Tommy Martin: The symbolic value of the classified results outlived their use

The decision to axe the reading of the scores at 5pm on Saturdays on BBC radio has provoked a very British furore.
Tommy Martin: The symbolic value of the classified results outlived their use

UPROAR: The decision to axe the reading of the scores at 5pm on Saturdays on BBC radio has provoked a very British furore.
(Ian West/PA)

Given that it is also a beloved national institution in danger of extinction, you’d think the BBC would have been more sympathetic towards the classified football results.

Instead, the decision to axe the reading of the scores at 5pm on Saturdays on BBC radio has provoked a very British furore. In fact, the death of the classified results is what you might call a teachable moment in the ongoing quest to understand our weird neighbours.

Like the endlessly discharging Brexit pustule, the classified results affair is about the deep and dark places of the British soul. It is about tradition and progress and an innate ambivalence to modernity. This feeling goes back to Anglo Saxon times, when popular tapestries began to bemoan woke Norman nonsense. To point out that something is hopelessly dated and long past obsolescence is moot to a nation whose most enduring icon is a 96-year-old woman who owns six castles.

Indeed, the Beeb could not have provoked more outrage this week had the Director General taken out the Queen herself. It’s important to note that almost nobody actually noticed when the results were not read out on Sports Report on BBC Five Live last Saturday, breaking a tradition that goes back not quite to 1066, but to the early 1950s. Proper British institutions ossify gently in the background, like an old cardigan or the House of Lords. If you noticed the classified results, you weren’t really listening.

According to The Athletic, the BBC had not logged a single complaint by Sunday morning, before the Daily Mail and other custodians of British Things got on the case. Soon, the Beaufort scale of righteous uproar was at twelve, led by noted cultural commentator Mark Lawrenson.

“Can’t believe the BBC have dropped the reading of the Classified results on Sports Report. Talk about an OG…!! WTF…” tweeted Lawro on Monday in fluent Dad Outrage. 

Those disposed to giving the Beeb a kicking then did so, conjuring the stereotype of the faceless corporate hooligan (young, expensive coffee, ludicrous spectacles) who presumably made the decision based on left wing algorithms. The Times described the decision as “cultural vandalism,” the Daily Mirror “brainless broadcast vandalism.” 

Others went all wistful and a broad sense of rheumy nostalgia emerged. “RIP the beautiful and profound sound poem of the classified football results on Sports Report. Now we have all lost at home,” went the lofty tweet by the poet Ian McMillan. Many referenced the familiar rising and falling intonation patented by long-time result reader James Alexander Gordon. There were tales of hushed car journeys home from matches, sentimental accounts of grandads cheering score draws on pools coupons and references to Eric Morecambe’s favourite apocryphal scoreline: East Fife 4, Forfar 5.

There was the essential classlessness of the thing – the remote exploits of Albion Rovers and Alloa Athletic afforded equal status to Manchester United and Liverpool. Ditching the classified results, it was suggested, was another strike against the democracy of the football pyramid by the avaricious elites. The BBC themselves admitted that time pressures caused by acquiring rights to broadcast the 5:30pm Premier League match had led to the move, the better to feature more top flight-related blather and build-up.

At the time of writing the backlash had reached the desks of the leaders of the land. Culture secretary Nadine Dorries, no stranger to a bit of cultural vandalism herself, said it was “a wrong decision and will be a bitter pill for fans to swallow.” 

A BBC Sport mole told the Times that “there is still a hope that the powers-that-be here will be persuaded to change their mind. It has been a big own goal and there is strong feeling within many at the BBC that it should be reversed.” Even those sympathetic with the BBC’s attempts to move with the times seem to feel that they should just put the classified results back where they were and maybe drop a Frank Lampard interview or a few minutes of Robbie Savage. It was always beside the point that the results were still going to be read out on TV and that the vast majority of the British public have humanity’s entire body of acquired knowledge on a device in their pockets, were they urgently to require the Stockport County v Hartlepool score on a Saturday evening.

Indeed, nothing has become the classified results like their leaving. A secular Angelus, they were a few moments of quiet reverie after the afternoon’s frenzy, a stocktake of the what before the discussion of the how. From Portsmouth to Inverness, they were a unifying thing, and the reaction to their demise brought together Britain’s fractured cabals in varying notes of disgruntlement.

There are very few British institutions that have not been tarnished or rendered problematic or divisive, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the strangely musical rendering of football scores has been elevated to sacred status. Their symbolic value as a totem of the national game outstripped their expiring utility. Other than dispensing with miscellaneous pools-related particulars, they had been pretty much unchanged for seven decades and read by only three different voices in that time. They have been referred to as a comfort blanket, and if there’s a nation that could do with one of those right now, it’s Britain.

The whole saga has been in keeping with the BBC’s own agonies about its future, struggling to justify itself to a rabidly adversarial Tory government and keep up with the lightspeed changes in the broadcast landscape. But as Her Majesty could tell them, the key to being a national institution is often just doing nothing.

And in any case, East Fife versus Forfar is coming up next week. This could be the one…

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