IN the 1990s I would race home from work in the early hours of Saturday to watch a video recording of that night’s Fantasy Football League on BBC2. Irreverent, often filthy and yet full of love for the game, it was the best thing on telly by far.
The format was always the same – an intro section featuring hosts Frank Skinner and David Baddiel with their faces crudely superimposed on real-life managers and players, to the tune of the 1970 England team song Back Home. The pair occupied a sofa on a set made to look like the front room of their flat, with a kitchen section populated by ‘Statto’ – the statistics expert Angus Loughran clad in pyjamas and dressing gown. A crowd of about 50 noisy footie fans sat around wearing their club colours.
Portrayed as being dull and humourless, Statto was the butt of countless jokes by Skinner and Baddiel but became a favourite with the audience, who would chant his name.
The show was based on the eponymous fantasy league, in which members of the public selected their own team of players from a variety of clubs, on a limited budget, and were awarded points for their men’s weekly performances on the pitch.
The first sequence was always ‘some things we found out from watching football this week’ and would inevitably involve embarrassing moments captured on film. In this programme, only the third ever shown, the doorbell goes and in come guest managers John Motson and Roy Hattersley. They are subjected to some mild badinage before their team selections are discussed (Hattersley is top of the league at the time). Much sport is had at the expense of England manager Graham Taylor, who was shown at the pitch side on a TV documentary saying: ‘Do I not like that!’
Next comes Phoenix From The Flames, which reconstructs a classic moment from the past – in this case Wembley 1966. Not the England World Cup win but Everton beating Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup final. After the winning goal, acted out by Baddiel and Skinner, an Everton fan ran on to the pitch and was rugby tackled by a policeman. Skinner is the bobby while the pitch invader, one Eddie Cavanagh, is played by himself.
Another regular feature had yet to appear – Jeff Astle Sings, in which the former England star tunelessly crooned cabaret-style. Here’s one example from a later programme.
Much of FFL could be cruel. A black Nottingham Forest player named Jason Lee who had an unusual hairstyle was mocked as having a pineapple on his head. This led to derisive chants to that effect from opposing fans. Baddiel also made several appearances as Lee in blackface.
Baddiel, who is Jewish, has admitted that this was ‘part of a very bad racist tradition’. And in a 2022 interview Skinner said: ‘When Dave walked out from makeup that night, I still don’t know why one or both of us or someone there didn’t say what the f*** is happening? Looking back, it was a bullying campaign. And it’s awful. And yeah, I’m ashamed of it.’
Three BBC2 series were made of FFL between 1994 and 1996. The latter year saw Baddiel and Skinner team up with the pop band Lightning Seeds to make the England anthem Three Lions.
It was with great foreboding in 2022 that I learned Sky TV were launching a reboot of FFL featuring three comedians, the ubiquitous gay Londoner Matt Lucas alongside Welshman Elis James and Andrew Mensah, who is black, taking over the Statto role. Oh no, I thought, they’ll throw out all the old features and it will be one long display of political correctness.
How wrong can you be? The show retains the old set and identical format, complete with fans, guest managers and Phoenix From The Flames. There is even a closing cabaret number, with the late Jeff Astle replaced by 46-year-old Lee Trundle, a former Swansea City player now a club ambassador. He is renowned for his showboating, typified by this penalty which he smashes home while pretending to tie his bootlaces. All three presenters do a nice line in self-deprecation. Here is a clip where Mensah suggests Lucas and James should take the knee to him. Lucas replies: ‘I am on my knees more often than you realise.’
I feared at this point that this would signify the end and Sky would axe the show on the grounds that it isn’t PC enough, but thankfully a new series has been announced for early this year. It’s the only current British comedy programme I can still bear to watch.
Old jokes’ home
From the excellent Milton Jones: ‘If you’re being chased by a police dog, try not to go through a tunnel, then on to a little seesaw, then jump through a hoop of fire. They’re trained for that!’
A PS from PG
I remember when I was a kid at school having to learn a poem of sorts about a fellow named Pig-something — a sculptor he would have been, no doubt — who made a statue of a girl, and what should happen one morning but that the bally thing suddenly came to life. A pretty nasty shock for the chap, of course.
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves