After 48 years of Bing, Bough and the Boat Race, time for a 'Grandstand' finish
Saturday afternoons will never be the same as time catches up with a BBC institution, writes Mike Rowbottom
Wednesday 26 April 2006
The news that the BBC plans to ditch Grandstand, which first went out on 11 October, 1958, will fill many viewers of a certain age with a sense of gloom. It is like hearing of the imminent death of an old acquaintance. A generation has grown up with Grandstand in its living room, as much a part of Saturday afternoons as tea and toast. The mesmeric chatter of the teleprinter has imparted news of triumph or disaster to a legion of armchair football followers. And as the once mighty flagship hangs briefly before us before slipping into the deep, it is a timely moment to recall its many virtues.
For some, the abiding memory will be of the mock fight staged behind presenter Des Lynam on April Fool's Day. Others will recall Bing Crosby dropping in, complete with floppy hat, to shoot the breeze on golf with the then resident Frank Bough.
For Dave Gordon, head of major events for BBC Sport, who worked as an editor on Grandstand between 1991 and 2001, two days in 1993 and 1997 stand out - the Saturdays when the Grand National endured a false start and a postponement because of an IRA bomb threat.
Gordon is clearly immensely fond of the old show - and entirely convinced that it has run its course. "Even in 1991 Grandstand was on borrowed time because by then the viewer didn't want to see 10 minutes of this, and 10 minutes of that," he said yesterday. "Viewers were starting to want exactly what they wanted to see, and increasingly in the age of digital TV they have been able to have that.
"There were times when I knew I couldn't win as an editor. You would have to do things like leaving a tennis match for live racing and then go back again, and you knew the tennis fans and the racing fans would not be happy. The sadness is that people were able to sample many different sports through Grandstand. They might have seen something for the first time and thought, 'Oh, that was good'. But life's different now. It's very, very sad, but I don't think we would be doing Grandstand any favours by keeping on with it. After 48 years its time has passed."
Alec Weeks, a Grandstand producer from 1961 to 1965 who then took over the role Gordon fulfils now in Outside Broadcasting, begs to differ.
Now aged 79, the affable Weeks is two months younger than the presenter with whom he worked on the programme, David Coleman, who is 80 today. He joined the BBC in 1941, initially earning 10s 6d (55p) a week for filling up inkwells, and retired from the Corporation in 1987, and the idea that Grandstand is to be shunted for good clearly pains him.
"I will be sorry to see it go," said Weeks, who is publishing a book of his BBC recollections - Under Auntie's Skirts (Book Guild, £17.99), on 19 May. "I just think when you've got a good title you keep it going. We may have lost the odd event, like the Boat Race, but the big events are still bloody marvellous and we have a shop window for them. There's always something in the shop window to sell."
Then as now, the fare on offer for the viewer was varied. But then, those working on the programme were effectively pioneers. "When we did our first live coverage of the Grand National in 1960 we had a van called the Roving Eye which had a camera fitted to it," Weeks recalled. "We wanted to run the van alongside part of the course leading up to Becher's [Brook], but we realised it couldn't go as fast as the horses, so we had to improvise.
"The BBC had one or two plush cars at the time for the use of the director-general, or for the minister if he visited. They were Humber Pullmans - beautifully sprung, executive luxury cars. So we got the engineers to cut a huge hole in the roof of one of them and installed a camera and cameraman named Mac, who was very small and a very good operator. And we went ahead and did the broadcast.
"Afterwards we had to explain to the head of transport that we'd used one of the D-G's cars without permission. But because the transmission had been such a great success, we never heard a word about it. You took a gamble in TV those days. You stuck your neck out to do things, and when they came off it was wonderful."
The great blizzards of 1962 pushed the Grandstand team to the limits of their ingenuity. "We were usually on air at about 12.15pm," Weeks said, "and we had to fill from then until the time the football results began coming in at around 4.30pm. The first Saturday of the blizzards meant there weren't going to be any football results, however.
"We were due to show some cyclo-cross from Nottingham, some amateur boxing from Northampton and a snooker match involving the world champion Joe Davis from Lime Grove, but people were getting held up in arriving.
"So we had David Coleman blathering about the weather for a while, sounding more like a weatherman than a sports presenter, and then we were able to go to our fight of the week - which was film flown in from the United States - which gave us a bit of a breathing space. Just like everybody else, we couldn't believe that nothing was happening in sport. This was in the days before videotape, remember.
"We spoke to Joe Davis on the phone, and his opponent hadn't turned up. So we had to beg him to do something to fill the time. He said, 'I'll fill for as long as you want'. And he put on a display of trick shots like something you have never seen. Dear old Uncle Joe - he was whistling a tune under his breath as he played, and he filled for 28 minutes, by which time some of the cyclists had arrived at Nottingham and we were back in business."
The second Saturday of the blizzard saw the show prepared in advance. Unfortunately, the plan was to show a film entitled D.O.A, which turned out to feature a string of gruesome murders and prompted a mass of angry calls from viewers demanding to know what had happened to their cosy afternoon of sport.
One of the enduring features of Grandstand was the football scores, read until he died in 1995 by Len Martin. "The way he read the scores out, pre-announcing the result by the way he inflected the names, was all his own idea," Weeks said. "No one tried to stop him or 'improve' him. He was the originator, and many people since have copied him."
Before the reading of the results, of course, came the ritual consultation of the teleprinter, one of many innovations to have been introduced by the programme's joint originator, Paul Fox.
"Of all the presenters, David was the one most able to proceed without notes," Weeks said. "He would walk near his home in Chalfont St Giles for 8-10 hours on Thursdays learning all the details he needed from football and rugby. He went through every bloody match on the fixture list. And then he would just pick up the lip microphone we had lying next to the teleprinter and start talking."
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