New Team for the Window Cleaning Cage

May 19th

The post-Jonathan Green era on Sky Sports immediately dawns with a Matrix type moment in the first few seconds of the broadcast when Nigel Pearson brazenly rewrites history with the claim, “Kelvin Tatum alongside me as always!” Clearly for most of the last decade, Nigel has been mostly hidden away unseen in the dark confines of the commentary box, while Kelvin has performed in front of the cameras with the professionally amiable Mr. Green. Come the revolution, Nigel has seized his chance to showcase his undoubted knowledge and professionalism as well as bask beheadphoned in the limelight. Indeed, the Sky speedway powers that be (if such people exist) have taken the strategic decision to combine commentary duties with the ‘colour’ work between heats. It’s a reasonable enough presentational device and one that has benefit of saving the weekly cost of employing Jonathan to come up with his alleged insights and notionally exemplary link work. If the press office were pushed or the media interested, based on the permanent absence of Green (J.) let alone Millard (T.), the story could be headlined “Sky Speedway dramatically slashes headcount and costs!” Possibly this has implications for the future in terms of their possible interest and commitment to British speedway. (Perhaps, one day they could choose to save yet more money by the simple device of buying in the rights to televise live speedway from the supposedly higher calibre Swedish and/or Polish leagues and then overdubbing this?) It’s certainly something to be asked or, at least, borne in mind by the speedway authorities when they assume their usual somewhat prostrate negotiating position during the contract renewal discussions. What has also noticeably changed is the on screen dynamics seen by the viewer which has instantly gone from the couple on the edge of a divorce towards the much more laddish and, dare one say, enthusiastically geeky atmosphere that Kelvin and Nigel engender working together.

Given Sky control the message and the medium, apart from unveiling the new on screen partnership, the coverage omits all mention of cost-cutting but instead focuses on the debut of the snazzy new red multi-purpose (and hydraulic) commentary booth. In fact on closer inspection this turns out to be an aluminium pole temple-cum-gazebo structure modelled on one of those window cleaning cages they use to clean high rise building windows with a bit of red metal incorporating the new poor man’s swoosh Sky speedway logo [wonder what inspired that idea?] stuck on the side sat on top of a hydraulic lifting vehicle. Kelvin prefers to call it “the whole new look studio” before somewhat speciously claiming, “the view from up here is sensational!” Nigel immediately joshes with a playful smile haunting across his features, “you don’t have a head for heights!” This repartee straightaway sets the likely tone of the new Pearson-Tatum commentary/colour live broadcast combination as one that will mix self-congratulation, insight and hyperbole – possibly allied relentless mutual appreciation and wonder albeit boosted with greater speedway expertise now that Jonathan has departed. But what of the new “studio”? A fraction of the cost savings from letting Jonathan go (and find pastures new elsewhere) has been reinvested in what looks like a rather unstable metal monstrosity that Sky have painted a small section of in this season’s speedway corporate red colour but also attached to a hydraulic lift mechanism that allows it to rise from ground level to a greater height. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much this elevation actually is – probably no more than two or three metres – but still sufficient for Kelvin to wax lyrical about the spectacularness of the panoramic views provided. He would be great to take on holiday since he’d appreciate the slightest undulation in the Netherlands as equivalent to the spectacular contours of the Andes.

If we examine what this means logically for the viewers in terms of spectacle the answer is the square root of nothing as the camera angles and positioning pretty well remain where they always were on previous visits to Monmore Green Stadium. In the case of Nigel, he has actually exchanged the best view in the house – invariably perched high above the track in the eyrie of the referee’s booth – for one that is significantly less panoramic. Admittedly Kelvin (who makes these grand claims), though already a tall man can now watch proceedings from a higher perch than he did previously. Maybe this magically improves his insight and appreciation of the action, thereby obliquely benefiting the viewer stuck at home, especially if it manages to improve the overall quality of the word pictures he tries to paint during his increasingly excitable commentary. Quite how this additional insight will be fitted in during the sixty seconds of action already filled with orgasmic shouts of appreciation to greet the dullest of on track manoeuvres or relentless aggrandisement of the thrill of the spectacle remains to be heard. Admittedly, perched in their new look booth somewhere between what looks like the second bend and the pits, with this new arrangement Nigel and Kelvin find themselves closer in distance terms to the actual action on the track. Given that often what they say defies the evidence of our eyes, this ultimately provides no viewer benefit though this proximity to the pits does have the side effect of drowning out some of their insights because of the additional background noise from revving bikes!

Like all innovations, the new situation must be presented as a huge improvement so, while we’ve lost the entertainment provided by Jonathan verbalising his stream of consciousness live on air, this has apparently been replaced by frequent allusions to the improvements the window cleaning cage has wrought in our enjoyment. These will be something to listen out for in the following weeks. Apart from the joy of their new cage, some traditions never die away – namely the need to talk the whole thing up from the outset. The riders have barely crossed the line to complete Heat 1 before Nigel assures us of the “entertaining speedway” and reminds us, as if he needed to do so, “and, of course, we always like a close meeting!”

If proof were needed that only the wrapping on the present has changed while the overall gift inside remains the same, then Kelvin’s ongoing obsession with the inappropriate use of the word “literally” continues apace. Presently based at reserve, Swiderski provides a potent weapon for Ipswich – albeit one whose massive improvement in 2008 has apparently signalled a revolution in his equipment preparation as much as his riding ability – and is something that Kelvin admires hugely, “he’s clear already and literally disappears!” Now that would be revolutionary television, though it would complicate the Ipswich Elite League campaign if he really were to vanish mid-race. Another ongoing trait is Kelvin’s assumption that he either really knows the rulebook or, alternatively, understands what it should say. A case in point happens in Heat 4 when the in form Swiderski falls on the second bend and is excluded by the referee, Dan Holt only for Kelvin to get this decision confused with the rules that apply to tape touching. He pipes up, “interesting to see what the Ipswich team manager Peter Simmons does here, of course, he could have another go from 15 metres back!” This piece of bonkersness provides the first test of the diplomacy skills of the newly founded relationship. Previously the formula was that Jonathan would say something totally stupid and Kelvin would immediately snap back a correction through gritted teeth or reply as if talking to a mentally challenged child. Now with Kelvin infected by a virulent strain of foot-in-mouth syndrome, Nigel responds with a pregnant pause before the programme cuts off for a commercial break. On the return, without so much as a hint of apology or an educative correction to benefit the armchair audience, the Matrix immediately reasserts itself when Nigel merely says, “he’s excluded from the rerun, three riders only.”

The rerun provides a win for David Howe (“he loves the track here”) while the sight of Jarek Hampel taking second place has Kelvin come over all starry eyed about the recent Leszno Grand Prix where he had been ‘awarded’ a wild card, “it was certainly an opportunity for him to perform in front of the world speed [sic] again!” With Wolverhampton ahead 18-6 and apparently strolling to a comfortable victory, Nigel has to dig out some of his trusty ‘thinking’ blather about the alleged competitive closeness of the Elite League, “I think only two teams have a perfect home record so I think the EL is a lot closer than it was last season.” The meeting turns dramatically upon the events of Heat 5, which sees both Wolverhampton riders excluded for separate incidents. Nicolai Klindt has endured a tough start to the season with misfortune allied to occasional haplessness that continues when he rushes to complain to the referee about his decision. As Klindt scrabbles around for the necessary equipment to pursue his complaint live on television, Nigel notes, “he can’t even find the phone!” When he does find the phone, the rules dictate that the referee won’t speak with him, “Dan Holt is saying he won’t speak to riders, he’ll only speak to team managers.”

Afterwards, when someone authorised to speak with him does get on the blower (namely Pete Simmons from Ipswich, the tallest team manager in speedway), Dan testily refuses to be rushed, “I’m gonna see the replay first!” Sadly, this statement indicates the casual insidious nature of the increased influence of Sky on British speedway because surely we should be asking what on earth is the referee doing being unable to make his own decisions based on what he’s witnessed like he has to every night of the week without cameras? Over the sound of revving engines that all but drown out his words of wisdom, Nigel comes over all patrician with his carefully couched querulous noises off about the ‘debate’ that could surround the decision to exclude Niels-Kristian Iversen, “I can see both sides. Some ref’s give the exclusion and others order all four back that’s where we should have some consistency for ref’s – I’m not criticising the decision in any way, shape or form [oh, yes, you are] – some ref’s give the decision and others don’t!” N.K. Iversen isn’t happy with R. Miskowiak’s plunge from his machine. First of all he replays for our benefit earlier contact in the race, “he took my F***ing leg in the first corner” before raging about the fall in question itself, “I didn’t change my line, I kept my riding line…I think he could have easily stayed on the bike if he wanted to!”

To signal the benefit of the on screen changes, Kelvin has clearly tactically decided to be super oleaginous throughout the broadcast with his new partner in crime, “you’re dead right, Nigel” repeatedly tumbles from his lips with little or no provocation. The most platitudinous comment (there are clouds in the sky/look there’s a speedway rider/he’s narrowly won the line) is greeted enthusiastically as if it’s magnificent insight and wisdom, “he just won by a bike length and you’re dead right!” Nigel chooses to mirror this bonhomie in his own manner, namely with some tactic laughter and jocularity. Kelvin innocently says, “look how he’s having to hang onto it” and Nigel reacts as if he’s on the film set of the latest Borat movie with a polite “Ha! Ha! Ha!” Luckily to break the ongoing love-in Sarra Elgan has cornered Jarek Hampel, “you’ve brought it back to one point!” Looking like he has no idea what on earth the woman is going on about Jarek launches into a few pre-prepared thoughts on the need for speed when racing and particularly his speedway philosophy with regards to throttles, “there’s only one thing, I need to keep the throttle much more on went I get into the corner, there is only one way to go faster so I try to do this on next time!” Clearly gaining some confidence from Sarra’s interest and further conversational questioning about something vaguely related to speedway, Jarek continues, “it’s a lot of you, difficult tracks in England so, er, I mean, I am very enjoyable to be back here.” Jarek is interviewed again later and tells a breathless audience, “we have to remember meetings go heat by heat!”

The bonhomie has fatally infected the pits interview crew in the form of Sam ‘I’ll make up a lengthy rhetorical question in an excitable American voice’ Ermolenko and Sarra Elgan, who’s only happy when ‘questioning’ riders by a revving machine. This is helpful as it masks the lack of insight or interest the questions fail to provoke from the riders. Sam even sounds doubtful, “and we’ll go to Sarra and see what she’s coming up with in these pits right here”. Later we learn she has massive hands, “Sarra’s got another one of the Ipswich boys in her hands.” Actually, this segues into one of those delightful broken English interviews that Swiderski leavens with the brilliant, “you know every time I try frightening.” Continuing with the double entendre’s Freddie Lindgren is told by her, “you pulled it out when you needed it there, Freddie.”

Back raised ‘high’ above the track in their innovative commentary booth, otherwise known and seen as a window cleaning cage, Nigel spends some time telling us what to think, “you people watching speedway on Sky Sports and enjoying the action!” Shortly afterwards he claims in an unusually subdued monotone, “yeh, fascinating speedway here at Monmore Green Stadium” before assuring us, “when you look at the drama we’ve had, the scoreline doesn’t tell [shout?] the full story!” No broadcast would ever be complete without some literally’s that never were from Kelvin, “the foot rest has literally lifted Johno’s bike in the air” or, for that matter, a refereeing controversy. Tonight’s ref is “young” Dan Holt and when his moment of fame arrives after a Heat 10 pile up, he tells the nation, “I have to be honest it was a real tough decision”. It must be playing on his mind because we also learn, “it was a real tough decision”, “I’ve taken a look at it closely” and “it was a real tough decision” in the first thirty or so seconds of his live on air adjudication. Ales Dryml thought it was an easy decision, albeit one the referee got wrong when he didn’t exclude Freddie Lindgren, “I was in front and he turned left on me!” The boys remain phlegmatic men of the world in the face of carnage, “we always see injuries in speedway, it’s part and parcel of the sport.” Kelvin immediately echoes this insight, “you’re telling me!”

The Ipswich onslaught results in some collective head scratching on the Wolverhampton side of the pits. We’re treated to a lengthy shot of taciturn Wolves team manager Peter Adams stood forlornly on his own laboriously filling in his programme while Nigel voices over the scene with, “Peter Adams explaining to Hefenbrock what’s needed!” Rather than deal solely in suppositions Nigel and Kelvin actually consult Peter directly about his plans, “we’re carrying too many passengers – the only thing we can do is put Freddie in off 15 metres)”. Nigel is in no doubt about his own perspicaciousness, “to be fair Kelvin, I did lead you into that by saying Peter Adams was speaking to Iversen when he was asking him about putting Fredrick Lindgren in off 15 metres”. Given, we can scarcely hear Sarra’s questions and Nigel is perched a few metres in the air in a modified window cleaners cage, then unless he’s a clairvoyant or a lip reader then this was a supposition based on knowledge of the dynamics of speedway rather than hard fact.

Still a few minutes watching any live speedway broadcast quickly reveals hyperbole trumps fact every minute of the day. Whatever the reality, Kelvin is like a dog let off his lead with his perceptive new partner and relishes the greater chance to parade his speedway experience it provides. Plus, it’s easier to embrace relentless over promotion and hype rather than have to cope with the handicap of a partnership of perpetual foolishness of the kind he’d previously been saddled with on a weekly basis when partnered with Jonathan. After Swiderski beats Lindgren in Heat 12, Kelvin goes into enjoyment overdrive, “Whoa! Wow! That was fantastic! What a performance” and then proceeds to manufacturedly laugh like a hysterical schoolboy at one of Nigel’s trademark weak jokes. In fact, the Tatum laughing voice is in big, chortling use tonight. So, too, is conspicuous praise (“as you rightly say Nigel”) or its close cousin delight mixed with praise (“and that’s a triffic move as you say Nigel”).

Eventually, the rampant Witches win (“great team spirit in the Witches camp!”) while Nigel commiserates with the disconsolate Wolves faithful who’ve endured yet another defeat, “the British sporting mentality is you want to see your team win!” I’m not sure this is the best ever example of what illustrates the Bulldog spirit or winning nation psyche, particularly as I can’t recall any sport where any nation (or team) relishes defeat as their primary approach or objective. The meeting closes with a glance at the league table. We’re supposed to look at the highflying position Ipswich occupy but, instead, my eye is caught by the team apparently in sixth place – BELL VUE. It’s only a small error but is indicative of the Sky Sports approach to speedway, lots of hype, glitz, investment and glamour but often prone to basic factual errors (rules, camerawork and now team spelling) that undermine its intentions and cloud its reception.

19th May Wolverhampton v Ipswich (ELA) 43-48

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