Sunday, January 28, 2007 by

Sometimes you get what TS Eliot meant. Grandstand, one of the most venerable sports shows in world TV, ended not with a bang but with the most whimperingly whimpery whimper imaginable. Indeed, on a slate-sky winter Sunday, I could have turned off my TV and gone and done something less boring instead (like reading a 1951 Maidstone and District bus timetable or watching some cress grow). But I’d have missed Clare Balding’s dismaying and emotionless announcement of the end of British TV’s most enduring shows.

There was a rapid-fire and entertaining montage of moments both oddball and iconic (1966 Hurst hat-trick goal, athlete falling on face and chucking javelin half an inch), and that was it. Cheerio, half-a-century of broadcasting. It was like watching an elderly cuckold tossing a wedding ring into the sea.

This was a death foretold; the old warhorse’s last plod to the knackers’ yard has been public knowledge for some time, but it still came as a shock. Instead of a long-fanfared conclusion, a peroration peopled by television titans (oh my Bough and my Carpenter long ago!), Grandstand‘s departure has been suspiciously unheralded by the BBC.

This could be due to plain embarrassment. Its flagship sports show was holed amidships in the 1980s, when its ability to cherry-pick the world’s greatest sporting events was undermined by new broadcasting competition rules. In stepped ITV, hitherto restricted to showing Paraplegic Cheese-Rolling from Helions Bumpstead, last summer’s Salt Lake City Virginia Slims Mixed Pole-Squat Classic and (marginally even dafter) wrestling from places like Mexborough with the likes of Les Kellett and Adrian Street on the endearingly idiotic World of Sport; and later, Sky’s bottomless coffers spirited even more premium events away. It was almost certainly this denuding of the best bits of Grandstand – a show set up to cater to working people who, in 1958 (the year of its inception) usually worked on Saturday mornings – that served to reinforce the ringfencing of “reserved” events which ensures coverage of the likes of the Cup Final and Grand National on terrestrial TV.

As such the show was never the same again, relying increasingly on horse-racing (now more of a Channel 4 preserve) and all-conquering athletics, or as it’s now known, “Track and Field”. The BBC has clawed back some of those sport-TV “crown jewels” – Six Nations rugby, England football internationals – since Grandstand‘s nadir around the turn of the millennium – shudder at Hazel Irvine introducing an afternoon of “extreme winter sports” in 2002 – but the product remained fatally flawed.

This, of course, is a shame. Thanks to what was for a long time the most ambitious programme the BBC showed regularly, up to five hours long, even more on Cup Final day with the obligatory Cup Final It’s a Knockout et al, we got the Reithian lot – entertainment, education, information (and Arthur Ellis’ dipstick). Social habits for decades dictated that most sporting events took place on Saturday afternoons and thus this was a show scheduled to be a winner. Even if you were off to a match at 3pm you could always catch the boxing or the 1.15pm from Haydock, or highlights of a Grand Prix, wonder if Ludmilla Tourischeva, Nelli Kim, Nadia Comaneci or Olga Korbut was the more fanciable on the asymmetric bars and ask yourself the difference between an ice skater’s triple salchow and triple toe loop. That way you could get something watchable and then bugger off and miss Wakefield Trinity against Dewsbury, a Calcutta Cup bootfest at Twickers and/or indoor athletics from RAF Cosford.

Ah, Saturday. Who remembers the Saturday Wimbledon men’s finals? Grandstand was there; Arthur Ashe’s dismantling of Jimmy Connors in 1975, John McEnroe’s mano-a-mano epic with Bjorn Borg in 1980 and the pair’s underrated 1981 rematch. For anyone under 60, Grandstand almost was sport. The Beeb even published a Grandstand annual. I know; I’ve got one.

Skip this litany if you want, but any mosaic of popular postwar British culture must feature the following; Don Fox missing the beneath-the-posts shoo-in penalty in the 1968 Rugby League Challenge Cup final (‘He’s missed it! He’s missed it!!! eeeh, the poor lad’ )… Red Rum overhauling Crisp in the final furlongs of the 1973 National … Clive Lloyd’s blunderbuss of a bat pulverising the Australian bowling in the inaugural cricket world cup final … 1966 and all that, then the joyous Wembley pitch invasion by victorious Scottish fans 11 years later … the macabre horrors of Bradford and Hillsborough overtaking all other events in a horrid crescendo to become the only story on the show … Gareth Edwards plunging over for the Barbarians against the All Blacks. Most vivid of all; the then-radical decision to open the Grandstand of 30 October 1974 not with the conventional opening sequence but with Muhammad Ali foghorning into the camera, “Lissen! Attenshun!” to announce his astounding victory over George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. Harry Carpenter’s piercing shriek of, “Oh my God!!! He’s won the title back at 32!” from down a Zairean phoneline was as heartfelt, and as compelling a piece of TV reportage as Eddie Waring’s reporting of Don Fox’s calvary.

In other words, not quite all – but plenty – of human life was there. Grandstand was classic TV because by definition it was the mediator of some of the great sporting, and therefore human, dramas of our time.

What went wrong, and when, is hard to pinpoint. More flexible scheduling of key events (tennis, football, cricket), often geared to US and satellite companies’ demands, and secularised attitudes loosened up leisure habits, enabling sporting events to take place on Sundays, changed things. Irrevocably, Saturday afternoon became a less iconic timeframe in the consumption of sport; the fragmentation of the Premier League’s fixture list to suit Sky’s rapacious demands proves that. This year’s fabulous BDO World Darts Championship final – some of the most exciting sports telly in years – between Martin Adams and Phill Nixon took place on a Sunday, as did one of TV sport’s iconic events, the 1985 Davis-Taylor World Snooker final. Things fell apart, the centre couldn’t etc – plus, the governing bodies of sports became greedier, less biddable, whorish. They wanted money for their product and then some. The BBC, and Grandstand, weren’t often forthcoming enough and things fell apart even more.

Saving graces: the Derby moved to Saturday but audiences declined; the Wimbledon ladies’ final also went the way of Saturday, allowing for the unforgettable 1993 footage of Czech tennis player Jana Novotna heartbrokenly weeping in defeat on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent (Jana’s eventual final triumph, equally tearful, on Centre Court in 1998 is less well-remembered). Grandstand sadly didn’t benefit much.

The show became anodyne, not that it had ever attempted to be much else. Always coveting the mantle and bearing of the self-righteous gentleman than the honest pro, and aware of circling competitors newly out for blood, it sucked up royally to the vanities of corporate and individual interests. There was not even the pretence of serious sports journalism or humour, as, say, James Richardson’s Football Italia managed to combine so successfully in the 1990s. Attempts at hipness just looked affected and absurd (see above).

In the 1970s, the Corporation had deferred scrapingly to the patrician and sometimes aristocratic elements of equestrianism and tennis (and Football Focus, originally a Grandstand feature, was, and remains, massively in hock to soccer’s vested interests), but the show as a whole offset this fawning with working-class sports (darts, rugby league, snooker). But boy, did it have action. Great moments such as those cited above made the toadying to the likes of “horse trials” at Badminton and Burleigh (remember them?) bearable, but by the late 1980s and the haemorrhaging of events, these were becoming fewer and farther between. The commentating characters and frontmen, the voices of their sports, left; Eddie Waring died. Bill McLaren retired to his beloved border country, John Arlott to car-less Sark and a bottomless wine-cellar. Sid Waddell took Murdoch’s shilling, Richie Benaud C4′s. Graduates of BBC training schemes, whose voices are accentless and therefore “inclusive”, moved in. The vacuously fragrant – God help us – Sue Barker cast her shadow. Moreover, reporting of foreign events, and general sports news fell away.

For example, in the late 1970s Al Geiburger, a very good but now all-but-forgotten American golfer, shot a round of 59 in a reasonably important US tournament. In terms of difficulty this phenomenal achievement roughly equates to teaching calculus to a dromedary. Grandstand dutifully reported Geiburger’s feat. By 1990, though, it would not have done. Admittedly, even by then, multi-channel TV and Teletext were helping to reshape people’s consumption of sports news much as the internet has moved things on again. But as a show of putative reportage, and which employs broadcasters who would describe themselves as journalists (rather than the pithier sobriquets the cynical might use for the likes of John Motson), Grandstand had a remit, a responsibility to mention the feats and farces of sport. It ducked that responsibility.

Until the advent of the excellent Observer Sport Monthly magazine in 2000, Britain was the only developed western country lacking a sports periodical with intelligence and journalistic integrity. That mag’s success was probably built on public disgust at Grandstand‘s decline.

Example two. Many of the all-time great boxers – mid-1980s colossi like Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler – were rarely seen on Grandstand, not even as edited highlights. Even Sugar Ray Leonard’s best years didn’t feature. No viewer of the show in 2007 would have much idea of who even fine British fighters like Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe are if they depended on it for their fix of fisticuffs, let alone the likes of recent icons of the ring like Roy Jones Jr and Oscar de la Hoya. A situation quite unthinkable even 25 years ago. Years went by, and there was little imagination or innovation; brief populist dalliances evangelising hockey and rowing failed. Nothing to fill the void caused by ITV and satellite competition surfaced. Where was, for example, a profile of post-apartheid South African football? The Jamaican bobsleighers of Cool Runnings fame? Whatever happened to Cuban heavyweight Teo Stevenson or Russia’s ice-skating pair Rodnina and Zaitsev?

But no. Grandstand was by now moribund, tied to what it imagined to be its staple diet, and not even doing that as well as it did.

Except for one sport.

Athletics, from the mid-1980s onwards, infected Grandstand to the extent that it has colonised the host body like a virus. Onetime frontman David Coleman was once an exceptionally undistinguished Staffordshire Harrier, which doesn’t explain quite why the last Saturday Grandstand featured extensive coverage of a meaningless indoor meet and for the last two decades has been dominated by the sport, at which Great Britain is now an also-ran. No matter; Grandstand ventriloquized buttock-clenchingly obvious nepotism and backscratching; the entire athletics onscreen staff are little more than cheerleaders for ex and current mates within the GB team (excepting the admirable Michael Johnson who, by the way, has a voice that makes Barry White sound like Jeremy Spake and whose frankness clearly discomfits our luvvies of the track). This ignores the irrefutable fact of these mates’ sheer uselessness at running, jumping or standing still.

That the BBC sport team appeared in a publicity photograph some years ago wearing tracksuits sponsored by ViewFrom – a company in which its employee and athletics commentator, the former runner Brendan Foster had a substantial interest – just about summed up a sinking culture.

The end of Grandstand won’t be the end of great sport on TV – Adams and Nixon proved that in two hours – and to get sentimental about it is silly. We’ll still be thrilled, chilled; we’ll laugh and cry and try and put a boot through the screen (not all at the same time, but you get my drift). But the interment of Grandstand into the TV vaults should be marked with more respect; in terms of its scope and place in popular cultural history, the amount of labour and professionalism invested in it over nearly five decades, Grandstand, multiple imperfections and all (even David Coleman pretending to take a phone call on air), surely deserves more than the paupers’ grave to which it was hastily consigned, without dignity or ceremony, last Sunday.


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