From 'Grandstand' to unending Sky


SPORT: Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV,By Martin Kelner, Wisden Sports Writing, 282pp. £18.99

IT’S HARD to fathom now, when we’re just about submerged in television coverage of sport, but back in 1966, when England played West Germany in the World Cup final, the BBC’s preview for the game lasted a mere half-hour. Seriously. The channel allocated more time to the Hippodrome Circus in Great Yarmouth than to its special on the “match of the century” that preceded it.

These days, you’d probably get a lengthier build-up to, say, a League Two clash between Dagenham Redbridge and Burton Albion, with DR’s zonal marking analysed in depth and 3D-type visual thingies demonstrating how their defensive system can, on occasion, be breached. And then you’d have at least two retired or currently-injured-and-therefore-available-for-a-spot-of-punditry footballers offering their views on the tussle ahead.

Changed telly times indeed.

Just look at Sky’s Ryder Cup coverage last week. If you had a euro for every hour they devoted to the war – sorry, golf contest – it would probably cover your household charge. Your neighbour’s too, perhaps.

There’s really no one better qualified to chronicle these mind-boggling changes than Martin Kelner, who has been writing, rather sublimely, about sport on television for the Guardian for nigh on 25 years.

“The trouble with most histories of sport is that they are written by people who were there,” he writes, armed with a remote control. They “need to be written by someone who stayed at home and watched – and my credentials to be its author are impeccable.”

They are, too.

Those familiar with Kelner’s Guardian columns will know that it’s best not to have a piping-hot beverage in hand when reading them, such is his ability to prompt snort-out-loud eruptions. And his latest book, Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV, a dizzying journey through the changes in television sports coverage over the years, is full of such moments.

He starts out by looking through the TV schedules for July 29th 1966, and it’s there he spots that the Great Yarmouth extravaganza was deemed worthy of more air time by the BBC than its World Cup final preview. (ITV, he noted, had “no World Cup preview at all”.) And after Bobby Moore and his colleagues triumphed, the BBC went wild and extended its coverage by a whole 20 minutes.

When England next reach the World Cup final, possibly under the leadership of gaffer Sir John Terry III, possibly played under starlights on Mars, Fifa having awarded the planet hosting rights in an attempt to conquer new commercial territories, the occasion would, you’d have to assume, dominate the air to the point where an invasion of Britain by Martians would be relegated to “news in brief”.

It’s not, of course, just the amount of coverage given to sport that has changed; the technology has become a little bewildering too, although Kelner insists he’s coped with the advances reasonably well. “I am not a natural technophobe, having embraced enthusiastically such innovations as the internet, mobile telephones and cordless pyjamas.”

It is a hugely enjoyable trip through the years, Kelner being ever masterful at blending hilarious quips with sharp observations. His commentary on those years when if you didn’t speak like Prince Philip you were highly unlikely to get a job on British television talking about sport is especially absorbing.

The John Motson v Barry Davies debate? Which side were you on? Back in the day, friendships ended over this squabble – although, granted, they might not have been friendships set in concrete. But still, emotions were near fever pitch over which commentator the BBC should choose for the big occasions, with Motson usually the man to win out. The “Bazza v Motty War!” chapter takes you through those turbulent times.

And then there’s the “Sky-ification” of sport. “The 24-hour dizziness of the football, the cricket from overseas, the sexy rugby – the BBC could do little but watch (if they paid the subscription).”

Sky is, need it be said, an easy enough target for those bemoaning the money madness of recent years, but Kelner, while hardly uncritical, is quick to point out the benefits of its injection of cash, not least into sports such as rugby league. Without that injection, he argues, these less sexy sports would be on their knees. “There is little doubt that the Sky deal for rugby league – £50 million over three seasons – has helped sustain a sport particularly vulnerable to economic misfortune, because of its geographical base.”

Meanwhile: Grandstand. It was the centre of our sporting telly lives on a Saturday until the BBC eventually had so few sporting television rights left that it decided to bin the programme, concluding that very few of us would tune in to see the likes of the East Skegness Under-12 Crown Green Bowling Championships.

Still, remember the “teleprinter”? The techy wizardry of it blinded us. “For a young viewer, it was the highlight of the show,” says Kelner, who then broaches one of life’s great unsolved mysteries. “It started chattering away at about 4.37, spewing out the Scottish results. Despite starting at the same time as matches south of the border, for some reason Scottish matches always finished earlier.”

That’s true. We always got, for example, “East Fife 5, Forfar 4” before, say, “Oldham 7, Manchester City 1” (God be with the days).

Kelner winds up by talking about coverage of the 2012 Olympics, the contrast between it and the 1966 World Cup final, both in terms of the hours devoted to it and the discombobulating technology, beyond startling.

Truly, it’s hard to fathom, but Kelner does his best to take you along the road, eventually leaving you with a very large smile on your face.

Peerless, that man.

Mary Hannigan is an Irish Times sportswriter

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