A man of letters: Jeff Stelling's unbelievable new quiz show
A regular fixture on Sky Sports, Jeff Stelling is heading up ITV's new daytime quiz, Alphabetical. The quick-witted presenter tells Keeley Bolger about the show, his thoughts on 'Friday night football' and his celebrated defence of recently promoted club Middlesbrough
IT'S testament to Jeff Stelling's unflappable demeanour that an evacuation during a live transmission of Soccer Saturday on Sky did little to ruffle his feathers.
Off air for half an hour while the team of fire officers tended to the alarm, he re-appeared wearing a bright yellow helmet, tongue rooted squarely in cheek, fanning his face and declaring the studio "a bit warm".
"I was a bit concerned by that because the entire fire crew were in the studio at the time and I was thinking, 'What if there is a fire around the corner right now?'" recalls the 61-year-old with a chuckle.
Owing to his meticulous approach to research – spending five days genning up before each week's show – coupled with rapid-fire wit, there have been few gaffes in the Hartlepool-born presenter's career.
Even when his phone loudly rang live on air earlier this year, the dad-of-three owned up, rummaging through his bag as his merry band of pundits ribbed him.
Realising the call was from the Sky Broadband team, he deftly flipped the situation around, pointed at the screen, quipping that his broadcaster, "needed to be more professional".
If there's one thing that does throw him though, it's if the screen showing live scores crashes.
"Then we are absolutely in the lap of the gods," says the broadcaster, who previously presented Countdown.
"There's nothing you can do about it. You can never catch up because if you've lost it for half an hour, so many goals have got in during that time."
It's a problem he's confident Alphabetical, his new series for ITV, will be free from.
The daytime quiz show sees three contestants pitted against a returning champion in a series of games based around the alphabet.
Over four rounds, the aim is to bank as much time as possible in preparation for the final, whittling the contestants down to one who'll face the reigning champ in a bid to win the jackpot.
Despite the number of quizzing rivals, Stelling, who is married and lives near Winchester, thinks Alphabetical has "every chance" of success.
"It has a lot of competition out there, so I'm well aware of what the standard is like," he says.
"The Chase, Pointless and Tipping Point have all done fantastically well in recent years, and before that you look back to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and Million Pound Drop.
"Of course, there are a lot that haven't flown at all, so we just hope that Alphabetical is one of the former and not one of the latter."
Even if it doesn't stick, Stelling, who started his career as a reporter at the Hartlepool Mail, is set to be a firm fixture on TV over the coming months.
As well as the next season of Soccer Saturday, he's also presenting Sky Sport's coverage of the Premier League's new Friday night games, alongside former Countdown co-star Rachel Riley.
The move to schedule games on a Friday night has been a controversial one.
"If you're a travelling supporter, it's not great because it's very difficult to get places," reasons the lifelong Hartlepool United fan.
"Our first live Friday night is Manchester United against Southampton and I understand why Southampton fans travelling to the game would be frustrated, because it's taking time off work.
"But on the other hand, the great majority of fans don't travel, so for them, it's a massive bonus. Friday nights, it's a great opportunity, you go out with your mates, get in the pub, wherever you want to watch a bit of football. It's a great start to the weekend."
And although he doesn't think Leicester City will hold on to their title, he has high hopes for them.
Indeed, the victory of the East Midlands side has cropped up in Stelling's conversations all summer, along with the usual shouts of, 'Unbelievable, Jeff!' – his fellow Soccer Saturday presenter Chris Kamara's usual catchphrase.
Stelling's spirited on-air defence of Middlesbrough after it was named 'worst place to live in the UK' by Channel 4's Location, Location, Location in 2007 hasn't gone unnoticed, either.
For two minutes, the ordinarily mild-mannered host called out the people behind the damning judgement as, "the sort who call mushy peas 'guacamole', go to the Ganges on holiday so some bearded bloke can teach them how to relax and use Blackberry devices on silent train carriages."
Egged on by his fellow presenter's cheers of, 'Go on, Jeff!', he rattled off the area's culture, its Transporter Bridge, famous sons and daughters, stalled only by an advert, after which he picked up the rant again, only stopping to announce a goal.
He's since spoofed his tirade to raise awareness of prostate cancer and in 2008 netted a miniature Brian Clough (one of the town's famous sons) statue for his effort.
"It was meant to be humorous, but there were a few home truths," he says.
"I think that's what hit home really. It doesn't have to be the north-east, it could be any region of the country, but some believed that that is the view some in the south take of them.
"That they believe that everybody in the north-east live in Coronation Street style terrace houses and of course, that's not the case.
"I didn't think it would have quite the impact that it has, but it was different."
Closer to home, and the reception to his on-screen antics is less ebullient.
"My kids are rarely impressed by me, I'll tell you that," he says with a laugh.
"Because they've all grown up with me on TV, they don't see anything special in it. And when I'm not on, and they're watching something else, they just want me to be quiet."
:: Alphabetical begins on ITV on Monday August 15