Banner trailed as Green fades from screens

12th May

The last ever live Sky Sports speedway broadcast to feature the legendary presenter Jonathan Green simultaneously showcased his skills along with the grave limitations of his talent, his obsessions (too many to list but invariably an endless loop of discussions about the weather, the track, both teams REALLY wanting to win, the wonder of the GP’s, the innate hardiness of speedway riders, a desire for a close meeting etc) and the weekly joy that is his fractured and occasionally fractious on screen relationship with Alan Sugar wanna be Sir Kelvin Tatum. All this entertainment is leavened with a trademark but relentless faux bonhomie from Jonathan coupled with manufactured excitement in his histrionic voice that his body language and eyes signally fail to echo.

At the outset, it all sounded like yet another run of the mill speedway where viewers were to be treated to the Sky Sports speedway dream team ticket of Green, Tatum, Elgan, Millard and Ermolenko! Almost enough to provoke an immediate switch to another channel by the casual viewer, in contrast to those endlessly loyal, dedicated, relatively affluent (given the cost of a monthly subscription) and die-hard of the species – the avowed speedway fan. You just know what lies in store for the next two hours with a quintet like that on hand. Our main man, Jonathan, would (in his own imagination) have to hold it all together, give the viewers coherence while all the while having to ‘professionally’ grind out the cheeriness that permanently verges on a heightened state of wonder. Has ever a man marvelled at so little? I would say on national prime time but fortunately for the impressionable youth (or otherwise) of Britain, this is satellite broadcasting and, despite the best efforts of the Sky publicity office and various commercially interested boosters, it remains in audience terms the televisual equivalent of talking to yourself.

Each programme is invariably a masterclass in something, as a nation, we all reputedly like to talk about daily – the weather – allied to extensive monologues on something there’s not much discussion of in everyday life – soil, or, rather its speedway half cousin when found on the racing surface, shale. Great demagogues know it’s easier to get belief in a big lie, while Jonathan prefers to just defy all the available visual or reported evidence of the season so far when he claims, “these are familiar sights in British speedway this season – clear blue skies and big crowds”. I’m sure every promoter in the country would be delighted if this were the case. Tonight, Eastbourne do have the biggest crowd to pile into Arlington for quite sometime but that is mainly because the promotion have given away a large number of free tickets in the hope that they’ll snare some fans for the future if they enjoy the spectacle enough tonight, rather than the innate attractiveness of the fixture. Naturally enough, Jonathan remains ceaselessly amazed at crowd sizes – though no matter what the numbers, he invariably always overestimates their size – and also at the cars that fill car parks at any speedway stadium. Tony Millard is similarly gobsmacked at the advent of the motorcar and its arrival in East Sussex (“and they are still coming in over my left shoulder”).

Away in the pits Sarra is being her usual blonde, bubbly self and is never afraid to ask a predictable question related to what we’ve just seen, can easily predict the answer to or just don’t need to know. Unfortunately, the pits at any speedway meeting are noisy places so the words of wisdom of her reduced instruction set of questions or the answers she attracts are often drowned out by the sound of revving bikes. This adds to the atmosphere if not the insight. Sarra tries to engage Adam Skornicki with a straightforward “shame about Daniel Davidsson?” only for the long haired Poole Polish reserve to mirror her quizzical look with his own, “what happened?”

During the opening three heats, the track really doesn’t appear to be its usual pristine self and, from the safety of the commentary box and well out of earshot, Sam bravely demands answers and action. “Dugard needs to get out there and put some water on it to let it settle down a little bit!” Stood close by the pits without their usual interview booth – that we might have assumed had been lost or stolen (but apparently was in a warehouse at an undisclosed location being repainted and remodelled into cross between a fair ground ride and a fork lift truck) – Kelvin waxes inordinately lyrical about the results of one of the GP Qualifier quarter final stages. Ignoring the IMG owned GP series is predominantly invite only and remains some distance from only featuring the ‘best’ speedway riders in the world, Kelvin hails the ambition of any speedway riders who’ve travelled at their own expense to far flung corners of Europe in order to try to progress into the competition proper in 2009. “They’re on the road making their dreams come true!” This probably isn’t quite what Jack Kerouac had in mind, though Kelvin is quick to faintly praise the absent Edward Kennett who has managed to progress to the semis, “I’m pleased he’s showing SOME ambition…he’s been around a few years now!”

Hercule Green is much keener to analyse the situation at hand, namely the Arlington track surface debate rather than chatter on about meetings held at far flung and fly blown speedway stadia elsewhere. “On a night like this when it cools down quickly and we’ve had a hot day, how quickly will the track change?” Knitting his eyebrows together to try to simultaneously signify concentration and insight, Kelvin blurts back, “Well, it will change rapidly!” The track theme is one that the lads just can’t help themselves about so they work it to death over the following heats. Jonathan stares at the camera with his approximation of how an investigative journalist might look in an amateur dramatic production practised for the first time in a provincial town (part quizzical mixed with part constipated) before he says in a profound tone, “one thing that isn’t settling down is the track, it’s very bumpy out there!” Kelvin raises himself to his full height to tell us, “that’s a result of the hot sunshine on it!” Quite what’s happened to the cold sunshine or where the wet rain went to, we’re not told. We soon learn that Kelvin used to be a speedway rider so is allegedly an expert on tracks (among other things). Jonathan taps into his experience on behalf of the viewer’s curiosity, “how do you ride a track like this?” Kelv needs no second invitation to give a lengthy, overly detailed reply, “you’ve got to get the handlebars pushed down nice and low, you’ve got to get the body well…” Sadly I lapse into an immediate state of catatonia at this point as he blathers on about trajectories, left feet (apparently you put it in and take it out before you shake it all about) and the like. However, once Greeny has embarked on this quest for further knowledge, he’s tireless in his own banal statements of the obvious. Also having asked the question, he too has glazed over and only half listened to Kelvin’s detailed exposition so soon is forced to round things up, “well, the track is definitely causing problems!”

With Tony Millard in the commentary box mistakes and malapropisms flood over the airwaves and you’d think that someone on the production staff would have the competence (after numerous seasons) to point out to him how to say Kenneth Bjerre. As ever, the bumptious Tony treats us to news of Kenneth Bear (or Kenneth Beer). Tonight, however, he’s joined in the booth by Sam ‘clairvoyant’ Ermolenko who sprays the armchair audience with a series of virtuoso errors – the most notable of which is to continually refer to Cameron Woodward as “Cameron Woodwin”. It’s Woodwin this and Woodwin that without so much as a word in his ear from the Sky production team or the producer who clearly doesn’t have any concern for accuracy in this weekly and relentless quest for ‘entertainment’. It’s pitiful really rather than funny. We do have the distraction of some further routine mistakes from our ‘expert’ Sam, “unlucky for Zetterstrom…he went for it and almost got away with it!” Even Tony Millard can’t let a howler like that pass by, “it was Freddie Eriksson in the yellow helmet in the outside gate there!” Again caught with his tongue in the metaphorical till, Sam is only too happy to apologise (“Oh, I’m sorry about that”). Whereas, really, the publicity staff at Sky Sports with responsibility for speedway should really be organising a mea culpa as well as a refund on our exorbitantly priced subscriptions as an apology for idiocy and inaccuracy beyond the extreme levels we’ve grown accustomed to and regularly tolerate.

Never afraid to use all the informational aids available to him, after yet another commercial break Kelvin looks ahead at the next few forthcoming run-of-the-mill heats in the manner of a man in a trance making a scientific breakthrough. The thrill of Davey Watt’s absence from the Poole team allows Kelvin to bring his formidable predictive and interpretative powers to bear on the vexed and troubling question of who will take the rider replacement ride in Heat 6. Given that Poole trail behind and there are only three possible candidates (after Zetterstrom just did the honours in Heat 4), the fact that Skornicki is in tremendous form at reserve makes him a likely option, particularly as the Pirates will be keen for him to take seven rides. Kelvin boldly speculates, “Adam Skornicki could come in there” (as could two other riders). It’s meaningless, time passing froth to play ‘Guess the Rider Replacement Rider’. When Skornicki is chosen, Jonathan couldn’t have been more amazed if Angels had been discovered in the pits! During league speedway on Sky, hyperbole and self-congratulation are never far away, so it’s not a surprize to hear Jonathan utter, “I think Neil’s been listening to you, we said exactly the same thing!” Kelvin basks in the adulation of the moment with an exaggerated salute towards the camera in the manner of Rimmer from Red Dwarf and chortles delightedly with false modesty, “well, when you’ve been around a bit!”

The need to mime has increasingly seized the Sky team over the opening weeks of the 2008 speedway season, possibly in the mistaken belief that alfresco signing might attract more deaf people to watch the meetings on Sky. If deaf people watched in numbers, this would continue Sky’s self-proclaimed mission to expand the television audience and fulfil remit to continue to bring in new viewers. However, typically, this initiative has been done on the cheap as the Sky presenters appear to be required to step into the breach with their comical range of exaggerated gestures and mimes (to supplement the lip reading at home) rather than have the brilliance of the analysis formally signed by professionals throughout the meeting. In the pits, without much emotion, Sarra supplements her observations to the perpetually in the wars Lee Richardson (“the track’s a bit difficult out there, it’s probably not going to help your wrist”) with some deaf viewer friendly virtuoso gripping of an imaginary throttle which she takes through a series of accelerating motions with her hyperactive left hand.

Close by, Jonathan’s flabber is permanently gasted and remains so with the news that Lee Richardson will Trojan on despite the damage to himself caused by his fall in Heat 5, “you know this sport continues to amaze me” he exclaims before pausing awkwardly for a few seconds in the struggle to find just the right words. Eventually, in Freudian fashion given his immanent departure for the fresh pastures of F1 he blurts, “no glamour!” Seized by an ongoing need to communicate with the deaf viewers with 1960s roots or hippy tendencies as cogently as he does with the aurally enabled, Kelvin’s mission to educate means that he theatrically mistakes himself for Marcel Marceau while he says, “dust yourself down [mimes dusting down of his whole body] and get on with it, man!” After a decade in the job, Jonathan can still manage to amaze the watching audience and Kelvin with the idiocy of his questions. In this instance about racing from 15 metres back:
[JG] “What did you do?”
[KT] “Sorry?”
[JG] “Did you have to do that yourself?”
[KT] “The 15 metres? Absolutely!”

For the first time this season (and, almost, after a decade of coverage), the cameras then finally caught something interesting and unique as a spectacle at an Elite League meeting during the rerun of the fifth heat (again featuring Cameron Woodwin). Namely the unique sight of Freddie Eriksson bumping into the third bend air fence and somehow getting his bike tangled up with one of the advertising banners. A sight made all the more unusual as he proceeded to continue to try to race with what looked like a bridal train trailing behind him until referee, Chris Gay, mercifully brought an end to proceedings with his exclusion. It was genuinely one of the funniest, quirky things ever to be seen at a meeting in recent years. In the pits, Poole team manager Neil ‘Middlo’ Middleditch rushes to the pits phone to argue the decision. This virtuoso complaint has some basis in fact otherwise it would have stolen the Complaints Crown back from Alun ‘Rosco’ Rossiter for his recent wildly imaginative theory that wind blew the tapes onto Leigh Adams’ front wheel to cause his exclusion. Given that detachable banners only made their way into the speedway world after the arrival of inflatable safety barriers, the spectacle of Freddie blazing away with the banner trailed off behind him could only have been seen in the modern era of speedway. Understandably, this is a scenario not explicitly covered in the frequently changing rules of the sport and so can be debated with referee Chris Gay.
[NM] “What rule are you excluding him under?”
[CG] “Um, the cause of the stoppage.”
[NM] “But the race had continued – they were still racing!”
[CG] “Well, it wouldn’t have been safe for me to allow the race to continue would it?”
[NM] “It would have been safe! He was still under power and it was the last lap.”
[CG] “What? With 15 foot of advertising banner trailing behind him?”
[NM] “Well, there’s no rule – if something gets caught in your wheel, tear offs or something – it wasn’t impeding him and it wasn’t endangering anyone else.”
[CG] “I couldn’t allow the race to continue and, once I couldn’t allow it to continue, he was clearly the cause of the stoppage.”
[NM] “I’ll just be very interested to see the rule, Chris!”
[CG] “I see your point”

As this is a Sky live broadcast, the role of the presenters and roving reporters is usually to parrot back to the viewers in the form of a question exactly what we’ve just seen. Luckily, Chris ‘Obviously’ Louis (temporarily without his arm in a sling for the benefit of the cameras) often brings wit and intelligence to his work (though, doubtless his ongoing Sky Sports television training will soon eradicate these idiosyncrasies)
[CL] “Was he being paid a little bit extra to carry that round with him?”
[NM] “I think the sponsors will be very pleased!”
[CL] “Well, obviously, we know from experience the referee is not going to change his mind”
[NM] “He was under power and he could have completed that lap!” [smile plays on Chris Louis’ lips]
[CL] “Obviously, it’s difficult for the referee, he’s never seen anything like it!”
[NM] “Freddie was a danger to anyone else – if that’s the case, stop advertising on the fence but that’s not good for speedway! It’s unfortunate that Freddie got hooked up in it but he remounted! I can’t understand why he has excluded him, I really can’t!”

We then cut back to Jonathan and Kelvin. In one phrase afterwards, Jonathan summarises a decade worth of his own contribution to speedway televisual history with one typically thoughtless but inaccurate comment. Which is, itself, most revealing of the standard of accuracy practiced on Sky Sports speedway live broadcasts and of the integrity of the information the producers feel should be given to the armchair audience. “I noticed it was the name Dugard he was dragging along! I dunno if there’s any significance? I have to say, I agreed with the ref!” Given he works in a televisual medium and has the benefit of replays, Jonathan was keener to make a (witty) point than attempt any veracity of his observation. Most unfortunate, given the banner dragged along said in large letters “HAGON SHOCKS”. Given Martin Hagon is co-promoter at Eastbourne (and sponsors many British riders), this point could still be equally well made by Jonathan if applied to Martin Hagon but, instead, slovenly journalism triumphs.

If Jonathan and Kelvin are the masters of the banal, then in commentary box Tony Millard and Sam Ermolenko are equally virtuoso with their casual idiocy. Heat 6 sees Scott Nicholls and Lewis Bridger easily lead the race, so much so that in the absence of competition from the Pirates Lewis appears to want to race his team mate.
[TM] “Bridger and Nicholls – they will team ride and spread across the track to hold Skornicki at bay.”
[SE] “They seem to be quite in control of this one!”
Lewis then crashes spectacularly into the bend three air fence
[TM] “The curse of the commentator….that might make a TV blooper later this year!”
(Tony is way too modest as a brief compilation of his mispronunciations, errors and platitudes would require a programme of significant length)
[SE makes wooden attempt at a jovial comment] “If he was gunna be paid extra money to pick up a banner, he just didn’t succeed!”
Back in pit lane, Kelvin is doing his impression of Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney while he watches the replays:
[KT] “Bosh! In the bottom of the bouncy castle!”
[JG] “Those ruts at the end of bend 3 have been there for a few years to be fair! Can you not resurface?”
[KT] “Bob Dugard is the man to ask.”
[JG] “I know but..”
[KT snaps back] “They’ve always been there!”
[JG mistaking the track for a pizza] “Can you not dial out or resurface or something?”
[KT launches into a lengthy, too technical and boring an explanation involving the weather, the properties of shale and the movement of tectonic plates deep below the earth’s surface in this part of East Sussex and that concludes with] “…it’s the lowest point of the track”

Back in the commentary booth and keen not to be left out of the bewitching spotlight of ex-rider authority, Sam is never afraid to make up an explanation or project onto riders some unfounded or cartoon like thoughts, “he probably second guessed himself and in the back of his mind he’s seen Lee Richardson go down [in a similar spot]” Luckily the racing soon resumes and so does the misidentification of riders. Sam and Tony try to alternate to create the biggest howler. With Kenneth Bjerre on show as a guest Tony runs with frequent mentions of Bear or Beer while Sam has the newly discovered Australian Cameron Woodwin or, my personal favourite tonight, “and Matty Zagar – Zetterstrom in yellow!”

All the on screen talent appear to want to make great play for Jonathan’s presentational mantle before he’s even left the programme. Sarra “sorry, it’s very loud down here” Elgan manfully tries to pout her way through another pits interview of severely restricted insight and mundane repetitious questioning. While Chris ‘Obviously’ Louis employs a neat line in advanced Ermolenko style rhetorical questions that answer themselves, so only really require the riders to nod along, say yes , no or stick to the pre-assumed party line. He ‘asks’ Adam Skornicki, “it’s your first season at Poole – obviously you’re really enjoying yourself with the team, the set up?” Adam has lived here long enough to get beyond the usual “this is my happy ride” to venture more widely into the serious business of some concentrated praise, “good fans, good club, good sponsorships” though he stops short of delighting in the food and carpeting of the Wimborne Road grandstand.

Some drama remains in the meeting and, after he’s removed a home made looking ice pack from what looks like the uninjured part of his arm, Lee Richardson manfully makes his way back out in his next race for the Eagles. While we wait for the race to start, Tony treats us to a bizarre fact that bucks your expectations (“only Lee Richardson has a maximum for Eastbourne so far this season”) before Lee again crashes, apparently unable to grip the handlebars of the bike. A lengthy period of on track treatment commences and, as is traditional, the lads struggle to fill the airtime with anything approaching insight or meaningful analysis. We’re treated to pictures of Lee in an oxygen mask, thereby prompting Kelvin to exclaim, “he’s taking on some oxygen, you know!” Later Scott is called in for an interview and displays some real wit in response to Kelvin’s question, “how do you counter Adam Skornicki?” with the rejoinder, “go in and sabotage his bike!” It’s a much funnier response than Jonathan’s cheesy but leaden hand over to the pits, “it’s you Sarra – the star he saw!”

With a Poole victory looking more and more assured, some concerted denial is called for in case the always-unquantified armchair audience dramatically dwindles further. As is his wont, Jonathan gives voice to another passing thought, “how do you call this?” thereby causing Kelvin to admit to his dilemma, “I just can’t! It could go either way!” Predictably enough, Poole have confirmed their away victory by Heat 14, so leaving the meeting to fizzle out in a disappointing manner similar to Jonathan’s (always accidentally entertaining) speedway career played out in its full glory on live television for a decade. Perhaps, the programme closed with a moving tribute sequence of bon mots, bloopers and platitudes as a final swansong to mark the occasion to JG’s departure. There definitely should have been though, as my tape had filled with loving coverage of Lee’s on track grimaces, I’ll never know.

12th May Eastbourne v Poole (Elite League) 41-48

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