence is an instantly recognisable concept, although the commitment to firing out four live broadcasts a week, each dedicated to a variety of sporting topics, is not something replicated elsewhere.  The rules of the game are slowly shifting.

When BT’s venture into sports broadcasting was first announced in 2012, the project drew no small amount of scepticism as the telecommunications giant was entering a vastly competitive arena with no channel platform nor established collection of major television rights to hitch their wagon to.

Over the last decade and a half that particular formula had failed a number of broadcasters who believed that a service focussed on a partial share of the football broadcasting pie was all that was needed for a sustainable business model.

Inside a year, however, the idea of BT presenting a credible challenge to Sky as the pre-eminent force in UK sports broadcasting is no longer a pipe dream.

While their initial commitment to front line sport is relatively modest, a huge investment has been made in production quality. This stretches from the customisable glass sports arena on the studio floor, all the way to recruiting the best possible presentation talent across each of the network’s major sports.  

The star of the BBC’s Olympic coverage Clare Balding has another avenue to spread her wings with a weekly show of her own and Jake Humphrey has been poached to front up the Premier League package. Austin Healey, Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson are kingpins of the rugby broadcasting team and Anne Keothavong and Sam Smith front up coverage of the WTA tour.

The constant stream of live broadcasts are exhausting - there are three on this particular Tuesday night alone - but in lieu of some of the more attractive live sport available elsewhere, the desire to create organic programming is essential.

As Life’s a Pitch draws to a close, the panel reviews the following morning’s sports pages, with a paper delivery boy throwing the bundle of headlines across the set for Kelly to catch.

Inevitably, however, the paper toss doesn’t always go to plan.

In September, Murray Walker came in to make a first television appearance after a prolonged period of poor health and delivered a poignant interview.

The show’s executive producer Mark Aldridge reveals his concern at pushing the envelope too far with a 90-year-old Walker on the panel. (“Just imagine if we’d hit Murray with the paper...”)

This fear clearly hasn’t transferred to all of Kelly’s guests. I ask Campbell if he is worried about how exactly that brick will be used when the show goes live.

“I’m from Brixton,” mutters a pensive Campbell as Juan Mata puts Chelsea 2-0 up against Arsenal. “I’ve been bricked before...”

Life’s a Pitch airs at 10pm every Monday to Thursday on BT Sport 1

 

Special delivery: Brian Moore catches the nightly news. Image: C1 Photography

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The quiet civil war for control of the Labour grassroots machine

The party's newly empowered far left is trying to wrest control of local branches.

“Party time! PARTY TIME!” A young man wearing a Jeremy Corbyn t-shirt appears on screen and starts dancing, accompanied by flashing emojis of a red rose and a party popper.

“There’s only one game in town and it’s getting our boy J Corbz into Downing Street”, he announces, and to do that, he is planning to explain the “nitty gritty” of local Labour politics, and, promisingly, “give a little gossip on the way”. The man is Michael Walker of online left-wing outlet Novara Media, and the video has been watched more than 38,000 times on Facebook in just two weeks.

So why should Labour members suddenly be made to care about “structures, factions, conference, selections, rule changes”? “There were shedloads of people who got involved in the Labour Party for the first time by knocking on doors during the general election,” Walker explains, “but to make sure that the Labour Party represents their voices as it goes forward, they’re going to need to take getting involved in Labour’s bureaucratic structures seriously.

“There’s a risk that the party structures and bureaucracy will try and shut down participation in the Labour Party just like they did last summer, and we want to make sure that it can’t happen again.”

While the Parliamentary Labour Party is going into recess as a more united group since the election than it had been in the past two years, there is a quiet war still being fought at local level. Now that their man has proved that he could exceed expectations and turn Labour into a solid opposition, Corbynites want to make sure that the centrists cannot keep a hold on the internal party machine.

This involves projects like Walker’s catchy videos, and Momentum’s Your Labour Conference website, which encourages members to get interested in the election of the conference arrangements committee, in order to have more of a say on what gets discussed at the party’s annual conference.

“We recognise the fact that sometimes the Labour Party can be a bit of a labyrinth and something which can be pretty hard to work out, and we want to push people forward and help them get more involved,” a Momentum spokesperson says. “We’re trying to make it more open and more accessible to younger people and help people understand what’s going on.”

With tens of thousands of people joining Labour over the past few months – including around 20,000 since the election – their intentions seem noble: the Labour party internal structure is, after all, notoriously complex. However, it isn’t clear how the existing members who are involved in local organising – a lot of whom are or were until recently sceptical of Corbyn – will deal with this new influx of activists.

“Corbyn supporters are no longer the underdog in the party, and understandably people who joined recently are highly motivated to get their opinions across, so they’ve been turning up in droves at local meetings,” says Richard Angell, the director of Blairite organisation Progress.

“They’re not brilliantly organised but they’re there, and they turned up with this sense of 'we told you so', so they’re starting to win things that they wouldn’t have before the election.”

Centrist and centre-left Labour factions have often been the most organised campaigners in constituency Labour parties, and they’re now worried that if they were to get ousted, the party would suffer.

“Lots of our members are the people who hold the CLPs together – lots of people turned up in certain places to campaign, and the people who organised the clipboards, the data, did the work to make that happen are still a network of moderates,” Angell adds. “If Momentum tried to sweep them away in a vindictive wave of jubilation, it would backfire, and that’s what they have to think about now.”

Though the people at the helm of Momentum have never explicitly called for a takeover of the party at local level, some CLPs are struggling with bitter infighting. Lewisham is home to some of these battlegrounds. With three CLPs in the borough, the local Momentum branch is trying to gain more power in the local parties to implement the changes they want to see at that level.

“There’s an organised left-wing presence in all three CLPs in Lewisham,” a local Momentum organiser, who did not want to be named, says. “We want the CLPs to become outward-looking campaigning bodies, and we want them to be functionally democratic.”

What the branch also wants is to have a radical rethink of what Labour does at council level, and the activist was critical of what the councillors have been doing.

“Under the right-wing, Lewisham CLPs never really campaign on anything – they’ll occasionally have these set pieces, like the Labour day of action on education, which is good, but in reality there’s no one going campaigning on anything,” he says.

“The other thing is about the record of the council - no-one would deny that Labour councils are in a difficult situation, in terms of getting cut again and again and again, but equally at the moment, the attitude of a lot of Labour councils in Lewisham at least is 'it’s not just that there’s nothing else we could do, we’re actually going to go further than the Tories are demanding'."

“It’s not just that they’re saying 'oh, there’s not really anything we can do to fight back against cuts' but it’s also that they’ve actually absorbed all the neoliberal stuff.”

The response to these allegations from a long-term Labour member, who wants to remain anonymous but is close to the currently serving councillors, was unsurprising.

“It is utterly absurd to suggest that councillors want to cut services – Labour members stand for council because they want to stand up for their community and protect local services,” he says. 

“As for campaigning and taking on the Tories, it was the 'right-wing' Lewisham Council which took the government to the High Court over their plans to close Lewisham Hospital – and won. The 'right wing' CLPs worked tirelessly with the Save Lewisham Hospital campaign, and we won.”

According to him, Labour is doomed to fail if it doesn’t unite soon, and he worries that left-wing activists may be getting carried away. “The vast majority of members in Lewisham are really pleased with the result and with the way the party pulled together – locally and nationally – for the election campaign,” he says.

“At the second members' meeting after the election, we had a discussion about how we all needed to carry on in the spirit of unity that we'd recently seen, and that if we did so, we have a good chance of seeing a Labour government soon.”

“It's a shame that some people want to label, attack and purge fellow members, rather than working together to beat the Tories. The more they focus on internal, factional in-fighting, the less chance we will have of seeing a Labour government and ending the cuts.”

Beyond the ideological differences which, as the election showed, can mostly be smoothed over when the party senses that it’s getting close to power, an explanation for the Labour left’s occasional bullishness could be its sense of insecurity.

After all, the wave of new members who joined after Corbyn became leader was hardly welcomed by the party’s mainstream, and the narrative quickly turned to Trotskyist entryism instead.

Momentum also spent many of its formative months being treated with suspicion, as a Trojan horse aiming to get MPs deselected, which is yet to happen two years on. Painted as the opposition to the opposition, activists from the Labour’s left had become used to being party pariahs, and need to figure out what to do now that they are in a position of power.

“They’re behaving like an insurgency still, but they’re in charge”, says Angell. “It’s quite a big change in mindset for them, and one I don’t think they’re really ready for.”

“We have shown that we will campaign for the Labour Party anywhere in the country, whoever the candidate is, to try and get the best result in a general election, and there is no acknowledgement of that from them at all.”

This was, amusingly, echoed by the Momentum activist – if there is one thing all factions agree on, it seems to be that the Labour left needs to figure out what it wants from the party machine it’s in the process of inheriting.

“Momentum nationally had a very good election, it mobilised a lot of people to go to marginals, and got a lot of people involved in campaigning, and that’s a step forward, to go from getting people to vote Corbyn to getting them on the doorstep,” he says, “but it’s another step from actually having a vision of how to transform the Labour Party.”

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.