“Remember – a last heat decider guaranteed”

4th June

Sky present speedway programmes never known to stint on the use of hyperbole. For the staging of the British Final at Wolverhampton, they really excelled themselves with the introductory strap line (intoned over action images of speedway riders), “tonight will be the biggest night ever for one of these!” Once we arrive at Monmore Green, it’s only a matter of seconds before Jonathan regales us with the latest information on the parking situation, “people are still trying to get into the car park”. They’ve apparently been drawn there to see the “crème de la crème”. We’ve no real chance to marvel at the last example of Jonathan’s foreign language abilities before he claims, “of course, it’s bigger than any other night of British speedway!” Surely, the ‘biggest night’ is whatever meeting Sky televise that week or the play off finals? I’m genuinely confused by too many “big nights”. Kelvin keeps the “triffic” count to low levels throughout the night (perhaps he’s unintentionally revealing what he really feels about the quality of the entertainment offered?), almost as though he has been rationed. Nonetheless, old habits die hard so he can’t help but note that to win the championship is a “triffic achievement for any rider”.

Jonathan is beside himself with anticipation and marvels at the “very strong, strong field this year” – though this claim is somewhat contradicted by the fact that Jonathan daringly forecasts Scott “I’m the reigning champion and I want to keep the trophy at my house” Nicholls to win while Kelvin daringly tips Chris ‘Bomber’ Harris. Neither will be any keener to win given the additional incentive of the chance to win a “wild card place” for the Cardiff Grand Prix. The programme this week is ideal for J&K since they can bang on relentlessly about the GP’s without any need to find tenuous excuses and they can also look forward to the Sky Holy Grail of a guaranteed “last heat decider” as, structurally, the competition will inevitably produce such an outcome on the night. The excitement of it all is so much for Jonathan that he claims the lucky rider will get the “chance to race in front of 50,000 at Cardiff!” and later, to prove that his statement is no accident of mathematics or witless enthusiasm, he’ll again repeat this as though it is a proven fact, “what an experience – 50,000 screaming fans!” We all know that the Cardiff GP is the showpiece event of the British speedway year – if judged by the numbers of fans who attend and the sheer quality of the surroundings provided by the Millenium Stadium (but, not usually, the quality of the racing on a one-off track). However, a quick glance at the official FIM attendance figures – and how refreshing it is to have a speedway event in this country publish its figures (!) – reveals the following information:

2001 32,000
2002 42,000
2003 40,000
2004 35,251
2005 40,000
2006 40,000

If we leave aside any suspicions about the peculiar exactitude of these figures (except 2004), it appears that attendances at the event have declined since 2002 and that the fans there scream so loud that they create the impression that 50,000 are present.

In the commentary box tonight Nigel Pearson has Mark Loram as company. Widely respected as one of the speedway ‘nice guys’ – throughout the night, in my opinion, Mark is the highlight of the whole broadcast with his straightforward, slightly reticent style. It’s very noticeable that he doesn’t indulge in hype or exaggeration but is consistently informative with his matter of fact exactness. He knows all the riders well – their riding styles, proclivities, career details, foibles – and communicates with empathy and occasional verve in his lilting regional accent. It has to be said that the success of his commentating partnership with Nigel Pearson is down to the latter’s skill as a broadcaster since he gives Mark his head with the space to comment slightly languidly and so, thereby, lets the words and the insight flow. Nigel still has to big the thing up repeatedly but he tempers his usual enthusiastic style. Nonetheless, he is at pains to inform us of the shock news, “it is very important to win your national championship” though earlier he had confided on air, “the British championship lost some of the appeal over the years – back with a vengeance tonight”. While on the BSPA website, Nigel noted that the British championship had in fact been completely in the doldrums over recent years until the welcome quirk of the ‘wild card’ variable available this year gave the tired format a much needed shot in the arm and thereby completely re-energised the thing. According to Nigel, many riders in the pits verge here tonight on a state of ecstasy – definitely so if judged by his descriptions of Havvy, “I know he’s delighted to be here tonight” and also of David Howe who, “said how delighted he was to be here”. The language used to discuss the exact mechanics of how the ‘wild card’ will be awarded is complicated by the fact that Scott and Bomber already ride full time in the GP series. Nigel solves this with a neat sounding phrase, “it will be awarded to the highest placed rider apart from Scott and Bomber” though he also then advises that Tai Woffinden is “obviously too young to be in Cardiff”. Clearly ‘if you commit the crime you can do the time’ doesn’t apply to speedway when it comes to riding in the GP since you need to be seventeen (the Lewis Bridger fiasco comes to mind when BSI announced his entry only to rescind it with egg on their corporate face when they learnt the rules) and, bizarrely, own a driving licence. So, the exact description of the nuances of qualification should be, “it will be awarded to the highest placed rider apart from Scott and Bomber except if it’s Tai Woffinden”.

After a few weeks absence Sarra Elgin is back, though she doesn’t sound to have spent much of this time away on research for her brief ‘penetrating’ questions since she frequently falls back on the tried and tested favourite of what is effectively, ‘you’ve won the race, tell me about it in 20 seconds’. Sarra mystifies Bomber with her remark, “beating David Howe will give you confidence for this evening”. She is definitely handicapped by the restricted time available to her between heats because of the need to run 22 races with alacrity on the night but this fact also has the benefit that screen time for Jonathan and Kelvin is also severely restricted compared to normal excessive levels. Though professionals that they are, they still squeeze in the requisite contractual amounts of fatuousness. Jonathan raises himself to his full height, surveys his speedway kingdom and pronounces on the Cardiff round of the GP series, “the greatest adventure there is in speedway I’d have said” before he returns to the practised mundanity of one of his hackneyed favourites, “Kelv – the track has been a big factor already”. Well actually the fence already has for Tai, about who Loramski noted, “yeh, he’s hung his bike up on the fence” a rare occurrence that he puts down to “probably over trying”. Mark even remains amusing – a natural not an affected gift for him – and insightful after he has to commentate on the traditional zillion replays of the incident, “then it’s like a one man battle with the fence!”

Last week Jonathan completely failed to broach the question of the demise of Oxford Cheetahs speedway with their captain Steve Johnson when he was in the commentary booth but this week shows his true reporting values when decides to briefly become an investigative reporter, “everyone wants to know – Mark, how is that leg?” To my mind, it’s an insensitive question that reveals a lack of knowledge about the injuries suffered. Mark answers with polite understatement before he gets back to his job. When Edward and Lewis reel in and overtake Chris Louis, Mark acknowledges the progress in their careers rather sweetly, “two young lads knowing exactly where to ride and they picked up the benefit” without drawing attention to the fact that Chris now mostly hugs the inside line. Nigel must have been deeply wounded by sniffy comments about speedway in the past since this (rare) thrilling gives him the chance to try to right that hurt, “who says first from the gate always wins? That is NOT TRUE!” Sadly, quite a few televised races do follow that apparently discredited formulae in the televised Elite League meetings we get to see as well as even more often in the GP series, particularly if this truism was adapted to include the statistically more exact ‘in the lead after the first corner’.

Back on Planet Anodyne, race winner Edward Kennett is quizzed by Kelvin, “you must be looking forward to having a really big night?”. After they’ve dismissed him to “go and get your bike ready”, Jonathan tries to talk through some facts he half memorised earlier and affects to wear his ridiculous ‘true fan of speedway’ mantle but quickly descends into shorthand, “lovely fella – lots of people are rooting for him, classic come through the ranks” [jumpers for goalposts etc]. Before we all lose the will to live, the next race has Bomber win by a country mile (first from the gate does win) and Mark rhapsodises about the aura of confidence a rider gets when they ride in ‘the zone’ (“full of confidence – trundles along and does his own thing”). It’s something frequent success generates, “he’s probably thinking about next week’s shopping in Tesco’s!” Just in case we’ve forgotten what he said earlier (“it is going to reach a last heat decider whatever happens”), this shocking easy and pedestrian win for Bomber potentially has the viewers switching off in droves with boredom at the lack of spectacle and missing the adverts so Nigel adroitly reminds us, “remember a last heat decider guaranteed”.

And what adverts would the viewers miss if they when for a cuppa and failed to sit stupefied on the sofa during the commercial breaks? My understanding of the selling of these slots is that the companies that pay to advertise are lured to do so by the size of the audience and the appropriate (carefully researched/profiled by the seller) demographics of the viewers who they believe watch the programmes in question. To illustrate the finely targeted nature of these things, every week we’re assaulted by bombastic Cardiff GP adverts apparently peopled from some Australian penal institution – this advert is now screened with an added rather screechy Jonathan Green overdub that I thankfully can’t recall ever hearing originally broadcast – along with a selection of other unknown or third rate products/companies/services. Last week, we learnt you could get your car crushed if you didn’t pay your poll tax (this would be quite a pitch by the Sky commercial sales department “research has shown many of our viewers don’t pay their poll tax”) and this week we get a unique consecutive trio during one such commercial break. We’re told, “enjoy fishing – get a licence”, “do I look like I’d spend £600 on a hairdo?” [advert on identity theft], “do look at Nicholls” by Greenie in overdub along with news of the “classic composers selection” giveaway in “this week’s Daily Telegraph”. From this I think we can slowly build our profile of the typical speedway viewer. They appear primarily to be tonsorially challenged fisherman who love to drive and listen to classical music but remain in such financial difficulties that they’re remain unable to pay the community charge. Though they nonetheless occasionally buy the Telegraph as well as still find time to apply for an avalanche of credit cards that then get stolen who, nonetheless, still waiver about the merits of going to Cardiff to join the “50,000” and watch the GP there. Most weeks, Nigel manfully tries to encourage these people along to the track (“there’s racing every night somewhere in the country”) when, it turns out, he should really be advising on increased financial prudency. Luckily, you probably won’t find this bloke standing next to you since, despite claims to the contrary, the impact of Sky coverage on actually increasing speedway crowds in general remains singularly unproven and has been minimal, if judged by anecdotal reports of low crowd numbers throughout the leagues.

The booth boys switch onto automatic pilot and relentlessly talk the thing up in the few moments that they’re given:
[JG] “Well Kelv, it’s going to be interesting.”
[KT] “It is – you gotta say some of the races have been triffic.”
[JG] “You said to me all along – when you hit that patch.”
[KT] “That’s what sport is….. it’s a lot to race for.”

When the camera pans to Edward Kennett’s section of the pits and John Davis and Martin Dugard are revealed to be helping him (along with mechanic Chris Geer), Kelv excels himself and tries to entertain the deaf viewers too when he highlights it’s good to have, “another pair of eyes [points to eyes] and ears [points to ears] around the place”. After Jonathan has helpfully chimed in with “every point is vital”, Kelv does some helpful maths on behalf of Joe Screen, “four points, three more that’s seven – anything can happen!” Edward Kennett has impressed the booth team, “he could pull up some trees” notes JG sagely. Richard Hall has struggled to impress Kelvin, “he hasn’t had a good night this season”.

Nigel Pearson tries to break up the inanity with news that Bomber “wants to go all the way” and for the mythical ‘new’ viewer who has yet to be subjected to the torture of the 2007 GP adverts there’s the shock news, “yes, we have speedway at Cardiff every summer”. A win for David Howe has Nigel surmise, “he’s got a smile on his face, no doubt, beneath the crash helmet there”. Occasionally gets so excited that his (Yorkshire?) accent intermittently breaks out or betrays itself in the pronunciation of words like Redcar (“Red-Curr”) though his unique take on the word “stol-wart” defies easy categorisation. Mark does his own laconic thing and consistently adds to the viewers pleasure with his observational skills, “that bike of Oliver Allen’s isn’t giving him a nice ride at all – it’s trying to buck him off”. Another win for David Howe has Mark outline his take on the philosophy that underpins success, “with good riding comes confidence with confidence comes results” closely followed by “he’s going to underline himself as one of the top, top riders”. Like London buses, for any speedway rider during the season there’s always another one along in a minute when it comes to the frequency of speedway meetings. So when Joe Screen decides to take the precaution to withdraw with an arm injury Mark notes, “that’s a shame – time to move on and look to the next meeting”. As an experienced rider nothing much fazes him so when there’s an aggressive first corner that excites Nigel, he matter factly replies, “yeh, lively ole first corner there, huh”.

Scott Nicholls has taken the chance to test his bikes at the meeting on the reasonable basis that only the final race of the night really matters. After another comfortable race win despite a poor start, Jonathan tries to flummox him with a variant on his usual closed questions, “you may have won it – but you’re not happy are you?” After the booth boys have quickly dismissed him back to the pits, talk then turns to more technical topics that it’s best not to mention in front of the riders. Jonathan’s opinion “great job by the air fence” is bizarrely answered by Kelv, “even the air fence is happy cos it hasn’t been popped!” “Yeh, right” replies Jonathan slightly dubiously, no doubt probably worried that sentient air fences like these might one day be called upon to do his presentation work.

On the subject of glamour, the start line cameraman initially restrains himself from lingering with his lens on the lithe figures of the ‘sexy 7even’ start line girls but soon prefaces practically every race with a shot of a rider gardening at the start gate past the backside of one of the girls. Some lady called “Bianca” has been hired to increase the totty count further and, when the camera pinpoints her in the crowd attentively chaperoned by the driving force behind the invention of the Super 7 Series (Jonathan Chapman), Nigel obliquely comes over all Freddie Shepherd when he notes with surprise, “a bit of glamour here tonight!” Before he follows it up with, “Bianca looks very interested in the speedway here tonight too” [apparently she talks, breathes and walks too] before he joshingly reveals that Mark Loram had earlier had his programme signed by her.

The meeting plays out predictably enough in the end – confirmation of the present dearth of talent in the country – though Chris “he’s renowned for hugging the inside dirt” Louis adds some excitement (and proves the integrity of the format) when he nearly qualifies for the sudden death qualifier or whatever it’s called. Oliver Allen celebrates his qualification for this elimination race by miming hari-kari, though weirdly Nigel describes it differently to how it appears to the armchair viewers, “look at that – [he] punches the air with delight”. Lewis Bridger just fails to get through to this stage though Kelv notes, “he’s literally taking one race at a time – he’s wanting to do well and things will come to him”.

Towards the end of the meeting we’re given greater exposure to the ‘when Forrest met Chancy show’. Before the final race, Jonathan explains to Kelv about David Howe, “it’s his home track remember” before he discusses the likely impact of gate positions, “it’s Harris from the inside or Nicholls from the outside”. Just about holding back a scream, Kelvin politely assents, “yeh, there are many scenarios”. Unfortunately, having just been the voice of experience, Kelvin then gets a mental block and suddenly “scenario” becomes the new “triffic” for him, “lots of scenario’s going through you mind”. Luckily we return to the commentary team and Nigel’s almost breathless thrill at the sight of the silverware, “look! There’s the British championship trophy!” It’s hardly the Jules Rimet* trophy in terms of design or prestige but does look like it might have unconsciously influenced the designers behind the radical look of the new London Olympics logo. A win for Bomber has Jonathan get stuck on the first page of his handy book of ready drafted clichés, “[the] world at his feet” before Kelvin fails to inject the right amount of sincerity and thereby fails to convince with claims of possible world championship glory, “if things just fall into place, he could just do it!” With the riders on the victory rostrum, the first loud bars of the music strikes up over the tannoy and Jonathan patriotically claims, “this is the tune we want to hear ring out at Cardiff!” The words are still leaving his mouth as we all get to hear the theme from ‘the Magnificent Seven’, ‘ the Ying Tong song’, ‘the High Chaparral’ or something like that blare out (actually this would be quite fun at Cardiff). Somewhere in the dark recesses of the stadium the music person realises their humour at playing ‘Bomber Command’ is probably misplaced wit and, instead, quickly slaps on an almost unrecognisable and rather flowery version of the National Anthem that must either be well received in the Black Country or might well be from the Telegraph’s “classic composers selection”. It’s a very speedway end to the night and the broadcast.

4th June British Final Winner: Chris ‘Bomber’ Harris

* This reminds me of the great bit in the frankly awful Frank Skinner autobiography where David Seaman’s wife keeps encouraging to the pony tailed one to pluck up the courage to ask his question (“go on ask him!”) of the ‘Three Lions’ co-composer. Eventually David blurts out, “Who is Jules Rimet?” I expect Jonathan to grow a ponytail shortly.

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