Vox in the Box: Mark Chapman

Mark Chapman has been a presenter for BBC TV and radio for almost 20 years. He currently presents the Monday Night Club on BBC Radio 5Live, and Match of the Day 2, as well as a number of other programmes on various sports…

You started out as a continuity announcer for the BBC…

When I was 13 I wanted to work for Radio 1. That was my big thing. I wanted to be Simon Mayo, basically. Not many kids did, but that was my non-footballing hero. But when I was applying for jobs, I couldn’t get anything in sport – I think I got one interview, I think at Radio Sheffield, and that was it. So I was struggling to find a job, and the continuity announcer thing was advertised. I applied for it thinking I didn’t really want it, and because of that I was quite laid back and ended up getting it. At that time – and thank god, things have changed a bit – the BBC wanted *a* northern voice. This isn’t that long ago – 1996 – and they wanted *a* northern voice, just one, thinking that would appease everyone north of Watford, because everyone in the north is just one, big, happy family, obviously. I can remember the first day, someone there said to me ‘whatever you do, don’t be here longer than three years, otherwise you’ll be stuck.’ And I think I left at two years and 11 months to join Radio One.

Then you spent a few years at Radio One…

Well, when I started doing continuity and I was shit. I was dreadful. Within about six months there was a job advertised to be Radio Newcastle’s cricket reporter for the season. So I went and did that, on attachment from the continuity department. I travelled home and away with Durham for the whole season, reporting every day and doing commentary on my own, with no summariser, on county championship games. David Boon was the captain, young players like Paul Collingwood and Steve Harmison were just starting out. It was just the best way to learn and the best way to get a grasp on the industry. I came back from that with new-found confidence and belief I suppose. That changed how I broadcast on continuity, I realised I could be a bit more myself, and they encouraged that, so the last two years there were great. But it all comes down to those four months in the north-east.

Despite lots of people probably knowing you most for presenting Match of the Day 2, do you still think of yourself as primarily a radio man?

Yeah, absolutely. And always will be. At the risk of doing myself out of jobs [on TV], radio will always be my first love. I think it allows you to be freer and more creative. TV can be so rigid – even the most creative TV – it has to be because of the format, and the number of cameras, making sure the lighting is correct. Everything has to be perfect, to a certain extent, with telly. With radio you don’t have the time constraints, and you’re a lot freer to go where you want with it – literally in a geographical sense, because it’s very easy to go off to this ground or that ground, and then maybe off to South Africa, all within one show. But you’re also freer in that, if you take a football discussion show, you’re kind of freer to go off track and onto various different subjects than. With TV, so many things will already have been lined up, whether it’s graphics, or a picture of this, or a shot of that newspaper. There’s less freedom when it comes to being a TV broadcaster, rather than a radio broadcaster.

Plus in the old days it was easier to look like shit on the radio, but that’s getting increasingly harder because of webcams, and being on the red button. I’ve sent a message to the team to book people who look equally as rough as I do, and then we’re all fine. I get constant tweets and texts telling me I was looking rough, but I will fight to look rough on radio because in essence it is still a radio show that just has a camera pointed at it. Equally there are people that will say I look shit on TV too, which is perfectly true, but I do try and make more of an effort.

Yeah, but on TV you can blame someone else – make-up or whoever…

Yeah, the cameras put at least two stone on you, harsh lighting, all sorts…

The other difference between, say, Match of the Day 2 and something like the Monday Night Club is if you’re honest, on the TV, people aren’t tuning in to see you – they’re tuning in to see the goals. You can make it better, but you’re ultimately not what people are watching for. But with the radio show people are actively tuning in for you…

Yes, absolutely. I’ve looked at the telly side of it and try to make sure that the chats in between the games resemble a mini Monday Night Club, or a mini weekend preview. But ultimately people are tuning in to see the goals or see their team. And actually when you put out the – admittedly, short – running order on the show, you get a large number of tweets back from fans of sides that have lost on the Sunday going “You’re alright, we’ll give it a miss this week.”

I think you’ve said before that your role is not to necessarily play devil’s advocate in debates – what do you see your role as?

I think there’s a quite a fine line on the devil’s advocate thing. You have to put the opposing point of view if you can, but there’s no point in putting an opposing point of view if it is utterly, utterly ridiculous. Or creating an argument for argument’s sake. So I think that’s what I’m saying when I look at it like that.

It’s interesting with the professionals because they will always see things in a certain way. One of the things I’ve noticed is there will always be a way for them to deconstruct a goal [and blame it on] bad defending. Sometimes for us as fans, surely you just hold your hand up and say “You know what, that’s brilliant.” The Dele Alli goal, for example, I’m sure a pundit would have looked at it and said “Well, so and so didn’t get close enough to him, or so-and-so allowed him to turn,” whereas as a fan we’re all going “Jesus Christ, that was just sensational.” I think my job more and more – and I think I have to be honest and say it took me a while, certainly on TV as opposed to radio – is to look at it from a fans’ point of view, and not to be part of the footballers’ club.

My other role is to challenge them. So if someone says something I have to say ‘why, what, how’ – they’re very simple questions, but sometimes in football I’m not sure we challenge our pundits enough. They can quite often say whatever they want, and nobody comes back to them. I’m not criticising anyone else as a presenter, but I do like challenging them and putting them on the spot. And it certainly feels like the majority of them do respond to that. I don’t just do it on air – I do tell them [before the show] “Look, if you’re going to say that, I’m going to come back and say what are you talking about?”

There must be a fine line between challenging them and just having an argument…

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an argument, but you don’t want to have an argument all the time, because then people will just think “here they go again, shouting at each other or ranting at each other.” You’ve got to pick your moment to ‘have a discussion’, shall we say. But in my experience they seem to like it – they like having a bit more time, on Match of the Day 2, and they do like to be pushed.

We sit and watch those games on a Sunday, in the office, and we try and have a bit of fun while there. I try to encourage, from quite a lot of them, a lack of impartiality. I can’t get my head round people who say “Well, so-and-so wasn’t impartial”, and my response would be a) why should they be? And b) why do you want them to be? It’s not the general election, we’re not doing politics here. It’s people’s opinions and points of view. For example if Martin Keown was in the studio talking about an Arsenal game, a lack of impartiality would mean all the chat about Arsenal being great. That’s a lack of balance, but the fact that there’s an editor of the programme, and me, and another pundit, we’ll always try and balance it up. By the end of it both teams should’ve been covered in some shape or form, and then you move on.

Alan (Shearer) has become brilliant at it. People realise he’s Newcastle through-and-through – and why shouldn’t he be? You can say that with Martin and Arsenal, Danny Murphy and Liverpool, John Hartson and Swansea, but as a viewer I don’t have a problem with it. If I’m watching Sky and they’ve got Thierry Henry and Graeme Souness doing Arsenal v Manchester United, I’m thinking there’s ex-Arsenal and there’s ex-Liverpool, but it doesn’t mean I expect them to be utterly anti-United all the way through. I just expect that maybe Henry’s loyalty is going to be more towards Arsenal in that game.

Watching programmes like MotD2, you do sometimes think ‘Do these guys actually like each other?’ Have you ever worked with people who you know actively hate each other?

I think you’re aware of, going into the odd weekend – and I would have to say not recently – where there might have been a certain history between a couple of people. Shearer and Gullit is an obvious one, but you know it [their disagreement at Newcastle] was 15 years ago. And they know that what happened will always get brought up somehow. It’s a bit of a running joke now – at the MK Dons game Gary Lineker mentioned within about two minutes that those two had fallen out over something. To be honest, in three years of doing the show I’ve never sat in that office and had two pundits who just don’t talk to each other. There is one that, I suppose if you go back through the tapes is quite easy to work out…that one there was no love lost, certainly from one to the other. You’d expect Shearer and Neil Lennon to be at each other, but they got on great.

You presented 606 on and off for a while, in which time you worked with people like Robbie Savage…

What I liked doing – and I don’t want this to sound too grand – was working with new pundits. I like being able to settle them in and help them. That was Robbie’s first radio gig, so you could hold me responsible for everything that’s followed I suppose. Quite a few of the pundits I’ve managed to start off with in recent years, so I actually quite liked doing it for that year, 18 months and helping people like Robbie come on. But…I don’t know how to describe doing that show – put it this way, you need an awful lot of patience.

Working with people like Savage, was your job to rein him in, or to encourage the more ‘extreme’ parts of his personality?

My job with all of them, whether it’s the guys on football, or Tuffers and Vaughan doing cricket, or the guys doing the NFL, is more often than not to make sure a) they don’t get into trouble – legally, really – and b) to make them feel at their most comfortable to do what they do. They all do different things, and they all do different things to different extremes or to varying abilities, but my job is to make sure I create the best environment for them to do what they do. That’s how I view my role on TV or radio. If that means asking a question that allows them to explain something, or prodding them a bit to get them more animated, or maybe rein them in slightly so they don’t go overboard and drop themselves in the shit, then that’s what I do. That I believe is the role of the presenter. 

You can follow Mark Chapman on Twitter (@MarkChapman)

You can follow Nick Miller on Twitter (@NickMiller79)

Vox in the Box: Mark Chapman
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