Show Hide image

A generous helping of sport, with some social history on the side

Sit Down and Cheer: a History of Sport on TV - review.

Sit Down and Cheer: a History of Sport on TV
Martin Kelner
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £18.99

A new advert trumpeting the virtues of something called “Blue Membership” to Manchester City supporters has appeared on the electronic pitch-side hoardings at the Etihad Stadium this season. It consists of the surname of one of City’s crack Argentinian strikers, with the final vowel multiplied so that it reads: “Agüeroooooo!”

That was how the Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler greeted Sergio Agüero’s titlewinning goal in injury time on the final day of the 2011/2012 football season, elongating the last syllable and testing the limits of his vocal range with a steepling glissando that seemed to climb several octaves almost in a single breath. And it’s how most of us now remember that improbable denouement – even those of us who were at the game rather than watching from our sofas or at the pub in front of a big screen. The moment, replayed in countless YouTube clips, now seems unimaginable without Tyler’s accompanying howl of disbelief. For television, as Martin Kelner observes in his entertaining new book, is the “prism through which all significant sport now passes, and is given meaning”.

Regular readers of Kelner’s “Screen Break” column in the Guardian won’t be surprised to learn that the analysis of our postmodern sporting condition in Sit Down and Cheer doesn’t get much further than this truism. His preferred mode is blokeish humour and the kind of cosy anecdotage that was the stock in trade of one of his predecessors on the Guardian sports pages, Frank Keating (who also happens to be Kelner’s principal source for stories about 1970s TV executives offering star presenters improved contracts over heroically extended and bibulous lunches).

The book is sedulously designed so as to appeal to those middle-aged men between 40 and 60 who get a Proustian rush at the sound of David Coleman announcing, with strangled certainty, the opening goal in a Cup Final (“One-nil!”) or of Barry Davies’s invitation to examine the cherubic countenance of Francis Lee after he scored for Derby County against his previous club, Manchester City: “Oh, look at his face! Just look at his face!”

For all that, Kelner does manage some fascinating social history along the way, not least in his treatment of Coleman, Davies and the other voices of televised football in the late 1960s and early 1970s (John Motson, Gerald Sinstadt, Hugh Johns and, indeed, Tyler, who got his break commentating on Southampton v Sheffield Wednesday for Southern Television in 1974). Grammar school products almost to a man, they were the classless tribunes of a postwar revolution in sports broadcasting in this country. (The first sporting event to be televised live by the BBC was Wimbledon in 1937 and, until the early 1950s, tennis and cricket dominated the corporation’s output.)

Kelner sees Davies as a “key figure in the history of sports commentary on TV, bridging the gap between . . . gentlemen-commentators like Kenneth Wolstenholme and Peter West and the hard-nosed professionals, who look to stamp their personality on a match with opinions, statistics and in some cases care - fully scripted ad-libs”. This gets Davies just right, for there was a patrician edge to his commentating style that, along with his fastidious pronunciation of foreign players’ names, set him apart from his contemporaries – especially the hyperactive Motson, with whom he conducted a low-level professional feud after the latter was chosen to commentate on the 1977 FA Cup Final.

Motson has since adapted to the post-Sky dispensation in sports broadcasting by becoming a parody of himself. By contrast, Tyler’s accommodation with the new way of doing things has been almost seamless, though his late style does sometimes exhibit the tension identified in this description of Davies’s commentating, quoted by Kelner: “[A] contradictory style that appeared to be caught in a limbo between erudition and populism.”

Despite its emphasis on football at the expense of other sports, Sit Down and Cheer is an engaging tour of the history of televised sport in this country. One thing, though: if there is to be a second edition of the book, Kelner will surely have to revise his opinion of Clare Balding, who is condescended to here for her habit of talking anthropomorphically about horses.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.