"Once, this show was the flagship TV event of the sporting year, a straightforward retrospective clips-fest. In recent years, however, it has been meddled with, overhauled and modernised to the extent that it has become barely watchable." These are not my words, but they might as well be, as they neatly sum up my feelings on the once great BBC Sports Personality of The Year show (or the Sports Review of the Year as it was once known). David Stubbs of the Guardian wrote this accurate preview prior to the 2011 programme, and his description provided me with some reassurance that it wasn't just me who felt this way. This blog naturally steers me to waffling on about how great a decade the 80s were, often avoiding some painful truths in the shape of Thatcher, mass unemployment, football violence, and the impending threat of a nuclear war. Surely though when it comes to the Sports Personality of The Year, I can't be accused of being completely biased towards my childhood years?
In an attempt to prove that the 80s really was the zenith for the event, That1980sSportsBlogger has wracked his fast diminishing memory banks for his favourite bits of the show, and the moments that made this great programme a must see occasion for millions of sports fans up and down the country (we only had three/four channels back then you know). You may strongly agree with me. You may even think I'm a cantankerous old dinosaur, who should stop harking on about days gone by. The choice, as "Our Graham" used to say on Blind Date, is yours.
You hear a lot of cliches in sport. Some are true: never write off the Germans; some are blatant lies: there are no easy games in international football; some require further examination: the Premier League is the best in the world. One such statement is the often repeated "there are no characters in sport any more." Compared to previous eras there does seem to be fewer entertaining figures in the world of sport in this modern world of ours. Media training has a lot to answer for.
One prime example of this was the acceptance speech of Daley Thompson in 1982. Walking up to the stage, dressed in trainers and modelling a sports casual look, Thompson accepted his award from Sir Garfield Sobers, and immediately turned the air blue. "The first thing I'd like to say is that I feel like s**t," probably wasn't the greatest opening line Thompson could have opted for, and his hand over the mouth in feigned shock did little to help matters. It would be bad enough now, so you can imagine the outrage in 1982. Frank McGhee, writing in the Daily Mirror called it "unpleasant and unnecessary", adding on Thompson's attire "...he turned up for a fairly formal event dressed distinctly informally." Rob Bagchi, writing in this excellent article on Thompson winning the 1984 Olympic gold, noted that the speech was "genuinely incendiary". Shocking indeed.
But for all this indignation, there is a small part of me that misses sportsmen like Thompson putting their foot in it on national television. Of course swearing isn't big or clever, and yes it is a bad example to set to youngsters. Yet it is moments like Thompson's that keep people talking for years to come, and I for one miss those days. Media training has a lot to answer for.
I have nothing against Barker, Humphrey, and Lineker - actually that's a lie; I don't like Lineker's cheesy jokes, and more importantly the fact that he played for Tottenham - but we were spoilt for choice in the 80s when it came to the presenters. The roll call is a Who's Who of legendary front men; Harry Carpenter, Frank Bough, David Coleman, Jimmy Hill, Des Lynam, and Steve Rider. If you added the name of David Vine to that list, then the line-up would have been of Dream Team proportions.
My first few experiences of the show coincided with the pairing of Rider and Lynam. Rider, in my opinion, was a vastly underrated presenter in his pomp, a steady pair of hands at the head of the ship, a kind of cool uncle who you looked up to. Lynam had something special about him and you got the impression he knew this, but his charm was such that you didn't seem to mind this. Together they just clicked, both undeniably professional, smooth, and laid back enough to leave the viewer reassured that they were in safe hands.
"When we both worked for BBC television there were a couple of things about Steve that annoyed me - he never made a mistake and he had world-class hair," joked Lynam in the foreword to Rider's book My Chequered Career. And Des was right of course, as he so often was. What great days.
Who remembers the fun sections that were often shoe-horned into the award evenings in the 1980s? You know, the part of the show where the great and the good of British sport would often put their reputation on the line, as the superb Des Lynam usually compered the jovial proceedings to the amusement of us all. No? There were a few that stuck out in my mind.
In 1985 we witnessed Sandy Lyle attempting to make a better effort of his chip than he did at the 18th hole at Sandwich in the Open Championship, on a mock-up plywood model in the studio. The surprising growth in popularity of hockey in 1986 provided us with a penalty flick contest between Ian Taylor and Sean Kerly (hockey), and Bob Wilson and Emlyn Hughes (football), instigated by the fact that Football Focus had been cancelled during the hockey World Cup in Willesden (hockey again had the last laugh, as Taylor and Kerly ran out 5-2 winners). It was back to golf in 1987, with a swish golf simulator wheeled into the studio, and various sportsmen from Woosnam and Faldo, to Nigel Mansell and Frank Bruno taking it in turns to have a swing and dramatically slice the ball (it transpired that there was a fault with the machine). The 1988 duck-shooting contest involving Olympic shooters Malcolm Cooper and Alastair Allan, along with a number of audience members, was not particularly memorable, described as "the nadir of studio entertainment" in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 50th Anniversary book. But it was the thought that counted. The 1989 table football event between England (Lineker and Bruno), Scotland (Stephen Hendry and Kenny Dalglish), and the Republic of Ireland (David O'Leary and Christie O'Connor), got the entertainment back on track (judge for yourselves here if you live in the UK).
It was all good honest fun, but as time went on and the 80s turned into the 90s you got the impression that the fun would eventually disappear from the programme. When Lynam left for ITV in 1999, the stunts were ditched. Ironically this was also the year when the name of the show changed to Sports Personality of the Year, in a period when more and more sports stars seemed so detached from the sports-loving public, and distinctly lacking on the personality front. I'm not sure if this section of the programme will ever return, but I am very grateful that I grew up at a time when heroes of mine would not think twice about making a fool of themselves on national television.
Couple the studio stunts with sporting funnies like this and this, and you really do start to realise that the balance between sport and humour in the shows back then was a perfect blend.
I'm on a roll now. This part of the current show makes me angrier than Angry Anderson, which is not a pretty sight I can assure you. In the 1980s, the format of the sporting highlights was simple: here is the football, narrated by John Motson, describing who had won what, and the key players/managers/events of the year, as we watched clips from the original camera angles, sometimes with the proper commentary played. Once that was done, we moved on to other sports, and had key commentators detailing their chosen areas of expertise. Simples, I think is the groovy and hip way to explain this in 2012.
Now we have rushed two minute sections of each sport, rarely showing any original footage, invariably narrated by Eddie Butler (who admittedly is rather good at it), as slow motion shots drift across our screens, and wind me up to such an extent that I begin to question if I should get out a bit more. Is it really that much to ask for a return to the basic structure of the show? I should have seen the danger signs, when as the 80s finished we were forced to sit through the Sports Review of the Year in a month by month format in 1990. Absurd.
I really do need to get out more.
The X Factor
At what time did the Sports Personality awards evening morph into the X Factor? Everything about the show had a touch of class about it during the 80s, but sadly no more. The night I saw Rebecca Adlington walking down a set of stairs accompanied by a track from Ke$ha, I knew the programme had long gone past the point of no return.
I promise this isn't a London-centric rant of a Southern softy. However, the intimate setting of the BBC Television Centre studio had something about it. A traditional and formal location for the end of year celebration. Surely better than the vast arenas that currently host the awards evenings? The plus-side is that more members of the paying public can now soak in such a special occasion. But for me the negatives outweigh this.
We now have to sit through an evening with telephone numbers repeatedly read out by the presenters, which at a rough calculation takes up an estimated 53% of the show. Add 01 if you want to vote for Bradley Wiggins, 02 for Jessica Ennis, 03 for Rory McIlroy, zzzzzzzzz. The only surprise is that Ant and Dec haven't got involved as yet.
I simply have to stop now, as I'm beginning to sound like a 37-year-old man who is fast losing his hair, reminiscing about the good old days like my parents used to do. I don't think I'm alone though (on the nostalgic outlook at least). Hopefully in 2012 I will be pleasantly surprised, as surely in such a great sporting year the show cannot fail to deliver this time? Can it?