When the BBC does something weird, usually it means it is thinking of a viewer who isn’t you. You might not watch EastEnders, but many do. You might not like the shipping forecast, but a few do. It’s a complicated game. There are lots of people to keep happy! To paraphrase that great BBC propagandist George Orwell, you can watch Only Connect because millions of brave men stay up at night watching Mrs Brown’s Boys.
All the same, the revamped A Question of Sport is veiled in mystery. When Sue Barker was finally ousted as host earlier this year, after 24 years, ushered out with her doughty captains Phil Tufnell and Matt Dawson, it felt not so much like the end of an era as the end of an era of era-ends. While other series had fallen by the wayside or succumbed to modernisation, AQOS had ploughed relentlessly on, more or less as it was when it began in 1970, acquiring an increasingly tragic and desperate air. Any vestigial charm lay in its old-fashioned ways. It was a programme out of time, a relic that had somehow drifted into 2021 because nobody could be bothered to do anything about it. Barker presided as a kind of stentorian matriarch, hoping to shepherd Tuffers, Dawson and Co towards banter without straying into cancellation territory.
When I think of some of the rounds, like “mystery guest” and “what happened next?”, I am a boy again. At its best, A Question of Sport also mixed the join-in-at-home pub quiz dynamic with a rare chance to see sports stars out of context. Before Instagram made us party to celebrities’ every breathing hour, you could learn that Shane Warne really was as you hoped he would be. The line-up over the years verged on the ridiculous. What programme today could bring Maurice Greene, Seve Ballesteros, Evander Holyfield and Jonah Lomu together under John Parrott and Ally McCoist’s welcoming umbrella, as A Question of Sport did in 2000? We didn’t know how good we had it.
Evidently I wasn’t alone in feeling lingering traces of loyalty towards it. There was enough residual affection that AQOS was still drawing 4-5 million viewers when Barker left, but none of them can have been born since she started in 1997. Some might say the best plan would have been a kind of managed obsolescence. The programme could have carried on unchanged while the audience and cast died off and the set slowly fell apart. The year 2056 would find Dawson alone on screen, weakly chuntering amid the ruins of the old world as the rising sea carried away his desk. Another strategy would have been to take it out back and put it out of its misery.
But TV people never know when enough’s enough. If they’re not prolonging series beyond their natural lifespan, they are reanimating them for another lap around the block, with presenters that better reflect contemporary interests. Last month was Changing Rooms on Channel 4 – with Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and Anna Richardson newly at the helm – and now this. It’s a curious phenomenon, fan service for series that didn’t have fans. It places enormous confidence in the new cast to recreate whatever alchemy the old lot had, if that’s the right word for Tufnell and Dawson’s drunk-uncle repartee. Various names were bandied around for Barker’s chair, including the omnipresent football guru Alex Scott. In the end they settled on Paddy McGuinness, the Sam Allardyce of light entertainment. Against the naysayers and, frankly, the odds, he has given Top Gear a shot in the arm. Why couldn’t he do the same for another flagging bit of BBC intellectual property?
“I’ve got to say what a privilege it is to be sitting in this chair,“ he said, at the start of the first episode on Friday. Is it? In the show’s own sporting argot, for McGuinness and his new captains, the hockey player Sam Quek and rugby player Ugo Monye, the new gig looks more like a hospital pass, a nine-Iron Throne. McGuinness is a distracting panacea, so effortlessly smooth that his presence obscures bigger problems. In this case, the fundamental issue is that the format is moribund. I’m not a TV imagination guru, so I can’t tell you what good Question of Sport rounds would be. But I can tell you what they’re not. They’re not Monye and Quek competing to do beginner trampoline bounces. They’re not contestants using their feet to try to guess whether Headingley is in the north. They’re not triathlete Georgia Taylor Brown saying that she enjoys the occasional treat in the off-season. You’re allowed to feel knackered if you’ve presented something for a quarter of a century. This lot look like they have inherited their predecessors’ ennui.
For a quiz or panel show to work in the second-screen epoch, it has to sing. It has to be quick, shareable, innovative. A Question of Sport was invented half a century ago and has had an extraordinarily long run, but the world has left it behind. The loyalty of its viewers is pure nostalgia. You can care about Phil Tufnell or you can be on TikTok, but nobody does both. Besides, there’s too much other TV now, too much internet, too much actual sport. Why would you watch AQuestion of Sport when you can simply switch over and watch the real thing? As any sports fan knows, learning how to lose gracefully is as important as learning how to win. The real question is why the BBC can’t let go.