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The Olympics on BBC1 - review

Rachel Cooke loves the TV coverage of the Games (one presenter excepted).

My deep love for the Olympics always takes me by surprise: this wasn’t, let me tell you, how it was supposed to be. I think of school sports day and want to weep. Sheffield was then redder than a baboon’s bottom, with the result that all had to have prizes. And so it was that when Sebastian Coe, our only famous former student, came to dish out the cups, I found myself receiving from his hand a certificate that celebrated that I’d come fifth in the 400m.

“How many runners were there?” he asked, as the applause rang out (the clapping did not cease for 20 minutes; it was like being at a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party). “Er, five,” I said. Ten minutes later, we had to go through this humiliation all over again, when a disbelieving Coe compelled me to admit that I’d come eighth in the shot-put out of a field of, yes, eight.

With sudden love, though, there comes something else. Something darker. The more Olympics one watches – and I watched an awful lot; I have a carpet burn on my thigh, due to a heavy fall on the sprint between my desk and the television – the more the irritations grow. Occasionally, this tips over into pure loathing. I refer, naturally, not to those taking part in the games, but to those covering them.

When the BBC vowed that we would “never miss a moment” of London 2012, they didn’t inform us that many of these moments would
be delivered by the presenter John Inverdale, a man who reminds me strongly of a World of Leather sofa, being so burnished, so strangely unyielding and always too squat for the space he is inhabiting.

Inverdale can make most things seem boring and usually does. Worse, he seems bored himself. On the second Monday of the Games, when things were not going too well for our athletics team, his conversations with Michael Johnson et al were gilded with a loathsome Partridge-like irritation, as if it were not Dai Greene and Holly Bleasdale who were having a bad day, but Inverdale himself. “The steam-roller seems to have hit a speed bump,” he said, as though he were at the wheel of a shiny new Prius and stuck in traffic on the M40.

Olympics Tonight, Gaby Logan’s chat show-cum-round-up, managed the rare feat of being both unmissable and unendurable. If you’d been out, you had to watch it. But no sooner had the theme music rolled than you felt like rending your garments.

This wasn’t wholly the distractingly well-groomed Logan’s fault – though as the days rolled by, I did find myself wondering each evening how she would top the outfit of the night before. No, she is super knowledgeable and one of the few people on this earth who is able to keep a conversation going with Amir Khan for more than 35 seconds. But, really. Whose idea was it to play Spandau Ballet’s “Gold” every night, while a famous sportsperson moved the arrow northwards on a Blue Peter-style “totaliser” in the shape of Big Ben? And why, at the sound of it, did Logan start with the disco arms as if she was on a hen night? No man would have done this. Sorry but they wouldn’t.

A few critics have had a go at Jake Humphrey, who presented from the velodrome and other places. I quite liked him. Basically, he had two jobs. One was to explain the omnium to people like me (sounds like a brand of waste-disposal unit). The other was to make Mark Cavendish, who sat beside him in the commentary box, feel better.

I don’t know if he was entirely successful when it came to Cav, though it’s just about possible that his references, made roughly every five minutes, to Cav’s failure to pick up a medal were the idea of the British cycling team’s psychologist. But when it came to the omnium, he had no less gravitas than Ian Thorpe who, I swear, told Gary Lineker one evening that in swimming events: “Look, there is water in every lane.”

Perhaps you’re wondering who I did like. The answer is: pretty much all the commentators. Why, I wonder, didn’t Logan et al have these experts – Garry Herbert and Dan Topolski at the rowing; Mitch Fenner and Christine Still at the gymnastics; Chris Boardman and Hugh Porter at the cycling – in their studios more often? These are the people who bring the Olympics alive and we love the sound of their voices, whispering and calm one minute, clanging with emotion the next.

Like everyone, I adored Clare Balding, too, a woman whose every utterance seemed a rebuke to a BBC that, in 2010, failed to renew her contract. Not only is Balding better prepared than any other BBC sports presenter (Gary Lineker, like our football team, was winging it and it showed; Sue Barker seemed strangely sleepy). She is also a lot less vain. Some people want to be on television for its own sake; it is being on TV that is important to them. Not Balding. It’s the sport she likes and the people who do it and the screeds of stats – and this sincerity puts everyone who comes within a six-mile radius of her at their ease. Medal winners, you may noticed, tend to kiss her, not the other way round. Now I really think about this, if Balding were to ask me about coming eighth in the shot-put, I might, even now, consider taking it up again. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

Photo: Getty Images
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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.