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Give me silence over gibberish any day while I'm watching sport on box

BBC tennis pundit Andrew Castle's crass sexism is not really the point. Why can't commentators just shut the hell up and let the action do the talking, asks Gail Walker

Published 05/07/2016

Andrew Castle
Andrew Castle

Ah, Wimbledon... the plink plonk of ball on racquet, the gentle ripples of applause from outside courts, stiff-upper-lipped umpires murmuring "15 love", and - if you listen carefully - the pop of Champagne corks and the crystal clinking of flutes in the posh seats. And, of course, the leaden thunk as a BBC commentator makes a crass observation.

Step forward Andrew Castle. The former player was commentating on Roger Federer's Centre Court defeat of plucky Brit Marcus Willis when a picture of Willis's girlfriend Jennifer Bate, a dental nurse and former Miss England contestant, filled the screen...

And you just knew, just knew, that this was going to be an Alan Partridge-cum-Father Dougal and the Big Red Button moment.

It was the sheer crashing inevitability that galled when Castle unleashed his verbal ace: "It's a pity my dentist doesn't look like that."

Now Castle's "offence" wasn't earth-shattering. I am not calling for him to be sacked or disciplined. Even Bate - in a charming way - defended him. No, Castle's gaffe wasn't in the same court as John Inverdale's frankly insulting "never going to be a looker" remarks about Marion Bartoli a couple of Wimbledons ago.

But do we really need this kind of thing on our screens at all? Why the cutting away to Bate in the first place? Is the game not interesting enough? Do they assume that the watching millions are not really that fussed on the tennis and need inanity and distraction?

Of course, the apogee of this was the last World Cup in Brazil, where it was a hard and fast rule that the cameras would spend a lot of time zooming around for the prettiest (for which read female) Argentinian, Italian, Peruvian or Scandinavian spectators in the crowd (and yes, I know that the pictures were provided by Brazilian TV).

Why? Surely there is more drama on the pitch. Surely the agonised writhings and facial twitches of the managers tell us more about the game going on in front of our eyes than digital lechery?

Indeed, there is more "meaning", more "significance", more "beauty" even in watching an overweight England fan, sans shirt, tattoos undulating with his uncontrollable sobbing after the latest trauma.

Pretty girls just being pretty? Not so much...

At its core such antics display a fatal lack of belief that what we are watching should, in and of itself, hold our attention. Indeed, is even worthy of our attention. Keep us distracted, keep us entertained. No, we don't want to know about so-and-so's weak backhand, or thingy's tactic of getting to the net faster than his opponent. What do you think we are - fans of this thing?

The basic idea is just keep moving/keep talking/keep babbling - even at the risk of being an idiot. Now, I may be donning my rose-hued nostalgia specs, but it wasn't always like this.

I remember the Sunday afternoon cricket of the John Player League. Over after over would pass in Trappist-like silence in the commentary box before Jim Laker or John Arlott would chip in the odd word to bring elucidation to events. It was pleasant. More, it didn't debase the aural currency.

It assumed that those watching had a grasp of what was going on. That those watching hadn't found themselves there by some weird accident and that it was only decent to keep them amused. Nope, if you're here, you must want to watch cricket. Now, who are the commentating legends - Laker, Arlott, or Castle?

Yes, cricket leads itself to that type of Zen-ism, but there was a time when Brian Moore/Motty/David Coleman would no more have thought about commenting on the appearance of someone in the crowd than doing the half-time analysis of the game in the nude. It simply wasn't relevant.

And that is the root of the issue. Not Castle's sexism, but his (and most modern commentators') refusal to shut the hell up and let the game (whatever it is) do the talking.

There is the convention now that "moving pictures" in themselves must have a commentary - that voiceless TV is equivalent to "dead air" on radio. Add to that the wall-to-wall daytime two-station BBC TV coverage of Wimbledon and the mania of "personality" commentators, and you have a recipe for exactly the kind of crass, gauche, ill-judged gibberish Castle came out with.

The Euro 2016 football coverage has provided its own store of verbal faux pas across both BBC and ITV. However, maybe because the touchlines of football punditry are already strewn with famous ghastly verbal crimes of sexism and racism - see Andy Gray and Richard Keys - there haven't been quite the same levels of sloppy and intrusive comment.

Tennis is so rarely on our terrestrial channels now that Wimbledon has become almost an annual festival of the bad art of offensive broadcasting, from upskirt camerawork to chronically ill-judged comment from people who simply apologise and then, er, carry on.

The perpetrators of horrendous gaffes just dust themselves down, put on big sad faces, and pick up the mic again out on Court 11. No one resigns anymore, except the Prime Minister and Big Ron Atkinson.

Sporting events have become marinaded in a desperate creepy neediness, a life-sapping determination of the pundits to "give" us something of themselves - even when it is obvious they don't have that much "self" to give away in the first place.

The idea that Andrew Castle has a dentist he doesn't find attractive is much more than anyone wants to know about this individual who, like so many in the tiny English sporting universe, has ended up with a job for life in the broadcast media.

Wimbledon may, indeed, be one of the "crown jewels" of the British sporting calendar, but does it have to be accompanied by the ramblings of classic English ninnies?

I'd much prefer classic British professionalism and ordinary courtesy instead.

Belfast Telegraph

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