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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 executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

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