Channel 4 Racing, the first 6 months. Part 4

Channel 4 Racing, the first 6 months. Part 4
channel 4 racing is relaunched with a new look presentation team and gadgets

New year, new team

The Presentation Team – school report

Over 25 years I was fortunate to have the earpiece and/or film with some of the most high profile television presenters of the modern age. Sir David Frost, Richard Whiteley, Carol Vorderman, Eamonn Holmes, Chris Tarrant, Fred Dineage, Martin Tyler, Jeff Stelling and many, many more.
I have been responsible for giving a handful of household names their first TV break and been the TV producer to guide them during those early years.

That, along with a love of racing, entitles me to air my views on how the C4 team performed in the first few months of a four year contract.

Back in the winter many regular viewers bemoaned changes to the on air presentation team at Channel 4 Racing.

Where was John Francome?

In an admirable display of loyalty rarely witnessed in television, he quit when Highflyer Productions, owned by a friend of his, lost the contract to produce the coverage.

As was the case when he was in the saddle, Francs jumped. He did not fall.

Where was Alastair Down? How could C4 contemplate covering the Cheltenham festival without employing the rugged features of one of the greatest sports journalists of our time?

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Alastair Down should stay on Channel 4 Racing

I still back Down

Alastair has always had a face for radio. In this age when television bosses would rather employ a bimbo, a blonde or the good looking daughter/niece of a famous sportsman/woman; Alastair has long been bucking a TV trend.

I miss him and I’d love it were C4 bosses to admit the error of their ways and get Down back on air, in vision, for Cheltenham 2013.

The voice of Down, whose timekeeping and sometimes dishevelled state were the reasons for his C4 vanishing act, did make a comeback of sorts. Doing what he does best. Recording poetic voice overs that had the hairs on the back of my neck standing more erect than the frame of Mick Fitzgerald (in my opinion, Fitz is an excellent addition to the C4 team).

While Clare Balding recorded a lovely tribute to the late Sir Henry Cecil, it was not in the same league as that scripted and voiced by Alastair Down.

The Clare version had me nodding. Alastair’s had me in tears.

His voice overs should be used in every media studies course. That’s how to do it.

Unlike some on Twitter, I haven’t missed the deposed Derek Thompson or Mike Cattermole. And I’d rather have Brix back than Big Mac.

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emma spencer presents channel 4 racing vg tips

Emma Spencer. Photo Brian Finch

Back in January I questioned why Emma Spencer had been kept on.

She has had an eventful time of things since.

One day she was most amused when she missed a winning jockey coming back past her when poised, post race, with a microphone in hand.

Later she gaffed when, either through lack of listening in her earpiece or a slip of the tongue, she asked jockey Neil Callan about his upcoming ride in a big race at Epsom.

The only problem being that he had been ‘jocked off’ that morning in favour of Frankie Dettori.

Now I knew Callan had been replaced in the saddle of Sri Putra. As did everyone on Twitter. Callan himself had earlier tweeted his disappointment.

Moments before Emma asked Callan: “Now in the next race you’re on Sri Putra…” Mick Fitzgerald in studio had reaffirmed that Callan had lost that ride. That output must have been available in Emma’s earpiece.

Callan was diplomatic when replying to Emma: “I think you should do your homework.”

But any presenter can make a mistake live on air. As can any producer or director.

24 hours after that gaffe, Emma was hosting ‘The Morning Line.’

At Royal Ascot there was a tragic incident. Thomas Chippendale won a race but, soon after going past the finishing post, collapsed and died of a heart attack.

Emma was already on her way, microphone in hand, to jockey Johnny Murtagh.

If his answer to her first question was unfortunate (“he ran his heart out”), her follow up question was insensitive.

She asked him to talk through the race. Now if ever enquiring how a race panned out was irrelevant, it was that one.

emma spencer arrives at royal ascot for channel 4 racing vg tips

Immaculate as ever. Photo by Emma Blackmore

To compare and contrast the relative merits of Alastair Down and Emma Spencer, I would have to summarise thus.

Emma looks good on screen. Alastair doesn’t.

Alastair does his homework. I suspect Emma “wings it” a little too often.

But Emma turns up on time and looking immaculate.

To the minds of some at C4, Alastair did neither.

On Day 2 of the July meeting at Newmarket, Emma’s dress left nothing to the imagination. Is this a plan to attract more viewers? Well, I guess it’s worked for ‘Countdown.’


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As a Producer I would be seeking to help Emma. Beginning with taking her to one side and, if necessary, writing down a crib sheet of more interesting and varied questions than: “He/she is such a strong horse” or “he/she is so big.”

And I would put into her head variable questions that could be asked in a given situation. Including unexpected ones.

Clare Balding has been better for not having to cover for the ramblings of Willie Carson.

Secondly, and I mean this in a positive fashion, also better because she is on screen less than she was on the BBC.

It is wise that she is being used by C4 in a more targeted fashion. She was only ever going to work at the more high profile meetings and her presence is less domineering.

rishi persad presents channel 4 racing vg tips

All good from Rishi. Photo by Nick Luck

Her one time BBC colleague Rishi Persad has, as I suggested back in January, been stretched.

I always thought he was worthy of more airtime than quick post race interviews.

He has been a good deputy when asked to present ‘The Morning Line.’

He is enjoying a wider brief and is, to use racing parlance, an improving type.

The boys in the studio are gelling and seem more relaxed with every passing week.

Graham Cunningham has, after a few weeks when he resembled the unfunny uncle at a wedding, got back to what he does best. Talking about racing and controversial issues in the sport. His strident views on the speed with which doping trainer Al Zarooni was dealt with were spot on.

And when joining in the interrogation of Paul Bittar, Chief Executive of the British Horseracing Authority, Graham proved he is not afraid to ask tough questions of those in authority. More of the same please.

He and the admirable Jim McGrath are working well together, and with chief presenter Nick Luck.

I happen to think ‘Lucky’ is the right man for the job and that he just gets better and better. He is a world away from the man who first appeared on Channel 4 Racing. All the time growing in confidence, the station having the contract to air all the big race meetings has ensured that his enthusiasm is infectious.

Another able deputy for him on ‘The Morning Line’ is Alice Plunkett.

Back in winter she presented one of the more laid back episodes of the Saturday morning show. It was a very enjoyable watch.

I am a fan of Alice. She has great knowledge of thoroughbred racehorses, the sport as a whole and, importantly, she is respected by the jockeys who return to the winners’ enclosure, out of breath, and find themselves having a microphone aimed in their direction.

Alice should be used more often.

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I heard John McCririck on radio recently. He was banging on about how much he is missed on Channel 4. In his own living room perhaps!

He inferred that his former co-presenter, Tanya Stevenson, had struggled without his company in the bookies ring. So much so, he alleged, that C4 had hired Irishman Brian Gleeson to work with her at the big meetings.

Well I am glad they did. Gleeson was a superb addition to the team at Royal Ascot and Tanya is more confident with him around. She can be a bit flustered when interviewing. It doesn’t come naturally to her. She is better when being interviewed herself than when she is asking the questions. I miss her sat on a sofa discussing betting with the rest of the team.

But Tanya knows her betting and is a more relaxed presenter for not having to deal with McCririck.

Clare Balding presents the high profile Channel 4 racing meetings vg tips

Clare Balding. Less is more on C4 Racing

If an on air team are having fun and enjoying working together, that will come across to the viewing public.

In my opinion, since April, that is beginning to happen. Confidence has grown since that Grand National meeting.

We can all be guilty of looking back with rose tinted specs. I miss Francome and Down as much as the next viewer.

But nothing stays the same forever (with the possible exception of Emma’s post race questions!)

In my experience every on air television presentation team needs time to get used to each other, and viewers take even longer to grow accustomed to a new look.

I expected it to take a while for this team to gel but, before my very eyes, it is happening.

As my own school report often stated… B+ and getting better.

(In the meantime, feel free to leave your comments below)

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