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On 2 September this year, the Guardian sports columnist Martin Kelner, who I liked a lot when he was a Radio 2 presenter some years back, launched yet another attack on Grandstand – the long-running, definitive Saturday afternoon BBC sport marathon.

Having started on 11 October 1958, Grandstand ranks among the BBC’s most enduring programmes and is by far the longest-running nationally broadcast sports show, although Scottish Television’s “Scotsport” predates it by a year. But Kelner had found a weak spot, and attacked Grandstand for not having any “proper sport” to show. Most of the rest of the media seemed to join in, yearning for a lost golden age.

Highly selective

As is often the case, these yearnings are based on a highly selective and simplistic reading of the past. In my youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I can remember any number of ‘Stands which were full of volleyball, basketball, complete ice hockey matches live, minor winter sports, obscure motor sport, second-rate horse racing (in his autobiography Peter O’Sullevan recalled having to promote BBC coverage from Uttoxeter which was going out opposite the 1971 2,000 Guineas on ITV, and knowing that everyone would have switched over) and rugby league matches presented in a terribly amateurish style.

The last-named were usually Wakefield Trinity vs Widnes and the like, irrelevant to most people outside the urban North of England, which is why ITV always confined its RL coverage to Granada, Yorkshire and sometimes Border.

Between 1988 and 1992, when the BBC last had no access to League football, they even dropped the enduring Football Focus which does, at least, continue today even now that ITV have the terrestrial rights to the Premiership.

On a winter Saturday with no Five Nations rugby, and a minor race meeting from somewhere like Chepstow while the big races at, say, Sandown were on ITV, the Grandstand cupboard in the 70s and 80s was often as bare as you could get.

The programme’s lineup on 7 January 1978 is a textbook example of this and is almost unbelievably mediocre – Football Focus, racing from Haydock (the big meeting of the day was at, yes, Sandown and was on ITV as part of World of Sport), and rugby league of little interest to anyone north of York or south of Stoke were as good as it got. The rest of the show was actually filled up by Tug of War, Squash Rackets, Surfing and American Football – exactly the sort of “non-sports” that media people lazily assume that Grandstand has only started showing in the last few years.


Go back further and it was even worse – in the early 60s, Grandstand used to show obscure boxing matches bought cheaply off American TV for no other reason, one presumes, than that everything American was regarded as “exotic” back then (most of these fights featured boxers nobody in Britain had ever heard of).

On 9 September 1961, with the St Leger horse racing classic being shown on ITV, and no other major sport going on, they filled most of Grandstand with, of all things, the Farnborough Air Show, and Grandstand also devoted a lot of time to motorbike scrambles, as celebrated by Tommy Boyd on his TalkSport radio programme ‘The Human Zoo’.

Because it was the BBC’s only regular afternoon programme (there was only Watch With Mother, schools programmes and sports OBs during the week, and a vaguely-defined mix of programmes on Sundays), it even had to cover events that had no relevance to sport whatsoever – notably President Kennedy leaving the UK after his 1963 visit, and the Beatles coming back to Heathrow after their first visit to the US in February 1964.

The greatest irony is that the edition of Grandstand which inspired Kelner’s ire, which did indeed devote more time than usual to “extreme sports”, got more viewers than Channel 4’s simultaneously-broadcast coverage of the final of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy (formerly the Gillette Cup and NatWest Trophy), an event which is supposedly “cricket’s equivalent of the FA Cup Final”.

It’s not cricket

This not only confirmed how little interest county cricket generally inspires among the mass public, and put into context the absurd claims that the BBC’s loss of the cricket contract to C4 in the late 1990s marked the death of BBC Sport, but it showed that Grandstand is far from dead.

It has actually changed very little over the last 44 years, in that it varies from week to week, depending on the quality of sport available from one Saturday to another, and how much of it the BBC are able to show.

If Grandstand is dead by the absurd criteria of some of its critics in the media (there has simply never been a time when the highest class of sport was available to the BBC 52 Saturdays a year), then it was never really alive.


Robin Carmody


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