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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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.