LONDON — Last week at Wimbledon, American Pete Sampras caused a stir when he said there was “nothing to watch” on British television. Bloody hell! The Brits went bonkers! At least the Brits who weren’t watching TV. Those who were, naturally, were sound asleep.
Sampras was not completely correct. There is, in fact, something to watch on British TV — but that something usually involves the beetle and its mating habits.
I am not kidding. You can randomly enter any British hotel room, flick on the TV, and have a pretty good chance at: 1) A documentary on bugs. 2) A documentary on shellfish. 3) Cricket, which, historians will tell you, is what sports were all about, before man began moving around.
The problem — at least it’s a problem if you’re an American athlete, teenager, or Larry King — is that there are only four TV stations here. And they do not include ESPN, CNN, or (ohmigod, how do they exist?) MTV.
The four basic stations here are, based on my research, 1) BBC1, 2) BBC2, 3) the other station 4) Cricket. Pretty much any time of day, any day of the year, you can find a cricket match, which is like a baseball game only — this is hard to believe — longer and slower.
Cricket involves men dressed for Sunday brunch, standing around a large field, waiting for a batter to get hit by a ball. This can take, on average, three or four months, during which time the players adjust their collars and chat. (“So, Nigel, did you watch telly last night?” “Yes, ‘The Secret Life of Grasshoppers.’ ” “Smashing, wasn’t it? Especially the mating habits. . .”)
I’m sorry. I know it is chic to like cricket. But most athletes I know would hear of a sport in which players actually eat sandwiches on the field, and they would bust up laughing. Except maybe Cecil Fielder, who would say,
“What kinda sandwiches?” Why change channels?
The other day, I was watching Wimbledon on BBC1 when Andre Agassi hit a mean shot past Boris Becker and Becker screamed and shook his fists. And the BBC announcer, barely above a whisper, said, “Goodness. He seems to be a bit off the boil at the moment.”
This is not the kind of thing Dick Vitale or John Madden might say. But then, BBC1 and BBC2 are not in the business of creating over-hyped, over-volumed, egotistical announcers. Because — get this — BBC1 and BBC2 are owned by the government, which is already full of people like that.
Can you imagine if American networks were run by the government? (“Coming up next, Newt Gingrich’s home movies, followed by ‘Baywatch,’ starring Ted Kennedy!”)
Yet, amazingly enough, while the Brits still can’t make the tube worth watching, they do have . . . remote control! For visiting Americans, this means the most exercise they will get all trip, clicking the remote for hours, desperate to find something worth watching, like “Who’s the Boss?”
Alas, they keep rolling through the same four British channels, over and over. Which sounds like this: BBC1: “. . .meanwhile, the queen bee, upon selecting her mate. . .”
BBC2: “. . .as the pagans, of the 4th Century, descended upon Lord Chastenburry. . .”
CH3: “. . .another member of Parliament faces a sticky situation after a woman dressed in a lamp shade was discovered in his car. . .” CH4: “. . .the players eat the sandwiches. . .” BBC1: “. . .leaving the male bee for dead. . .”
BBC2: “. . .Troths and misigoths. . .”
CH3: “. . .insisted he doesn’t like lampshades–” CH4: “. . .the replay on those sandwiches–“
Did I mention the newscasts? Newscasts without the Big Picture
TV news here is remarkably normal. Meaning, the newscasters actually pronounce names correctly and don’t look like game show hosts. They also don’t have “happy talk” between anchors, although that might be fun.
ANCHOR 1: And now to sports. Trevor, I heard Boris Becker was a bit off the boil this afternoon.
SPORTS GUY: Ha, indeed, Ian!
ANCHOR 1: Smashing. Thank you, Trevor.
Maybe the biggest difference news-wise is the weather forecasts, which do not employ Doppler, or the Big Picture, or whatever half-million-dollar device you can buy these days to make viewers dizzy.
Weather here is the last thing before the stations sign off at night — yes, they actually sign off! — and it’s intoned by a man who truly enjoys reading weather maps. Unfortunately, he has to cover the whole country in one shot.
WEATHERMAN: Tomorrow’s weather shall be fine, with a fair bit of moisture on the plains of Glastonberry, and south to Dutchenshire, on then to North South Wales, Winchestire, Palm, King Henry, crumpets, tea, and Yorkshire as in pudding. Thank you, Jasper, and do have a pleasant evening.”
By this point, however, everyone is asleep. Including Pete Sampras.