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A QUESTION OF SPORT

Paul Simpson runs the rule over how an ill-fated reboot all but buried a 53-year-old quiz show. 

“Well done mate, you can come back again.” That was what Emlyn Hughes said to Princess Anne, a star performer in his team in the 200th edition of A Question of Sport, broadcast in February 1987. Only weeks before, Hughes had peered at a photo of the mud-spattered Princess in the quiz show’s picture round and asked: “Is it John Reid?” [a flat race jockey]. Mortified by his error, he groaned: “Don’t put that out, they’ll hang me.” He didn’t hang although Anne did tease him on the show. The real intrigue was observing Hughes’ valiant struggle to respect royal protocol and not hug her when she (invariably) answered correctly.

With the BBC’s announcement that A Question of Sport has been shelved after 53 years, you wonder whether we will ever enjoy such moments again. The broadcaster’s rationale – essentially inflation and “funding challenges” – makes even less sense than the show’s 2001 revamp. Even with soaring prices, this panel show couldn’t cost that much. And “funding challenges” didn’t prevent the BBC spending £87m on a new set for East Enders, a show which, on a good day, is now watched by around 3.5m viewers, 1.5m fewer than A Question of Sport’s audience under Sue Barker, before the BBC’s mandarins tinkered the show to death. The reboot was really scrapped because ratings dipped as low as 750,000.

The BBC wanted the sports quiz to win younger viewers – and to cost less. To that end, Paddy McGuinness was hired as host. Although one critic dubbed him the “Sam Allardyce of light entertainment”, he’d impressed on ITV date show Take Me Out. The revamped quiz discarded most of the traditional rounds, introduced a half-time break during which, in the first episode, team captains Sam Quek and Ugo Monye tried to outjump each other on the trampoline and, to complete the makeover, mysteriously deleted ‘A’ from the show’s title, presumably because it might deter younger viewers (despite the popularity of James Corden’s A League Of Their Own on Sky). Guardian critic Mark Lawson called the new Question of Sport a sports quiz for people who don’t like sport and asked: “How long before a Satanist hosts Songs of Praise?”

The BBC meetings about this repositioning must have resembled conversations in the Olympic sitcom Twenty Twelve, particularly this exchange between Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) and Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes).

Fletcher: I’m gonna make the assumption you’ve got a Plan B here…
Sharpe: Sure, that’s cool.
Fletcher: … and I’m going to assume it’s a lot better than Plan A.
Sharpe: Mm-hm, I’m totally cool with that.
Fletcher: (pause) There isn’t a Plan B is there?
Sharpe: Okay, you make a Plan B you’re already visualising failure.
Fletcher: Exactly, that’s correct.

No matter how assiduously the BBC plotted this revamp, there is one crucial aspect of A Question of Sport they could not guarantee: serendipitous fun. The kind you get when captain Ally McCoist doesn’t recognise himself in the mystery guest round. Or when (in the same round) Sue Barker, wearing an animal costume for charity, is variously identified as goalkeeper Ray Clemence, boxer Alan Minter, cyclist Chris Hoy and snooker star Dennis Taylor. Or when Andy Gray was asked “It was first achieved in 1982 and the fastest time of five minutes and 20 seconds was achieved in 1997. To what am I referring?” (Spoiler alert! it’s 147, the maximum break in snooker.) The Scottish footballer answered: “How long it takes all the runners in the London Marathon to cross the starting line.” 

Hosted by David Vine, David Coleman and Sue Barker, A Question of Sport was the very definition of cosy TV. Part of the show’s charm was that, in a pre-Instagram age, viewers enjoyed a rare opportunity to see their sporting idols in a different context. The guest lineup was a consistent source of intrigue: one stellar episode in 2000, featured world 100m champion Maurice Greene, world heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, New Zealand rugby legend Jonah Lomu and all-time golfing great Seve Ballesteros. (For grammar school completists, the first national broadcast, on 5 January 1970, hosted by Vine, starred captains Henry Cooper and Cliff Morgan alongside footballers Tom Finney and George Best, England cricket captain Ray Illingworth and Olympic silver-medal winning athlete Lillian Board.)

There was a strange fascination in watching, as team captain Bill Beaumont put it, Coleman’s “parting get wider and the sweaters get worse”. Such was the show’s status within sport that no guest ever spurned an invitation. Paul Gascoigne rang in with flu once and England and Manchester United captain Bryan Robson, who was on permanent standby for many years,  (the series was filmed in Manchester) stepped in. 

Did A Question of Sport need a refresh after 24 years with Barker as host? (And 12 years, presented by her and team captains, Matt Dawson and Phil Tufnell?) Absolutely.

The nature – and order – of the rounds had become almost sacrosanct: picture round, specialised subject, home and away, mystery guest, what happened next? one minute round (later replaced by on the buzzer which became the final round) followed, for many years, by a return to the picture round. 

The balance between sport and entertainment had already altered, most obviously when Dawson and Tufnel were strapped to the wings of a bi-plane while answering questions. (In truth, some of their subsequent horseplay was a tad predictable.) And the audience had shrunk – from 19m when Anne appeared and a regular 10m at its peak to 5m – although many other mainstream shows on BBC and ITV suffered similar declines. 

Even so, was it really necessary to demand Barker, Dawson and Tufnell sign statements that they had quit, rather than, as they had effectively been, dismissed,especially when some independent production companies bidding for the show wanted to keep them?

More bizarrely, the BBC had already developed a rough template for a remake with the funny, if increasingly laddish They Think It’s All Over which was compelling viewing for a while in the late 1990s and obviously inspired A League of Their Own.

The wider irony is that, in an age when many broadcasters are producing groundbreaking sports programming, the BBC is such an inept curator of its strongest brands. Doubts hover over Saturday lunchtime magazine show Football Focus. Saturday results show Final Score is a vapid clone of Sky’s Soccer Saturday. Even Match of the Day faces considerable uncertainty when host Gary Lineker retires. Auntie Beeb also makes scant use of its vast, valuable archive of sports footage while, when it comes to new ideas, the credo seems to be Sky’s the limit.

We must hope that, as with The Weakest Link, A Question of Sport returns after a suitable hiatus. Till then we have our memories, not just of Hughes and Princess Anne, but that striking scene in 2016 when, facing a 23-letter puzzle, in which only two characters – ‘I’ and ‘G’ – had been identified, Irish rugby star Paul O’Donnell guessed: ‘Borussia Mönchengladbach.’ You don’t get – to use Coleman’s famous phrase –  “really quite remarkable” moments like that on Blankety Blank.

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