So, farewell then, “Grandstand”. The BBC’s flagship sports programme closed for business after nearly forty-nine years on Saturday, so today we’re going to take a moment to say goodbye to it once and for all. The BBC had initially announced that the programme was to be scaled down and phased out by 2009, so the news of its sudden termination was a surprise, to say the least. This was, after all, the programme that brought us, among many, many other things, the 1966 World Cup final, the famous 1973 Barbarians vs New Zealand rugby match and harrowing live coverage of the Bradford fire and the Hillsborough disaster. It’s right up there with “The Sky At Night” and “Panorama” as being amongst Britain’s oldest and most venerable TV shows. Somebody, however, was in a hurry, and so it has come to pass that it has gone from our screens quite suddenly and, since the BBC apparently can’t be bothered to see it off, I might as well have a go myself.
The programme was launched in October 1958, as a Saturday afternoon package of highlights mixed with live action. You can hear the original theme music here. By the early 1970s, the formula of the programme was set. It all started with “Football Focus”, a lunchtime preview of the weekend’s football action. This was followed by horse racing (usually six or seven races), then some recorded highlights from the week before (more often than not something like boxing or darts), a live featured event, and “Final Score”, a round-up of the afternoon’s football results. Because of its broadcast time on a Saturday afternoon, “Grandstand” often found itself featuring some of British sport’s most famous events – The Varsity Boat Race, The Five (later Six) Nations Rugby, The Grand National, The Rugby League Challenge Cup Final and, of course, the FA Cup Final. In 1977, the theme tune was replaced by this instantly recognisable tune. It seems scarcely conceivable that it has now been consigned to the dustbin of history.
“Cup Final Grandstand” became part of the football fan’s annual calendar. In an age when only three or four club matches were shown live on the television, the BBC pulled out all the stops to produce a six hour football marathon. Cameras followed both teams from their hotels, in through the players entrances at Wembley Stadium, and out onto the pitch for a look around before the match. The entire season’s competition was reviewed, celebrity fans interviewed, and great moments from previous Cup Finals were revisited. After the match, the post-match celebrations were almost slavishly followed, before returning to the studio for post-match analysis.
To understand just how much a part of British sporting terrain, one has to consider exactly how many great sporting moments “Grandstand” covered. Wiki lists these:
* England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany in the final of the 1966 FIFA World Cup
* Foinavon winning the 1967 Grand National at odds of 100/1 following a 23rd fence pile up in which every other horse fell or was remounted
* Tony Jacklin first ever live televised hole in one during the 1967 Dunlop Masters
* Gary Sobers first ever scorer of six sixes in an over in 1968
* Harvey Smith (showjumper) giving his notorious 2-fingered “V” salute in 1971
* That game, That try. One of the most memorable tries ever scored. The Barbarians match with the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park on January 27, 1973.
* First known streaker at a major sporting event during the 1974 England – France Rugby Union match at Twickenham.
* University Boat Race – Cambridge sinking in 1978 and again in 1984 after colliding with a stationary barge
* The Bradford City and Hillsborough football ground disasters of 1985 and 1989
* Horse racing – Frankie Dettori winning seven races in a day at Ascot in 1996
* A fight breaking out between staff in the newsroom behind presenter Desmond Lynam while he was on air on April 1, 1989. This was later revealed to be an April Fool’s Day joke.
You can see the 1989 April Fool’s Day joke here.
“Grandstand” has become a victim of the changing landscape of British sport. The BBC has lost many of its sporting broadcasting rights – it’s the junior party in a sharing arrangement for the five nations rugby, the boat race is now on ITV, and even The Grand National has lost some of its sparkle over the last few years. The BBC haven’t helped, of course. They detached “Football Focus” and “Final Score” from “Grandstand” about five years ago, and started using the “Match Of The Day” brand for all of their football coverage at about the same time. Having said that, though, sport is no longer an activity that takes up a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon. The football weekend now encompasses about three and a half days. We look abroad far more than we used to for our sporting kicks. There are more channels jostling for position, and the BBC has less buying power in the TV rights market. The BBC has argued that “Grandstand” is an anachronism in the multi-channel age that we’re moving into. I partially agree with them, but one can’t help but feel a little sad that one of the traditional cornerstones of British sports broadcasting has passed on. The BBC could have shown a little more imagination, rather than merely leaving it largely unchanged for a long time and then axing it when, unsurprisingly, its ratings fell.