Midget bikes and enhanced graphics herald dawn of a new era

31st March

Sky Sports choose to send their cameras to Brandon for the Coventry versus Eastbourne to open another season of live televised speedway coverage. I don’t know what package everyone else subscribes to but mine costs £35 per month and you have to ask does this represent good value or guaranteed entertainment? For the cost of this subscription you could almost buy a season ticket at many speedway tracks in the country. You’d get far more thrills for your money as well as truly support your local club.

That said, if you missed all the Elite League meetings served up on satellite you’d deprive yourself of any sight of behind the scenes along with all their ‘cutting edge’ visual innovations, the adverts for obscure or execrable products, the histrionic hyperbole and word play as well as the bickering between Jonathan and Kelvin. In the first meeting all this is provided and much, much more – things like wonky camera work and graphics from the renowned John Postlethwaite GP School of Innovative Visual Design. In fact, the opening sequence is a masterclass in combining clichéd graphics apparently stolen from the 1970’s – an era of heavy rock and experimentation apparently redone by the Sky creative team as a sort of poor man’s Yes meets Led Zep crossed with the Steve Gibbons Band art project – and Dad’s Army. The inspirational weird new red arrowed Sky speedway logo draws strongly on a map theme since it echoes the famous opening credits from this series – you know, the map where the Home Guard arrow slowly repels German invaders – and then rather wonderfully crosses it with a ‘You are Here’ graphic.

If the art department have got somewhat lost then, sadly, rumours of personnel changes on the programme haven’t extended to separating speedway’s bickering couple – Jonathan Green and Kelvin Tatum. Admittedly, they’re on screen less than previous seasons but still act like a couple permanently on the edge of a final, damning row that will lead to an expensive and acrimonious divorce. Apart from the cliché ridden opening segment, they repeat an endless pattern where to enliven proceedings Jonathan ‘Forrest’ Green says something banal, ill-informed and fatuous about what we’ve just seen, are about to see or (more post modernly) something wildly bonkers. This invariably causes Kelvin to immediately bite back to totally contradict, disagree with and/or correct this ‘observation’ with a factually based repost of his own that just about remains on this side of civil. It’s amazing that Sky Sports choose to entertain us with this on screen breakdown but it definitely breaks up the monotony between some of the processional races that are supposed to thrill and amaze us sat on the sofa at home.

For the second successive winter, the Sky Sports management have allegedly been less than impressed at another close season tinkering with the Elite League speedway product by the authorities in the form of the BSPA. With reduced averages now in force, the contentious abolition of the aggregate bonus point and the absence of the armchair audience draw card of the current speedway world champion Nicki Pedersen – from their point of view, Sky can’t be blamed for the worry that this compounds the effects of the tactical rider rule changes foisted on the sport in 2007. Even worse, they could be saddled with another season of predictable meetings and processional encounters where gripping contest and exciting passes were at a premium.

Though this might be uppermost in their minds, Jonathan has been instructed to engage the armchair audience with a winning combination of false hopes leavened with his trademark platitudes and piffle to disguise the anxiety that we’ll all suffer another DDSS season. Consequently, the live coverage is only moments old before we learn from Greenie that the Elite League is “wide open”. Of course, it is! This is the first meeting of the season and so, by definition, it can hardly have been decided! Although, if honesty entered the presentational equation, there should be some acknowledgement that some teams already look weaker than others without a wheel having been turned. We all know where this took us last season but, for now, Jonathan thrills us with news that the Coventry faithful have “come out in their throngs”. Personally, I’d have thought it was a bit cold for that this early in the season but, nonetheless, it’s an evocative image to conjure with.

While Jonathan gurgles about the “new look Eagles” going “wheel to wheel” with the [old look?] Bees, Kelvin feels sufficiently mardy to darkly hope for “a competitive league throughout this season!” Quite where he gets his information from is hard to tell but Jonathan confidently – and, for once, accurately – asserts that the Elite League this season is a “little bit harder to call”. Whereas Kelv feels in his bones the winners will come from “probably five teams”. I drift off momentarily at this point and return to consciousness just as Kelvin opines “they’ve got a very exciting top four!” I initially assume he must be referring to Coventry but then he continues, “the reserves will take some time to settle in”. Given you could say this about both the Bees and the Eagles – or almost every team – this is hardly a revelation. Luckily, we can move on to the love that dares speak its name, namely Simon Stead’s who allegedly “loves this track!” It’s the kind of healthy love that I expect us to hear a lot more about during the season and not just from Simon. Indeed, I think we’ll find that there are a large number of loved up riders besotted with their home speedway tracks.

If Nicki Pedersen has been banished from British Speedway for 2008 and, thereby, arguably weakened the overall quality of the product on display then, spookily, Sky have chosen to echo this change by eliminating Sophie Blake from their presentational team. Instead we have Sarra Elgin who, with her lilting Welsh accent and challenge free questions, springs into action to quiz Chris ‘Bomber’ Harris in the Coventry pits. You immediately get the sense that Chris must no longer be sponsored by “definitely” (who he used to mention in almost every other sentence) or “yeh” but also that he may have had media training over the close season to cope with questions about things like Scott Nicholls departure from the Bees team or his 2008 Grand Prix ambitions. Sarra tries to tempt him into an opinion on one of these topics but only learns, “yeh, it’ll be a bit different” in the team without Scott. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement for his previous contribution or a cry of anxiety about the future but, then, such is life and the practicalities of team sport. Though all the Sky Sports speedway experts last year specifically failed to tip him for any GP triumph and doubted his calibre in his first year at that level until he won in Cardiff, Chris has faith in himself and this year wants to “add on a few more GP’s” to his personal roll call of honour. With Chris Louis also in the pits, Greenie is confident of improved behind the scenes coverage (“we’ll be getting plenty from the pits tonight with two of them in there”). This completely ignores the fact that twice the volume of ‘how was it for you?’ style questioning won’t multiply our insight.

Kelvin puts on his profound face to straight facedly tell the camera that winning away could be important but stops short of telling us that bikes with an engine and two wheels will also be important. Not to be out done in the initial mini-competition to start the season with numerous statements of the obvious, Greenie informs us breathlessly, “the start here is so important!” Clearly, he’s failed to notice that during many Sky meetings over the years that the race is often almost over from the start. The coin toss has enabled the Eagles to gain choice of gates, news that Kelvin greets as though the atom has been split for the first time, “they’ll start off gates one and three – that could be VERY significant!” Sadly, a winter away from speedway hasn’t enabled the cameraman to practice so – by the start of the second lap of the first race of the season! – we’re treated to one of those superb shots of the medical staff on the centre green rather than the action on the track itself.

In the commentary box, Nigel Pearson has marked the Eagles fans down as either unbelievably fickle or easily influenced when he claims that Scott Nicholls (after only five competitive meetings) is “now a huge favourite with the Eastbourne fans!” Interestingly, the backroom graphics people have somehow converted the distinctive Eagles club badge into a dead ringer for the Barclays Bank logo. The Ipswich on tour theme started by the presence of Chris Louis in the pits continues with Steve ‘Johnno’ Johnston as colour man and foil to Nigel Pearson. Whatever Johnno has that makes him so cheerfully ebullient, he should either patent or bottle it since he immediately adds sparkle to the programme. Invariably, he comes across as a genuine man with an uncomplicated interest in people. As is traditional, Johnno mangles the pronunciation of a straightforward name (“James Brun-DELL”) before he spends the night repeatedly struck by the youth of Simon Gustafsson (“I think he’s only 17 years old! I may be wrong about that”). Suddenly unconsciously influenced by nearby Jonathan Green, Nigel insightfully lets us know, “and the reserves, you know, are just as important as the number one riders!” On a roll, Nigel then decides to stretch the credulity of even the most mild mannered viewer when he claims as though reading from a script hastily written out on the back of a cigarette packet by Peter Toogood, “it’s a very different Elite League this season to the one you saw last year!” Given we’ve only seen two races so far, this must rank as a prematurely bold prediction, even if we allow for the introduction of the ‘revolutionary idea’ of promotion and relegation.

The next race sees the Eagles pairing of Richardson and Woodward temporarily lead the strong Bees partnership of Harris and Janniro until Lee finds himself going backwards. Always keen to see things from a rider’s point of view, Johnno sympathises with Lee, “going from a paid win to last – you’d be gutted!” Back in the pits Chris Louis manfully tries to talk up the significance and tactical genius of the new slim line Cameron Woodward’s race win against GP star Chris ‘Bomber’ Harris. The air of mystery he’s tried to create about the psychological intensity and strategic planning needed to best the diminutive Cornishman is immediately punctured by the modest Australian, “oh, I didn’t look!” Always well-mannered Cameron wants to acknowledge those in the team who’ve helped him, “I wanna thank Ted [Edward Kennett] for giving me the correct gearing, I thought it was wrong but it was right.” Desperate to inject drama where none really exists, Louis persists with his ‘what was it like with the British bulldog behind you?’ line of questioning only for Cameron to again draw him up short, “yeh, well, I didn’t look!”

The early heats have so excited Kelvin that he finds himself almost overcome with the viewing pleasure of it all, “a triffick first four heats of the season!” His reading of the racecard for the next four races provokes an excitement and reverence usually reserved for announcements of a royal engagement. Kelvin is also pretty sure that the Eastbourne team manager won’t rest on his laurels and will also study the racecard in the programme with the intensity usually devoted to a sacred religious artefact, “I expect Trevor Geer to be studying things as the evening progresses.” The prospect of the “BIG ONE” – the Harris-Nicholls clash in the next race – has the Sky team collectively feel orgasmic. It’s left to Kelvin to articulate the sensation in what sounds like text speak, “this heat 5 we’re about 2C is gunna B really spectacular!” The poetry of Scott’s subsequent win on the track is matched off it in the commentary box by Nigel, “there’s no doubt Scottie is too hottie!” Later, as though we’ve suddenly got caught up in some weird Sky sponsored performance poetry contest, Greenie will rap, “it’s a case of the lean, mean Scottie machine.” In his interviews, Scott remains guarded and taciturn as though anything he says will be taken down and may be used in evidence against him at a later court date. Consequently, we only learn the “track is a bit slicker than usual” and the shock news, “that’s why we’ve come here – for the win!” Later Nigel reveals his admiration for and frustration with Scott’s sang-froid, “he’s very clever the way he talks to the press, the way he talks to us – he gives nothing away!”

The excitement of the racing slackens off sufficiently for Nigel to have to call upon his standby reserves of promotional profundity about the season ahead, “in the modern era of speedway, you can get promoted and relegated”. Though this only applies to between the Elite and Premier leagues, Nigel is moved to claim, “it’s a new era for the sport throughout the UK!” He’s easily discombobulated tonight, “who’d have thought there would be six races gone and Lee Richardson wouldn’t have scored a point?” and ignores that as Lee had only had one ride, there was a one in four chance of this outcome. Luckily there are other questions to be asked, “have they got the belief, have they got the power, have they got the passion?” With seven heats of the Elite League season gone, Eastbourne find themselves with a narrow two-point lead that has Greenie nearly christen them as possible 2008 Elite League champions. Kelvin likes what he sees too and talks about the Eagles as though they are a supermarket own brand whiskey, “there’s a good blend among them.” He also gawps authoritatively towards the camera, gives us a trademark gurn and tells us knowledgeably, “Henrik Gustafsson looks very impressive!” Johnno is keener on the Gustafsson of the Simon variety, “he’s a very good trapper for a 17 year old!”

Mechanical gremlins afflict the Bees side of the pits and force the lithe Billy Janniro to take to the track on a bike borrowed from Bomber. Using someone else’s equipment is difficult at the best of times but this is an extreme situation that immediately provokes Johnno’s sympathy, “Bomber’s bike is built for a midget!” Billy doesn’t handle the machine with his trademark smoothness, “either it’s a very, very savage clutch or may be Billy’s not used to it!” Edward Kennett wins the race and, in the post-race interview, breaks with tradition when it comes to his choice of headgear. Any GP rider worth their salt will invariably be caught by the cameras neurotically faffing with a peaked cap festooned in sponsors logos. They’re not trying to disguise the speedway equivalent of bed hair (helmet hair) but ensuring that their sponsors get the airtime their money has paid to command. In total and refreshing contrast, Edward eschews such a cap and wears what appears to be a tea cosy on his head! It’s a fairly large sized one too! More than sufficient to contain a set of Danny Warwick-esque dreadlocked hair extensions, should fancy or fashion sense take him. Like Cameron before him, Edward punctures the implied pretence of the Sky post-race questioning that he employs a complicated and nuanced set of tactics drawn up in painstaking detail by his sports psychologist, when he reveals the secret of his success is, “I kept looking straight!” Moments later we hear from Nigel about “a new look for a new season”, though turns out to be another reference to the introduction of the promotion and relegation that won’t really happen rather than advocacy of Edward’s brave fashion statement. Despite the evidence of our eyes, Nigel is so keen to tell us that, “you can’t take your eyes off this one – a triffic start to the season on Sky Sports” that you suspect he must have known that the armchair audience is either unexpectedly napping or already switching off in droves.

In a rare cut back to the trackside studio, Jonathan and Kelvin are clearly getting on each other’s tits. Forrest wonders aloud, “Belle Vue 28 Lakeside 32 are you surprised by that” only to get his head bitten off by Kelvin, “not really!” It’s the kind of engaging, cut and thrust live sports television that should rightly be award winning for speedway on Sky Sports, if there is any longer justice in the world. Heat 12 not only sees Gustafsson excluded but Johnno manages to comment upon him without reference to his age, “he was lucky not to be cleaned up by Buzzer [Burza] there!” The re-run has Johnno josh at the gating credentials held by the greatest living Cornish speedway rider on television tonight, “Chris Harris isn’t a particularly good gater and I’m putting that nicely!” Probably not put so nicely into Johnno’s earpiece by the producer is the news that political correctness has gone mad and that the two hard of hearing viewers with low attention spans and German parents the speedway coverage traditionally aims itself at on Sky in terms of level and content, requires that Bomber is always called Chris Harris in case the other sobriquet causes offence. On the subject of upsets, Nigel broaches the fact that Steve Johnston got the bums rush from Coventry over the close season – or, as modern parlance would have it, ‘learn he was no longer part of their plans’ – in a manner similar (but different) to Scott Nicholls who was also nixed. Taking an onion from his pocket on behalf of the Bees promotion, Nigel opines, “it really was the impossible choice…I know Scottie was as upset as you!” Johnno replies “……………” It’s a significant, diplomatic and studious silence from the Australian who’s usually not lost for a word or two and is apparently afflicted by the rare condition of St Vitas dance of the mouth.

The meeting is so brilliant and the racing sufficiently intense that Nigel has the time and inclination to tell us, “some of the IMG bigwigs are in the stadium tonight – Paul Bellamy.” The sensible reaction of the armchair audience will be ‘WTF is that?’ We’ve all heard of Paul Gascoigne and Paul Daniels, plus those of a certain age know that Paul Henry played Benny in Crossroads but who on earth is this Paul Bellamy? Also, although it’s technically correct to say IMG (since they bought out the speedway rights previously owned by BSI), surely if Sky Sports research has shown that the comparative intelligence level of the regular audience requires us to be told every week that “it’s three points for a win, two for second, one point for third and none for last place”, then all this talk of IMG will be philosophical Klingon. Back at the meeting, the inevitable conclusion is reached and the scores on the doors eventually record a creditable and occasionally entertaining away win for the Eagles. It’s a win gained so easily – despite a mid-meeting “closed doors team talk” for the home team – that Scott can crash into Bomber in the last race with impunity without any apparent care about the lost points. Nigel, Jonathan and Kelvin all confirm that “this season” Eastbourne will be awarded “three points for an away win” and that we have all seen live on satellite television that the canny, close season team building by the new Eastbourne promotional team of Martin Hagon and Bob Dugard has borne immediate fruit.

31st March Coventry v Eastbourne (Elite League A) 43-47

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