Radio commentators vie to interpret the semiotics of the slouch as tennis is reinvented as mime
Not a word is spoken. The only sound we hear is ? Bodytalk." So declared the splendidly harem-panted Leee John of Imagination 30 years ago. Little did we realise then, as we watched him writhe sinuously across a Persian rug on what may well have been the set of the old Fry's Turkish Delight ad, how prescient the oiled Britfunkster's words would prove. At the time we thought Leee was singing of physical love between man and wool-rich carpeting, but recently it has become ever clearer that he was actually predicting the future of radio sports commentary. You only have to listen to Wimbledon for five minutes to realise that these days ? just as Imagination forecast ? it is all about the look in your eyes, soft sighs and, well, body language.
"I'm looking at his body language, Jonathan, and it isn't good," the pundits say, or "Now, did I detect a slight shift in her body language during that last game?" or "Vital now, at a break of service down, that he gets his body language right."
It's almost as if the players are signalling their innermost thoughts to Annabel Croft using the ancient art of mime: "And looking at Andy Murray, Mark, I'd say Federer has very much got him in a stuck-in-an-invisible-box-type situation. Now, people might wonder what I mean by that. Well, I'm speaking mentally. In his mind the British No1 is trapped by walls that he cannot see and unless he can locate a transparent ladder and literally climb out of that box, I believe his problems in dealing with the former champion's ground strokes are going to continue through the rest of this set."
This is not an entirely new thing, of course. It has ? Leee John-like ? been slithering toward us for several decades with a winsome look on its pan. The man who introduced the interpretation of physical attitudes into the commentary box was the great David Vine. Grapes, as his millions of fans around the globe knew him, was peerless in this and many other respects too. Decked out in the sort of rectangular dark-rimmed glasses normally associated with the sort of chaps who play double bass in a mainstream jazz quartet, Vine was fluent not only in the language of the body, but also fully conversant in squeak, yelp and groan. The man's ability to interpret the grimaces, grunts and wheezes issued by Bulgarian 105kg weightlifters and render them into pithy English is never likely to be equalled (and that is hardly surprising, since Vine had spent his junior years honing his craft by doing something similar for Stuart Hall and Eddie Waring on It's A Knockout).
In Atlanta, for example, Vine responded to the sight of German super-heavyweight lifter Ronnie Weller lying on the floor with his arms and legs waving in the air like the world's largest toddler by barking, "'Oh yes,' he says, 'just give it to me now,' he says." Had Vine ever been let loose on the artistic gymnastics it's likely that something on a par with Finnegans Wake would have splurted from the gogglebox.
Graham Taylor has likewise proved himself a pioneering body linguist, though the ex-Watford root crop tends to take a slightly Daily Telegraph letter writer approach, forever emphasising the importance of "good body language", and openly criticising players when their posture and gait falls below expected standards. "He's a very talented player, Mike, but sometimes I don't like the boy's body language," Taylor will often opine, presumably after detecting what one can only assume to be the physical equivalent of a misplaced apostrophe, a series of dropped aitches, or possibly even a shrugged expletive or two.
The tennis experts are not such sticklers for pronunciation and syntax as Taylor, nor are they as poetic as Vine. In the buildup to Wimbledon they would often be heard talking of the importance of Andy Murray continuing to deploy his "new more relaxed body language". Clearly there's a fine line between comfortable and slouching, but I imagine that what Murray's supporters are looking for is the physical equivalent of the sort of thing we might expect to come from the mouth of Dave Cameron ? received pronunciation with the occasional "wanna" and "godda" thrown in just to emphasise the total lack of uptightness of the fellow. In other words the bodytalk answer to jacket but no tie.
I must say that so far the analysis of tennis players' body language is rather at the GCSE stage. In the next few years I expect it will gather new and fresh depth as it the pundits begin to look beyond the obvious interpretations when watching a large man sitting in a tiny chair with a towel over his head and a banana in his cakehole, and give us some subtext, emphasise the semiotics, pick up the themes. I'm sure it won't be many years before Tracy Austin has put simplistic interpretations of Murray's attitude behind her and is enriching our understanding of what is happening on court with something like, "Well, Andy looks very tired out there, and I can't help thinking that his slumped posture, with its clear echoes of post-colonial British foreign policy, is a stinging rebuke to William Hague over his handling of the Libyan crisis. I think the message that's coming out here is very much that it's through expression, not aggression that we become one, Jonathan."