Programme of the week: BBC 5Live’s coverage of England

Date published: Friday 14th September 2018 12:46

Johnny’s much coveted Programme of the Week accolade is awarded this time to the midweek radio coverage of the latest England game. That’ll be 5live’s three and a half hour marathon, then…

What’s The History?
BBC radio has been broadcasting commentaries on England games since before the war. It’s now impossible to think that an England game wouldn’t be covered by BBC radio. For those of us who grew up listening to Peter Jones and Bryon Butler covering England’s many, many international flops and occasional triumphs, the current coverage is part of a wonderful long tradition which has lasted our whole lives.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this. In a world where almost everything seems shallow, temporary and disposable, longevity and tradition has even more heft. It is so good to know that when an England game comes around the 5live team are there to tell us about it and to give us an accurate and often unflinchingly honest view of it. They have our trust and they always repay us for that faith. Tonight was no exception.

This Week’s Programme
Presenter: Kelly Cates
Commentators: John Murray. Ian Dennis.
Pundit: Chris Waddle.

These first two England games post-World Cup have been an echo of the great vibes and huge fun that the 5live team had in Russia in the summer. Those of us who prefer the pictures on radio know that 5live are always going to give us a top quality show, so when 7pm ticked around on Tuesday for the game against Switzerland, I settled in for the duration until 10.30pm. Yes, it was a three-and-a-half hour show!

Having covered the game against Spain on Saturday, a game which had some meaning, being the first in the Nations League, Tuesday’s was a tougher prospect because it was a mere friendly. In these circumstances it must be hard to give the game any significance or jeopardy and I found myself wondering if, when Kelly opened the microphone at 7pm, the 210 minutes that stretched ahead must have felt quite an intimidating prospect. It’s a lot of air time to fill. I need not have worried.

The show opens with a commentary clip from the Spain’s winning goal on Saturday. Kelly says tonight is a chance for England’s fringe players. There’s talk about how England have never lost four games consecutively. So right from the get-go, they had set up both the significance of the match in the wider England picture and the potential jeopardy tonight.

Kelly introduces ‘Football Correspondent’ John Murray. I do wonder what all these titles mean and who comes up with them, as John is primarily a commentator. Anyway, it matters not. He runs us through the team sheets just five minutes in so we know who will be doing battle.

Chris Waddle is introduced for the first chat about the team. An England regular in the co-comm trousers, Chris’s work often puts me in mind of how he played football; seems a bit weary, then suddenly bursts into life and is brilliant. In his rather Eeyorish manner he tells us that “whoever we put out, we’ve not got THAT player”, meaning a game-changer. Just in case we were in danger of thinking England might be any good, the Waddler always reminds us that all flesh is mortal and night will soon follow day. In an era of happy clappy over-pumped nonsense, this down-to-earth phlegmatic approach is always very welcome.

A further ten-minute, interesting discussion ensues covering England’s strikers or lack thereof. Ian Dennis makes his first contribution of the night, saying hello to “Lady Kelly.” He makes a good point that a lot of countries have a striker shortage and some don’t even play an out and out number nine any more. Waddler bemoans the fact Callum Wilson hasn’t been given a chance and isn’t bothered how old players are, if they’re in form. Not for the first time tonight, the lack of game time England players are getting is discussed in some depth as a real problem. Chris feels that we’ve no option but to try players even if they haven’t played much or at all, as almost no-one is getting any game time. Denno wonders if the step up from being a bit part Premier League player to international level is just too big a step.

We’re not even half an hour in and they’ve covered a lot of interesting points without ever resorting to cliche or being boring. But things are only just getting going. We’ve got an interview with lovely Gareth by John Murray which, as ever, is a soft, rational and charming. Kelly then greets Jamie Vardy who has joined them for a quick chat, this being played at his home ground. She’s great at the player interviews, adopting such a relaxed, naturally conversational tone, that is barely seems like it is scripted at all, but I assume it must be to a degree. She must know what questions she’s going to ask, but it still just sounds like a natural chat. The take-home message from Vardy was how good the England team spirit is and how that is the standout quality for this squad.

It’s time for a news break and some programme trails. When we return, it’s over to Northern Ireland to speak to John Southall who sets up the game against Israel at Windsor Park. One of the lovely features of football on the radio is how they regularly go over to someone at another game for an update. This can’t happen on TV but it’s one of radio’s defining characteristics and it always makes me feel that football is being played on a widescreen stage. It someone makes it more human.

Ian Dennis makes a good point that if the match isn’t a sell-out it could be because the unsold tickets were in the £45 and £55 price bracket, which is far too high, I think. All the while, the crowd noise is always in 5live’s broadcast mix. Perhaps they can’t filter it out, but I’m glad they can’t or don’t as it always adds to the pre-game anticipation.

Chris is a big fan of England games in the provinces saying how good it for the kids and that when the teams came out to warm up, ‘It was like a St.Trinians game.” Even though St. Trinians was an all-girls school (Flash Harry notwithstanding) you know what he means.

Finally, the game kicks off. John Murray takes the first half of the first half. The two comms team is less common now, but was once always the case – for many years Mike Ingham and Alan Green. Quite what’s happened to Greeny this season remains unknown. I’ve not heard him yet. Maybe he’s just doing a lot less games. It has to be said, Murray and Dennis is a primo commentary team. Each very distinctive.

The Waddler is soon discontented with England and for years he’s been like this, always wary of being overly positive about England and seeing their inadequacies as glaring. He’s soon annoyed that England are not pressing at all and letting Switzerland do what they want. This forms most of the half time discussion with Kelly. There’s just time for a news break, some of the other scores in games and a bit of cricket. Then they replay the Paul Tisdale interview about Ethan Ampadu being said, aged 14, to not take enough touches. Waddler says “I don’t get that.” None of us do, Chris.

John Murray is on the mic for the Rashford goal after 53 minutes. And it’s a classic bit of commentary. “It’s sucked in at the back post by Marcus Rashford…although Switzerland have been on top, England are in front,” he says, two lines of perfect length to be snipped out and used in future or in other news broadcasts, which must surely be one of the briefs for any commentator. They are not just commentating for the moment but for recycling on many different platforms and in different contexts, creating a distinctive colour that can be repainted with in the future

Later, during a lull in play, Ian Dennis chats to Chris about meeting Gazza earlier and how good it was to see him so looking healthy. Gazza had apparently looked at Denno’s belly and asked when the waters were going to break! You can just imagine that, can’t you? Such chit-chat is the lifeblood of a long football radio broadcast.

When the game ends, there is still 45 minutes of air time to fill. I always listen to the post-game show but I’m told this is quite unusual and most people nick off once the game is over. This time is filled with more Waddler saying how we need to play to our strengths and stop trying to play like our opponents and John Murray interviewing players. Terry Butcher, a star in Russia, appears and adds some fun saying he had to go and have a drink in the first half, so worried by England’s defence was he. That’s how we used to feel when you were defending for England too, Terry. Kelly is laughing in the background throughout.

It’s quiet now, the crowd noise already nothing but a half forgotten echo, the post-game post-coital come down palpable. Ever was it thus. As Spain have won 6 – 0 they get Guillem Balague on the phone to talk about it. After which Kelly wraps it all up, thanks everyone and we’re done for the night.

It has been a typically excellent evening’s work and one which much surely be exhausting for all concerned. Looking back at my notes, the thing that strikes me now, is just how much content they put into a show, outwith the actually commentary of the game. It is so densely packed in order to keep the engagement levels high. The fact that it never gets boring is quite amazing.

It’s also important to say how excellent the meat of the night is – the broadcast of the actual game. One feature I always enjoy and again is a very radio thing, is the noises off mic. For example, with about eight minutes to go, Waddler could be clearly heard talking to someone – I’d like to think it was Gazza wearing a pair of comedy breasts, but it probably wasn’t – and saying “save me a spot.” Ian Dennis was obviously distracted at this point too. Such unsmooth moments really add to the organic nature of the how. Like all the best rock n roll, broadcasting should never be perfect.

The overriding feeling is one of a huge amount of teamwork mixed with genuine bonhomie. There isn’t anywhere to hide on the radio. It is too intimate a medium to fake having a good time for over three hours and as I turn off, I feel like I’ve been well-served and have emerged from the experience enriched. You can’t get better than that.


What People Say
There were very few comments about this broadcast, which leads me to wonder why. I don’t know if weekly listener figures are available anywhere, I can never unearth them if they are, but feel they should be detailed on the BBC website. It’s our BBC, after all. Maybe they feel when numbers are thought low, it will open them up to criticism from the usual suspects who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Or maybe radio figures are tricky to calculate as people dip in and out all the time.

Perhaps most people watch England on the TV. It was on Sky though, not on a terrestrial channel, or it could be that a friendly against Switzerland is always going to be a niche flavour on the football palette and that explains the lack of listener input.


Does It Have A Future?
The BBC now seems the natural home for England international games as does BBC Scotland for Scotland games. The England story is an constantly unfolding one and of interest to millions of people.

One thing that I do sometimes wonder about is how long 5live can keep this level of quality up. As well as having excellent performers, I assume much of the quality is down to those who produce the programmes. They must put together the running order and keep it all ticking over without any lulls in the energy or interest. Without top notch producers, I assume the programmes might not be as entertaining. I hope the BBC never reach a stage where they’re frittering money away on big stars and in the process failing to attract and retain producers by virtue of underpaying them. Often the biggest stars in life are the ones who remain behind the curtain.

This game, a friendly, had the potential to be a dull evening. The fact England are always capable of playing at least one tedious 45 minutes of football only made that even more likely. But, as ever, 5live found a way to make it a fine feast. And we all know that will not be the only time that is the case this season. If you always watch on TV, try 5live one time, if you’re not impressed, I’d be amazed.

John Nicholson

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