Seen but not heard
Henry Blofeld (Blowers) talks about his childhood early in his one-man show. His parents, Tom and Grisle, were Edwardian aristocrats alive and well in the mid-twentieth century. When at home, which most often he was not (being a school-boarder from the age of seven), Master Henry would see his parents for one hour each day. His father would read to him, his mother play cards with him, then the Nanny would take him to his bed.
Blofeld was brought up in the archetypal family where children were seen but not heard. Children have since moved to the centre of family life. My weekend, having seen Blowers on Friday night, has comprised trips to the boys’ football matches, cricket training, games of connect-4, playing with my daughter on her roller-blades, preparing tea, bath and bedtime stories. It’s a better balance and an upbringing that builds loving bonds and gives parents and children the warm pleasures of affection and security.
Being silenced at home did not hold Blofeld back. With a natural sociability and fluent articulation he found his way into that career for which there is no qualification, broadcasting, and went on to entertain, and irritate, millions.
The voices of children are now heard and, in situations where their needs are at stake (the Family Court), have authority under statute. And in the world of grown-ups, there is a group of adults, childish and childlike, who we also hear a lot from: the professional sports person. Before the match, immediately it has finished and then again a day or so later, they are fed the attention of journalists or even broadcast directly to the sports-following public. Egotistical, with a strong sense of entitlement, complaining and boasting, these adult-sized kids get to do something they’re mediocre at – talking – about something they may excel at – their sport.
My interest in professional football has decreased at the same rate that the coverage of the sport has shifted away from the play to the pundit and to the interview. BBC’s Premier League highlights show, Match of the Day, is, I estimate, three-fifths football and two-fifths chat. That’s a guaranteed 40% mediocrity in every programme.
Television really is the culprit. Our broadcast medium that bears the striking power of colourful moving image chooses to play to its weakness by summing up the sporting entertainment we have just seen with interviews of players and coaches too close to the game, too dishonest, too fearful of upsetting teammates and colleagues to say anything enlightening. Football, cricket, tennis, athletics are all demeaned by the demand to interview the participant within minutes of their contest. Usually cringeworthy, the best we can hope for are a few generous comments about the efforts of opponents.
I like sportsmen seen but not heard.
What would we lose if we implemented this maxim? We would lose a sense (because it probably isn’t real) of familiarity with the stars that play the game we cherish. Interviews with Steve Harmison seemed to uncover a grounded diffidence – charming when his career was in the ascendancy, maddening when he seemed so untroubled by his playing decline. The post-selection interview of England’s next fresh pick is the opportunity to size up their South African accent and decide how much emotional energy to invest in hoping for their success. I do recognise that the broad appeal (just as load and insistent as a Broad appeal) of the game relies upon getting the fan close to the star from a safe distance.
More significant to me is accountability. The team (England, or whoever I’m following) are playing for me and so should be challenged on why and how they have performed. David Gower (excellence and mediocrity in stark contrast) once stormed out of a press conference at Lord’s. Journalists were pressing him, I think, on why he persisted bowling Phil Edmonds from the Pavilion End, where he had to turn the ball against the slope of the ground. A good question, but should he have been harried about this during the Test match? Isn’t it a challenge for after the Test, to be weighed up against everything else that took place?
Another England captain, Nasser Hussain, gave two contrasting accounts as a defeated captain at the end of a Test series. The worst came after his first series in charge against New Zealand in 1999. He sought to defend his team, employing words along the lines of ‘the boys did their best’, when clearly many had underperformed. Three and a half years later, Hussain was a mature captain who gave one of the most enlightening interviews I have heard. England had won the final test against Australia, to lose the Ashes 3-1. Hussain eschewed the obvious and deluded line: ‘encouraging result for the future; try to build on this success’. Instead he pointed out that England had won on a pitch that suited their attack, but for the team to develop further they needed bowlers who could succeed on flat pitches – outright pace or mystery spin. I respected him for that frank assessment of the team and was reassured that he was in charge of the team.
For those comments to stick in my mind, suggests their rarity – or that I have simply tuned out, happy to see and choosing not to listen. I do hear enough to know that wicket-taking bowlers find ‘good areas’, tomorrow morning’s session ‘is gonna be crucial’ and the hundred ‘won’t count for nothing unless we close the game out.’
Given my ennui with the post-match interview, it could be seen as ironic that an innovation I aim to bring to the under 11 team I coach this summer, is to have the captain speak to the squad about the match at the following Monday’s coaching session. Maybe the culture of platitude and excuse will prevail, but I hope, with a little encouragement, to give airtime to some lads who think critically about the match they played and have ideas for how to tackle next week’s challenge. I’ll report back.