Grandstand II? Why not?

Published: Wednesday, 01 February 2017

I know. I know. I keep promising a more regular flow of blogs - then I go and get distracted! I'm sorry.

At the end of a bruising week I'm sitting in the garden enjoying reading the arguments for tue return of a sporting icon - Grandstand. I'm talking about the excellent Gabby Logan's idea that it's time this giant was brought back to life. As someone who worked on it (albeit a bit part) and later was hell bent on destroying it - why not? I'll explain the above in just a moment.

What a wonderful way it was to spend a wet, winter afternoon - in front of the fire watching Grandstand (that was when we could afford the coal!) The racing was never my favourite, so after Sam Leitch had presented Football Focus I'd often go over to ITV for an hour or so to see what Richard Davies (Dickie in later years!) had to offer. Log rolling from Canada would fill time - for those working on World of Sport - and those of us at home! When the wrestling came on I went back. Funny - it was only the commentator Kent Walton who didn't know the bouts were timed so as not to run into ITV's results service!

Life was a lot simpler. I was from the generation that caught the back end of Eamonn Andrews fronting Grandstand. The brilliant David Coleman followed. Wily 'Arry Carpenter would often help out. Say what you like about Frank Bough, but what a class act he was once he sat in the chair. There followed the genius that was Des Lynam and the unflappable Steve Rider. I was delighted when they gave Sue Barker a go. How Sky went onto regret allowing Sue to cover Wimbledon for the BBC while contracted to 'us'. We knew she was a class act. We made her. The Beeb discovered how good she was that summer. She never came back. Good decision Sue!

Can you imagine what a thrill it was when I was asked to go and help out on Football Focus - by now presented by my mate Bob Wilson? I didn't do much - just checked stats and Bob's scripts - but I felt like I'd been given the key to the sweet shop. Bough really did have legs - seriously, what a fantastic operator he was. Alan Hart and Jonathan Martin were Editing at different times. 'Editor' at the BBC is the commercial tv version of Producer. Producer is their version of Director. Brian Venner was doing that job, ably assisted by his PA Penny Wood. Venner was followed by Martin Hopkins. Editing Football Focus was MIke Murphy, a brilliant brain, who was later to become Grandstand's youngest Editor at just 26. Mike and Bob took me under their wing and became life long friends. So did Brian when he set up the UK's first independent production company TSL Sports. We covered the Tour de France together for C4. 

I feel a bit like Ronnie Corbett now - I've strayed miles from where I wanted to be!

When I got to Sky, the BBC were sailing serenely on - not a bit concerned about the 'new kid on the block'. We owed Jonathan Martin, who was happy to see us spend on 'live' sport, never imagining that we would swallow them whole. Like a lot of others - Fergie was one of them - he thought we'd last six months!

We were Wimbledon - no-one liked us - but we didn't care. We were nibbling away all round the fringes of the 'establishment' when David Hill, our pugnacious Head of Sport, decided it was time to take onGrandstand. Soccer Saturday was born - but not as we know it now.

It's first Producer was Mark Schofield - his wife Barbara Slater is now Head of Sport at the BBC. Mark was uneasy about this move. He'd worked on Grandstand and thought we were wrong to take them on. 'Bollocks', I told him. 'We have to take them on. And kill them'.

Mark's formula always puzzled me. Paul Dempsey, another fine operator, was its first host. His guests were Mssrs Best, Marsh, McLintock and often Law.

They'd sit and discuss the week's events before he'd send them off behind a screen to watch the afternoon's games - and join Paul every now and again - on the phone! 'Why?' I remember asking him. 'Leave the guys where we can see them. No-one is fooled by your pretending they're at the game! I've seen George in the studio at 2.55 and I'm supposed to believe he's at Old Trafford at 3.05?'  It was nonsense.

It was a throw back to Mark's time at the BBC. Remember Denis Lowe and others sitting in vision to report on games they'd only seen 45 mins of before traveling back to the studio to do a 'piece in vision' during the results sequence?  Mark couldn't let this formula go.

When he left I offered his successor Andrew Hornett the same idea. Initially he looked at me blankly - but he went on to base his whole career around it. It worked! It worked brilliantly - so well that it eventually killed Grandstand stone dead. Jeff Stelling and his boys have become part of tv folk law with it. It's a fantastic product and the one everybody wants to copy now - that is unless you're a beINSports viewer!  We just show the goals all afternoon - and 3 live games. It works much better! 

But perhaps Gabby is right. Perhaps 'back to the future' is the way forward. As pleased as I was, at the time, when the BBC announced it was all over for Grandstand, it was a pity. That theme tune. The camera that turned straight towards you and had sport in four different lenses. The teleprinter. Coleman - who genuinely knew his stuff - pouring over the results. No-one was whispering facts and figures in Coleman's ear.  He was Brilliant.

Gabby, of course, played her part in helping Sky take on Grandstand and the BBC. I organised her first big break. As she planned to meet our then Deputy Head of Sport, Mark Sharman, she called and asked me what she should wear. I told her 'Smart. Dress to impress'. Her reply made me chuckle at the time 'I know' she said 'sex sells, leave it with me'.

Remembering that line I was never quite sure how she squared that view with the documentary she fronted, in later years, for the BBC - a programme about sexism in sport. As Greavesie would say 'funny old game isn't it'? Fiction and facts are often miles apart, but dressed up as the same.

Maybe I'm looking back with a fictitious view of Grandstand? I don't think so though. It was a giant. Fact. Let's have it back Barbara!