Football In The Regions: London

By on Dec 2, 2008 in Latest | 0 comments

Watching him a couple of years ago on “Sunday Supplement”, it was difficult to think of Jimmy Hill as a revolutionary. Yet there, before our very eyes, was the man that kick-started the television revolution in British football. The spiritual great-grandfather of Setanta’s cameras in the dressing rooms and the ongoing debate over goalmouth technology, Hill was the prime innovator in English football throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, bringing such a wide-ranging array of changes as three points for a win, all-seater stadia and the abolition of the maximum wage. No matter what the effect of these might have been, however, it was in the televising of football that his influence would be the most keenly felt.

Hill was taken on by the newly-formed London Weekend Television in 1967 as their Head of Sport. It was in keeping with LWT’s self-image. The new company had a baptism of fire. Commercial television revenues in Britain were dependent on advertising, and LWT alone missed out on the two guaranteed big hitters in the network’s schedule – the soap operas “Crossroads” and “Coronation Street” were only shown during the week, and LWT missed out on crucial revenue from these shows. The company sailed close to bankruptcy several times in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as it found that its radical approach to programming didn’t sit well with audiences. In sport, however, the company quickly found its niche with two key programmes, “World Of Sport” and “The Big Match”. “World Of Sport” was direct competition to the BBC’s “Grandstand”, a five hour long that mixed a football preview section, “On The Ball”, with horse racing, the dubious delights of professional wrestling and a variety of sports not seen elsewhere on the television such as stock car racing and water skiing and bowls. At 4.45, the action would switch back to the studio in London for a round up of the days results.

Hill realised quickly that ITV’s regional format could be used to seize a critical advantage in football broadcasting from the BBC. ITV’s regional set up meant that each region could send cameras to a match, whereas the BBC, whose expensive outside broadcast units would also often be wanted elsewhere, had to pick two matches and hope for the best. Each region would produce its own show, using highlights from its own region as a featured match, and in London it was called “The Big Match”. “The Big Match” would feature three matches, leading with a match from London before going on to cover two matches from elsewhere in the country. The commentator (and later the presenter) was Brian Moore, who was acquired from BBC radio, for whom he had covered the 1966 World Cup final. “The Big Match” made a conscious effort to be lighter in tone than “Match Of The Day”, with Jimmy Hill joining Moore in the studio as an analyst, a move that was successful enough for ITV to make the decision to introduce a panel format for the 1970 World Cup – a revolutionary concept for the time, which is still used for big matches today.

The Big Match – 1969/70

The Big Match – 1972/73

The first theme tune to “The Big Match” was called “The Young Scene”, and was recorded by the successful composer and arranger Keith Mansfield in 1968. You can download a frisky sounding full length version of “The Young Scene” here. By 1972, It had been replaced by “Cheekybird”, which was used until 1974. The full version of it is here. Hill left LWT in the summer of 1973 to join the BBC, but by this time the programme was well established in London. As many of the smaller ITV companies would struggle to produce their own shows, LWT’s “The Big Match” would become a weekend staple across the country, being sold to other regions that had no outside broadcast unit available or no matches that they wished to cover, making it a credible competitor on a national stage to “Match Of The Day”.

The Big Match – 1975/76

The Midweek Match – 1976/77

By the late 1970s, the slow expansion of English football into other areas of the television schedules had already started. As English clubs started to become more consistently more successful in European competitions, London’s weekday rivals, Thames Television, started showing midweek highlights. “The Wednesday Match” was added to the schedules to cover these matches (as well as FA Cup replays and League Cup matches), changing its name to “The Midweek Match” in 1976, before finally settling on “Midweek Sports Special” in 1978. “The Big Match”, meanwhile, continued to flourish. A third theme tune, used from 1974, was called “La Soiree”, and was performed by the memorably-named Don Cordini. The full version of it is available here. The programme regularly had special guests (here’s an interview with Malcolm Allison from 1973) and even guest presenters, such as Elton John in 1977. The programme, however, remained grounded by contractual obligations. Concerned by the effect that televising matches would have on live crowds, the Football League put in place a byzantine set of rules which ensured that all of the television companies had to cover matches from all four divisions, meaning that LWT had to go to the likes of Brentford, Charlton and Gillingham every once in a while whether they wanted to or not.

The Big Match – 1978/79

The Big Match – 1980/81

Football began to take itself more seriously in the late 1970s, and television was partly responsible for this transformation. In November 1978, LWT’s Michael Grade approached the Football League and offered them £5m (more than three times what was already being paid) for exclusive broadcasting rights. The BBC were incandescent with rage, and reported the matter to the Office of Fair Trading, who decreed that the contract was against competition rules. ITV did get one important concession in the new television contract, however – the BBC’s monopoly on the Saturday night slot was broken. From the start of the 1980/81 season, “Match Of The Day” and ITV’s shows would alternate on Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. LWT marked the occasion with a new look for “The Big Match”, with “Jubilation”, written for them by Jeff “War Of The Worlds” Wayne as the new title music. The full length version of it is here, and the edited version is here. By the time the contract expired in 1983, however, the landscape had shifted again. For all the fanfare that had accompanied ITV’s capture of the Saturday night slot, viewing figures had been poor (at least, certainly no higher than they had been before the start of Saturday night football on ITV) and, more troublingly, the game itself now carried a poor image, with crowd trouble at matches becoming a depressingly regular aspect of television coverage of the game. The last edition of the old style “The Big Match” was shown in May 1983.

For the new season, ITV’s regional coverage would come to a close. The BBC and ITV signed a contract with the Football League worth £5.3m, which would bring live televised league football into the home for the first time, but this didn’t come without problems. The major sticking point came over shirt sponsorship, with the broadcasters being unhappy to allow clubs to wear shirt sponsors. A spanner was then thrown in the works when a company called Telejector offered the Football League £8m for the rights to show matches on big screens in pubs. This was, for a while, the League’s preferred option before Telejector pulled out, citing the League’s insistence on all rights over recordings reverting to them as making it unprofitable. The League and the broadcasters reached a compromise over sponsorship (logos would be half the size for televised matches than they were for non-televised matches), and the deal was back on. “The Big Match” name and theme tune survived as a syndicated live programme would live on until 1988, when ITV took exclusive rights to Football League matches. The programme was renamed “The Match”, and given a new theme tune, courtesy of Rod “God Gave Rock & Roll To You” Argent and Peter “The Drummer Out Of Mike & The Mechanics” Van Hooke. ITV were widely criticised for focussing their coverage on the “Big Five” (Liverpool, Manchester United, Everton, Arsenal and Spurs) at the cost of everyone else. With the brand new Premier League now making the decision over the new contract, they went with Sky Sports, at the expense of LWT’s Greg Dyke.

In 1992, with Sky Sports and the BBC covering the Football League, ITV were left to limp on with only coverage of the Football League. They gave the title music a further revamp, this time with this piece of nonsense, called “You Are The Number One”, recorded by a studio-based concoction called “Union” and sung by the late Paul Young (formerly of Sad Cafe and Mike & The Mechanics, and not the singer of “Every Time You Go Away”). The version actually used on screen was the B-side, which was called the “Sax In Sweden” mix, because it used saxophones in the place of vocals. You get the idea, though – it’s quite possibly the song that Chesney Hawkes rejected in favour of “The One & Only”. The irony of using it as the prelude to live coverage of a match between, say, Notts County and Wolverhampton Wanderers was not lost upon this particular viewer.

As ITV merged together, so the London companies took over – London’s sports coverage became ITV’s coverage. Rules which prevented more than one ITV company being owned by another were relaxed throughout the 1990s and, on the 28th October 2002, the LWT name vanished from view forever, although their famous South Bank Studios (later renamed The London Studios) remain the centre of ITV’s centralised output. Brian Moore retired from commentary in 1998, and died from a heart attack on the 1st September 2001, on the day that England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich. One cannot help but think that we could do with broadcasters of his quality now. ITV, meanwhile, seems to have been finding its feet again of late in its football coverage, having lost its way for quite a while.

With thanks to the ITV Regional Highlights page.

All materials contained herein are © LWT/Granada Media/ITV Plc.

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