Time To Put Co-Commentators Out To Pasture

By on Jun 25, 2012 in Latest, Opinion | 17 comments

In the excellent football anthology “My Favourite Year,” the novelist and biographer DJ Taylor describes an emergency public meeting held after a boardroom putsch did for the previous chairman Sir Arthur South and installed the businessman Robert Chase in his place. According to Taylor, at this meeting an elderly woman stood up, fixed Chase with a steely glare and with tone of prodding verbal accusation, asked, “What I want to know is… who are yer?” It was a question that no-one at the meeting seemed to know the answer to and, almost a quarter of a century on, it’s a question that isn’t asked enough in many walks of life.

The broadcaster Danny Baker once remarked that the primary role of the football commentator was to make his father rise from his armchair and shout “WE KNOW!” at the television screen. If only life were that simple these days. In the twenty-first century, the role of the commentator and his itchingly unctuous side-kick the co-commentator has been reduced even from telling us what we can see with our very own eyes. Commentators no longer commentate. They now drag us involuntarily into the dismal world of pub bore conversation, with a sprinkling of seemingly pre-rehearsed phrases thrown in for good measure. They seek to combine providing information with entertaining, and somehow or other manage to achieve neither. We no longer shout, “WE KNOW!” at the television screen – we merely shout “SHUT UP!” instead.

Much has been made of Mark Lawrensons brief but apparently effective denigration of Twitter users last night. In describing them – us – as “sad”, two things immediately sprang to mind. Firstly, this may have been the first time ever that anybody over the age of thirteen used the word “sad” as an insult. Secondly, there is the small matter of what Mark Lawrenson brings to the party – or, to paraphrase an unnamed elderly Norfolkian speaking more than two decades ago, ‘oo is ‘ee? The latter of these two questions is, superficially at least, the easier to answer of the two. He’s a former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland player who supports Preston North End and had a brief and relatively unhappy managerial career with Oxford United and Peterborough United.

The former, however, is considerably more difficult to quantify. He doesn’t seem to carry any great insight and he doesn’t seem to be very humorous. Yet even Lawrenson is merely a symptom rather than a cause. In short, commentators aren’t really allowed to commentate any more. What they now seem to do is have a ninety minute long conversation which is punctuated by the more traditional manner of commentating, but something has been lost in this process, a sense of authority and the feeling that we are having something reported to us has been lost in the jocularity and – to coin a wretched, dismal, terrible phrase; in fact, the last resort of the verbally damned – “banter.” We learn nothing from this chitter-chatter, and neither are we entertained. Indeed, it often feels as if, when watching a football match on the television, the television producer is attempting to bring a little of the atmosphere of the pub into our living  rooms, which overlooks the screamingly obvious point that if we are watching a football match on the television, we are almost certainly either watching it in a pub or watching it at home because we don’t want to be in a pub in the first place.

There is also a tendency for the main commentator, who is almost always from a journalistic background, to defer to the co-commentator, who is always, but always, an ex-pro – no matter what inanities they’re coming out with. This means that when the co-commentator gets something wrong, which they do with almost alarming regularity, it goes unchecked and the relationship between the two in the commentary box seldom feels like an equal one. This is reflection of the veneration with which the the ex-professional is treated in many aspects of the game. It has become a bog standard retort for the ex-pro, when criticised, to claim that it is impossible to truly understand the game unless you’ve played it and the standard  retort to this – that they’re in a different profession to playing now and that to claim that being a former player could conceivably make you a great broadcaster, regardless of years of playing experience, is faintly absurd – usually falls on deaf ears, even though we hear the evidence to support this counter-case with our own ears at more or less every match.

The incremental increase in the live broadcasting of matches over the last two decades or so can make it feel as if the co-commentator is a modern scourge, but the truth is that they have been with us for almost as long as the game has been broadcast live on the television. As long ago as 1958, ITV were using reporter Peter Lloyd as a summariser alongside commentator Gerry Loftus at the World Cup finals in Sweden, and by 1964 Jimmy Hill was in the gantry with Loftus for the FA Cup final to see West Ham United beat Preston North End to lift the trophy. Yet co-commentators were seldom used for highlights, and it was highlights that were the staple diet of the British viewer – major tournaments and the occasional other match aside – until 1983 and it was perhaps this that gave rise to the idea of the co-commentator as some sort of interloper. Over the years, however, as live matches have become increasingly commonplace, they have come to become a central part of the television firmament.

It doesn’t, however, have to be this way. At the 2010 World Cup finals, ITV co-commentator Jim Beglin was struck down with an inner-ear infection which rendered him unable to travel to the semi-final match between the Netherlands and Uruguay. Unable to send out a replacement at such short notice, Clive Tyldesley had to cover the match alone and, whilst he obviously received some criticism – Tyldesley-hating has become something of a national sport in recent years – he did receive praise in some other quarters. It makes sense. a lone commentator has the space for the lost art of football commentary – silence. Whereas the commentators of old, the likes of Barry Davies, Brian Moore or Kenneth Wolstenholme, imposed their authority by being the only voice on air and had the space to allow for their own speech to feel properly punctuated. This has been replaced by a constant stream of noise, most of which seems to serve little purpose but to infuriate the viewer.

So, in these apparently austere times, in which the BBC were unable to even send their panel of experts out to Poland, would it not be too much to request that they give the commentators a go on their own? There may be a co-commentator or summariser out there somewhere, squirreled away on a cable channel that no-one ever watches, who adds a little colour and insight to the match, who doesn’t drop painfully unfunny dad jokes in at inappropriate moments or display what appears what may well be a lack of knowledge or open contempt for anything that doesn’t come from the Premier League. You never know. They might even find that they avoid some of the derision and scorn that seems to now be the standard reaction to the television broadcasting of major football tournaments.

Mark Lawrenson might wish to know that you can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here. But then again, he might not. 

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    17 Comments

  1. Surely you mean that ITV were not able to send a replacement out at the Lastminute.com.

    Chris

    June 25, 2012

  2. Surely you mean that ITV were not able to send a replacement out at the Lastminute.com.

    Chris

    June 25, 2012

  3. I don’t think co-commentating is always bad – like a dialogue in a play, sometimes dual and different perspectives can be insightful. What I can’t stand is co-authors for sports writing: what great essay or work of literature has more than one author credit?

    elliott

    June 25, 2012

  4. As somebody who has both done commentary and summarising in the past, albeit briefly for radio, it’s not the easiest of tasks, especially when faced with a dull game, but equally if the summariser has done their research, it’s not hard either, which is why I occasionally get hacked off with co-commentators.

    They do serve a useful purpose for the commentator, expanding on points that the commentator may not have been able to make because the action’s been relentless, picking up on something that may have been overlooked, giving the main commentator a breather to look at their notes, etc etc.

    But a good TV co-commentator should also be able to realise that the majority of viewers have seen what they’ve seen and sometimes silence is an appropriate response.

    I thought Tyldsley’s solo commentary in 2010 was excellent and I’d be happy for more games like that. However, I also think that when you’ve got a co-commentator with plenty of insight to offer, they really add to the game.

    I may be about to undermine my argument here, but for all his language-mangling David Pleat usually would offer something interesting and there are others who help rather than hinder. But the bad ones often outweigh the good.

    I personally think all new co-commentators should be forced to listen to cricket coverage for several months as an example of how to get the best out of ex-pros. And then given Phil Vickery’s rugby commentary as the ultimate example of how not to do it.

    Gary

    June 26, 2012

  5. Have we ever got to the bottom of why it is that radio commentary requires a second “lead” commentator?

    BTFM

    June 26, 2012

  6. You’ve forgotten the tendency of the co-comm, like David Pleat, to be unable to pronounce the name of any player with what sounds like a foreign name. I think it might actually be part of the contract terms for them to mangle names in a ” comedic” manner for the viewing dozens

    Actually, last week, I spent a couple of lovely evenings listening to Bob Fischer on the radio with the march in mute. Worked a treat for me

    Darren Stephens

    June 26, 2012

  7. TwoHundredPercent : “We no longer shout, “WE KNOW!” at the television screen – we merely shout “SHUT UP!” instead.

    Or, alternativley, we “SHUT THEM UP !” by hitting the mute on the remote. Works everytime :o).

    I can still ‘see’ what goes on and do not need to be reminded by someone who has long since past his best before date.

    Mr. Morden

    June 26, 2012

  8. There is a role for the co-commentator, it’s just all the ones on UK television are dreadful.

    I’m looking for analysis of the tactics, what formations teams are playing, who’s dropped deeper, who’s making runs off camera the viewer isn’t seeing.

    I get the feeling foreign pundits provide that, but it’s unheard of in this country. I can’t help feeling it’s part of British football’s anti-intellectual culture, where success is achieved by teams being ‘up for it’ rather than out-thinking opponents tactically.

    Frank Heaven

    June 26, 2012

  9. It’s that awful thing ‘banter’ that really gets me. It’s so prevelant too – Five Live being one of the worst culprits. ‘Chappers’ and ‘Tuffers’ and all that cosy, banal chumminess.
    Why does everything have to be ‘funny’ these days? Mike Ingham is the only voice of sanity.

    Adrian Brown

    June 26, 2012

  10. While I agree with your general sentiment, oddly enough Mark Lawrenson is the one co-commentator I actually like. His dry, disinterested and cynical manner is a much needed contrast to the often hype-fuelled sycophancy of the main commentator. His one-liners are genuinely funny on occasion too.

    You do seem to have taken his Twitter gibe a bit personally.

    Also, if you’re going to criticise the quality of someone’s work, it’s best not to do so with a typo in the title.

    Jam

    June 26, 2012

  11. I largely agree with the thoughts above. I thought Clive’s commentary in the 2010 World Cup flying solo was vastly better than his usual efforts. However, some of that may be because neither England, nor Cristiano Ronaldo were playing.

    I think it very much depends who the co-commentator is as to whether or not they add to the experience or not. More often than not they don’t, but I do like Graham Taylor and Dave Woods on Channel 5. Indeed, Taylor on 5 Live is very insightful as well.

    Of those currently doing the rounds as they do every tournament, I think Mick McCarthy is the best of a pretty bad bunch. Mark Bright has managed to make himself even more insufferable than even Mark Lawrenson – quite an achievement. Thank the lord though that the Welsh FA saw fit to save us from the hell that Chris Coleman would have subjected us to.

    John Rogers

    June 26, 2012

  12. Jam; “Also, if you’re going to criticise the quality of someone’s work, it’s best not to do so with a typo in the title.”

    Heh, I was *that* angry… Actually, I’m reasonably sanguine about it, since I don’t think that this sort of article makes any difference to the policy of the broadcasters.

    BTFM: I have no idea – I assume it may be something to do with the fact that radio commentators have to go full pelt and need a break. This is a deeply flawed explanation, though, I have to say. Worth pointing out that in the early days of television commentary two commentators were used for live TV matches, especially on ITV. Indeed, looking at the time-line, it’s not inconceivable that the co-commentator evolved from this arrangement.

    Agreed, by the way, on Graham Taylor, who is one of the few people anywhere near the summit of English football that talks a great deal of common sense.

    (Those of you that follow us on Twitter will also be aware that I flagged up how impressed I was with Danny Mills’ appearance on BBC Breakfast the other day, as well)

    Ian

    June 26, 2012

  13. I think there’s an inherent problem with TV commentary, in that it’s still done in the style of radio commentary. “Cole to Welbeck, Welbeck to Rooney, Rooney shoots and puts it over the bar!”, we know this. We’re watching it.

    “I’m looking for analysis of the tactics, what formations teams are playing, who’s dropped deeper, who’s making runs off camera the viewer isn’t seeing.”

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. This should be how commentary is done. We don’t need to be told that we’ve just seen a good shot, because we’ve seen it ourselves, we need analysis that we may not have picked up on.

    JG

    June 26, 2012

  14. Danny Mills, like Graeme Le Saux, was a rare breed of footballer; one one read broadsheet papers but was also able to dish out a good kicking.

    We need more of their ilk, if only to save us from the dull monosyllabic hell of post match interviews.

    Mike Bayly

    June 26, 2012

  15. Enjoyed reading that. Sometimes though I like the banter between ex pro and commentator. Depends who it is . Robbie Savage excels at the partnership. His commentary on the New Zealand v Italy game in the last world cup was riveting, as he got genuinely excited as a fan of football while offering insights into Ryan Nelson’s ‘dodgy bum injuries.’

    While I’m not a fan of talk talk I find Ray Parlour and Sam Mattaface on the station a very good combination, both generous with each and also correct each other.

    Alan Green is better with another commentator, because otherwise the entire commentary would just be one huge 90 minute about a dive or a bad ref decision. The solution with Green perhaps is to pension him off though.

    I noticed on BBC HD sport coverage of Euro 2012 the other night that the commentary was very low…barely audible…it was quite refreshing. Perhaps a better solution is no commentary at all?

    Jonty

    June 27, 2012

  16. *Talksport ( I am actually a fan of the band Talk Talk)

    Jonty

    June 27, 2012

  17. Personally, I’d prefer to have the option of switching the commentary off and just being able to hear the crowd. Can’t bear Tyldesley, and his co-conspirator Townsend also gets on my nerves because he doesn’t seem to know when to shut up. The BBC should give the licence fee payers a couple of pennies back too, by breaking up the ‘old boys club’. Hansen is just lazy, and Shearer can barely construct a coherent sentence. I’m not even going to mention Lawrenson!!

    Sando

    September 18, 2012

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