“We apologise to any viewer who might have seen something that might have disappointed them”
I had to tape this meeting as I actually went to Smallmead and, because I spent some time in the pits also, I had the ideal chance to compare the ‘live experience’ to the ‘televised experience’. I’m not exactly sure what was going on with the transmission in my area but, sadly, until heat 2 the screen was filled with a freeze frame of a one-day cricket match. You could tell it was that by the brightly coloured clothing and the match had been caught frozen in time with Lancashire on 30-1 – who they were playing I don’t know – with five 4s and no 6s making up this total. Consequently, I was deprived of pictures for around the first quarter of an hour so was able to concentratedly bathe in the aural delight that is the trademark of a typical Sky Sports speedway presentation.
Jonathan Green immediately thrills me with the news, “yes, there’s a bonus point up for grabs” though with a margin of 17 points between the teams you wouldn’t really expect it to come into play. A review of the team brings out the pyromaniac in Kelvin once more, “Mark Lemon has started the season absolutely on fire and has fired himself to second place in the averages!” Kelvin is quite excited tonight and indulges in a bit of early hyperbole, “Matty Zagar one of the MOST EXCITING riders in the world – full time GP rider [wow, he must be amazing] – on his night, when he’s in full flow, there’s no better sight.” Jonathan has a weird form of ‘broadcast tourettes’ where instead of expletives his mind unconsciously seizes upon whatever has just been said so that he can instantly repeat it (or a key phrase) back again as though stumbling on an original insight, albeit often with a slight change in the word order. News of the thrill ahead prompts Jonathan to observe, “maybe he’ll be fired up to have a good night on TV!” Kelvin has moved on to bigger fish, “Nicki Pedersen – we can’t not mention him, the form rider throughout the world.” Luckily his co-presenter has learnt a thing or two and so counsels caution with a nuanced reading of the Eastbourne team sheet, “it’s never in speedway a one man team – Dave Norris, they’re gonna miss him tonight, aren’t they?” Jonathan has got the ‘broadcast tourettes’ thing so bad tonight since he starts picking up on his own metaphors, “our team are ready and willing…”
No televised meeting would be properly contextualised without extensive meteorological insight more appropriate to the weather channel – albeit without the wonderful graphics, though Kelvin could turn his hand to them I’m sure. Jonathan introduces Sam ‘Mind Reader’ Ermolenko, “Sam, it was raining earlier but conditions are perfect now, how is it on the track?” Shockingly it transpires, “it’s one of those tracks where you have to make good starts!” A keen student of the climate himself, Kelvin probes deeper, “there’s really a strong wind here tonight Sam, how’s that gonna affect track conditions?” “I think it’s gonna play a big part.” Ever keen to demonstrate his expertise, Jonathan bigs up the insight Sam can provide about Smallmead, “Sam certainly knows what’s here at Reading, he’s been here for so long!” Well, to be exact, in a British Speedway career that lasted from 1983 to 2005 Sam rode for many clubs: Poole, Wolves, Sheffield, Belle Vue, Hull and Peterborough. He would have rarely ridden at Smallmead, though he was Sporting Director at Reading in 2006 so, in typical Sky speedway coverage fashion, Jonathan is confusing what has just happened recently with tradition and history – thereby mistaking it for extensive experience and exaggerating its significance.
They can’t wait to interview Nicki and, when Sarra catches him, he’s in Zen philosopher mode, “in speedway you never know – it’s a tough world!” When pressed about the Eagles away form – no wins in seven matches – he’s hopeful, “I don’t think we’ve been winning any away this year, but we’ve been trying hard!” Sarra fully understands, “it’s crucial to get those home wins, isn’t it?” Greg Hancock is much more ‘New Age’ in his outlook, “we can bounce back from the negative thoughts and negative press!” With a wise head on old shoulders, Kelvin advises against rash or undue anxiety, “it’s never easy – it’s a long season – this is not the time to panic.”
Tony Millard is in the commentary booth painting word descriptions of great beauty and intensity for the armchair viewers before he hands over to ‘Play It Again’ Sam Ermolenko for his thoughts on the first race. “You’ve kind of told the story already” Sam tetchily observes before, ever the professional and unafraid to say the obvious or repeat things, proceeds to tell it to us all over again. Back in the pits after a first heat win, Nicki bats off idle talk of the ease of his victory, “not at all – this track is not really for me, I prefer the big tracks”. Sarra then refers to the supposed significance of this meaningless win over Greg as ideal preparation for the Wroclaw Grand Prix on Saturday, “I’ve a few days to go before then, so I’m not thinking of that now!” Jonathan seizes on this insight, “you know [nervous laugh] you forget that they’re riding all week [you do?] – Saturday is a long way away yet and there’s lots of races to go!” The cricket picture is finally replaced by the transmission from Smallmead, just in time for me to see Kelvin look meaningfully ahead and say, “he’s the best I’ve ever seen him” before he pauses for effect and goes on to blather that Nicki’s operation has “rejuvenated him”. Pictures of feverish work on a bike in the pits immediately strikes a chord with Kelvin and prompts him to turn teacher and explain, “he’s turning the spring pressure in to give him more bite off the start”. It’s all too technical for even Jonathan to vacuously join in with, so instead he stares off into the distance for a moment and then changes the subject, “conditions look set for some good speedway!”
Sam is sulking in the booth by refusing to mind read and by not making outlandish predictions. The sight of Cameron and Lewis leading heat 2 surprises Tony Millard but not his colleague, “I kinda felt that was going to happen but I didn’t want to say it Tony.” Cameron then makes a mistake that Sam conspicuously doesn’t comment upon. Though he only finishes third in the race, the young Australian is then interviewed by Kelvin, who relishes the chance to parade some advanced technical insight, “getting that bike set up is probably crucial?” No sooner has the reply “definitely” left Cameron’s mouth than Jonathan shoos him away, “listen, you said set ups are important, we’ll let you go and get yours ready for the next race.” Before he turns to Kelvin and says, “it’s going to be very important how you set the bike up!” Kelvinworld has moved on, “yeh, the points count the same, of course!” but Jonathan persists as though he’s discussing the wear and tear of the wicket before the last day of a deciding Test match, “how much will the track do, do you think?” “It will come more consistent – consistently slick!” says Kelv gnomically before he sympathises with God, “it’s a bit of a track creator’s nightmare!” It’s not often you hear about divine intervention at speedway.
Back in the commentary booth perched high above the start line, Sam is still hurting before heat 3, “I’ll say what I really think now”. He then goes on to utter the sort of convoluted, enthusiastic ‘buddy’ type thing that we’ve grown used to previously, so it’s hard to tell truth from fiction. And, I must say, a bit of a shock (on par with the non-existence of Father Christmas) to learn that he’s previously chuntered on with extraneous details and verbal wallpaper that he didn’t really believe in!
After Lewis loses control of his bike, slams into a Reading rider and is excluded, Jonathan brings his intelligence to bear on the issue of track conditions and, since it’s a fresh stream of consciousness unprompted by the recent utterings of others, he struggles a bit to master his thoughts. Consequently, he wonders aloud whether referee’s should depart from the regulations of the sport, as outlined in the SCB rulebook, and adopt a more free-floating looser interpretation and thereby, “make allowances like they do in football” when tackles are rash in slippery conditions. After ruminating that, “riders know track conditions better than referee’s” he moves onto bigger questions, “may be he walks the track or may be he doesn’t?” Well, actually, they all do as part of the mandatory inspection regime before any meeting, which he’d have known if he’d bothered to open his eyes in the hours before transmission. Kelvin ignores this since he has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at the hands of officials everywhere, “really, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one change their mind!”
Tony Millard delights in the small gestures, “the wheelie of celebration, the Reading fans are going to enjoy that!” Sam’s special mind reading powers have deserted him completely, “I think Lewis has his own feelings about that but, at the end of the day, the ref made his decision”. Before heat 5 Tony Millard asks, “Nicki Pedersen to win – do you fancy that?” In reflective but contrary mode all night, Sam notes, “that goes without saying, I do fancy that.”
There are shock revelations about the shale surface to come from Kelvin, “track conditions aren’t easy, so emphasis on starting is huge!” Jonathan couldn’t agree more, “once again Greg Hancock proving that starts are so important!” The ceaseless innovation that characterises Sky’s speedway coverage continues with a new segment that features their resident shale boffin. Jonathan excitedly explains the ‘concept’, “ Kelvin’s ‘Bite Sized Bike Bits’ will teach us a little bit more about the nuances of speedway.” One innovation replaces another in Kelvinworld, so with echoes of the mad old man with the wild hair and poor dress sense from the ‘Fast Show’ (who emerges from the outside lavatory to say with profundity “this week I shall mainly be talking about menstruation/treacle tarts/paint etc”), this week Kelvin will explain to excited viewers the concept of “the clutch”. When they say “Bite Sized”, this is in fact a short hand for an extremely brief interlude during which Kelvin says technical words slowly to allow them to sink in and thereby enable us to understand them. Apparently filmed in a garage converted into a workshop, Kelvin visibly appears much more confident and at ease surrounded with inanimate objects than we’ve become used to on televised race nights. The segment is actually so abridged that we only learn the bare essentials about “the clutch”, namely, “it’s a high maintenance area”, “each rider will have his own requirements” and, said in a tone of voice usually reserved for discussions of the death penalty or an outbreak of nuclear conflict, “if it’s wrong it’ll COST you, if it’s right it can ENABLE YOU to win plenty of races.” The bit where he spoke about “bite” captivated Jonathan the most, “when it bites, yeh?” The programme then continues so we don’t learn about future topics to be covered in “bite sized” bits but, I imagine, they’ll be things like “Gloves” (“Many riders have different sized hands so not all gloves are the same. They come in different colours too and they help keep the riders hands clean. Each glove has room for four fingers and a thumb. Shale can be dirty but also scratch your hand if you fall off your bike without them on” “it keeps off the dirty shale, yeh?”) and “crash helmets” (“many riders have different sized heads and hairstyles so not all crash helmets are the same. They come in different colours – often with stripes down the side or funny painted patterns – and sometimes have small pointy bits on top to help the air flow past the helmet efficiently, like it does on fighter planes, to make them go quicker. The helmet is made from a solid material – listen while I tap it – so it doesn’t hurt so much if a rider bumps his head on the hard ground. They are padded inside with foam type materials that come in different colours.” “Are blue ones best, yeh?”).
Heat 7 has Danny Bird awarded third place when (live) it looked like it should have been Kevin Doolan. Eagles team manager Trevor Geer is mystified by the decision and appeals to the programme deities for justice, “we’ve already filled in our programmes – I know we’re not in line [like the ref is]” Jonathan can’t resist some rapier like humour, “you could say he has an eagle eye, huh huh!” before he comes over all serious, “it was a close heat, I think it’s going to be a close match”. After the next commercial break, he’s even more convinced, “I think it’s gonna be a close match”, though Kelvin speculates, “I think heat 8 is gonna be key to this match!” Sam helpfully explains rider psychology, “I think Lewis is not going to give up and neither will Kolodziej”. Stefan Andersson wins and, interviewed afterwards, tells Kelvin, “I have an engine that’s working – your brother [Neville] has done it for me.” Jonathan congratulates Stefan on the importance of the race win, “you really needed that”, but confuses him, “I don’t know what the score is? We’re winning?” Kelvin just can’t talk the meeting up enough, “I tell you what, it’s a triffic match!”
There’s nothing like expert analysis, so when heat 9 is stopped because of an absent paramedic, Jonathan turns to Kelvin and asks, “I presume all four back in that one?” Well used to working with his partner and, without so much as a glance at a calendar to check if it’s April 1st, Kelv reassures us that all four will indeed be back. The need for aural wallpaper and the Sky broadcast team obsession to identify a key race (I forget which one) beforehand has seized Tony Millard, “that, perhaps, now will be the decisive heat of this meeting?” Jonathan decides to briefly big up the forthcoming Grand Prix, “wow! We’ve got a great GP series this year!” It’s an interesting claim to make after one round and strongly implies, though a word was never breathed at the time in case it frightened the natives, that some other years have been closer to execrable than entertaining.
Sarra has grabbed a few words with an unshaven and laconic Floppy in the pits who explains his absence, “I’ve bashed me head for the third time in a row this year.” He admits to frustration, not being the best spectator and a bothersome practical matter, “I’m supposed to be earning money here tonight!”
Matej beats Nicki, Sam ‘Madame Petrolenko’ Ermolenko strokes his crystal ball before he confesses that his ‘special’ psychic powers have deserted him about ‘sleeping beauty’, “I would never have guessed…Matej Zagar has woken up and is riding that bike like he’s stolen it from somebody, if you know what I mean?” Interviewed afterwards, Matej provided some unexpected entertainment when he looks ahead to the latest GP, “I’m gonna kick some ass” provokes a pained and askance stare from Kelvin – as though someone farted loudly at the vital bit of a moving funeral service – straight and deep into the camera at the merest mention of the A-word. Ever professional, Jonathan steps in to translate, “he’s gonna kick some butt he says,” before he then affects a passable American accent and playfully imitates Sam, “he rode the bike like he stole it.” Perhaps, he could do impersonations instead of repeating what’s just been said at future meetings?
All is not well in the box with the relentless over promotion of the contest, “this was exciting” provokes Sam to say, “yes, it was” unconvincingly. Tony hopes for better luck on the handover, “this match is very much alive” and Jonathan echoes the call, “yeh, no doubt about it.” Interesting that the score line shows that the teams are presently apart by 10 points on the night, so their level of excitement would probably exceed fever pitch if it were closer. Ever keen to learn more and just say the first thing that enters his head, Jonathan asks Kelv, “I just wondered – have you ever done a wheelie like that?” “No, I haven’t – just looking at it frightens me!” In a delightful malapropism, Kelvin then mentions the Scottish Eagles team manager, “Trevor McGeer” (“When we’ve got a full team we’re capable of beating anyone, when that will be I don’t know”) – about to be interviewed by Sarra in the pits – but, ever the professional, he carries on without correcting himself in the hope no one has noticed.
Before the last heat has even been raced, the overview begins:
[JG] “It was a great meeting.”
[KT] “It’s all about pulling the right move on the first turn.”
[JG] “It’s been a great meeting though, hasn’t it?”
[KT] “Yeh, there’s been some super stuff!”
Interviewed a few heats before he’s controversially excluded in heat 15, Nicki has adopted the ‘Royal We’, “it’s not my favourite track…we’re not feeling comfortable but we’re doing our best.” After a shove from Zagar and slightly delayed subsequent fall that results in his exclusion, Nicki trudges back across the centre green and, typical of the Sky Sports camera work at speedway, his parting wave of acknowledgement to the Reading fans is missed because it’s just out of shot. Nonetheless Tony Millard apologises, “we apologise to any viewer who might have seen something that might have disappointed them at the end of that heat!” Perhaps, they could adopt it as the slogan for the show every week? It’s getting more noticeable that the Sky speedway team are frightened to offend with words spoken and gestures given in the heat of the moment, but are happy to do so with the relentless banality of their hyperbolic insight. Tony Millard still has time to mangle the name of the referee, who temporarily becomes Dave Watter. Sensibly the referee refuses to speak with Nicki or rescind his decision, so afterwards is allegedly accused of the heinous crime of smiling on telly by Bob Brimson.
Jonathan knows what he has just seen, “some great speedway” and Kelvin agrees, “we got some great action – the score doesn’t really reflect that!” Seconds before the montage and credits roll, Jonathan tries out a new explosive nickname when he christens Pedersen, “Nitro Nicki”.
7th May reading v Eastbourne (ELA) 54-38