Before HD and 3D... some TV D-lights and D-sasters - Simpson’s SOAPBOX

John Arlott
John Arlott
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It’s still hard to forgive the BBC for chopping what had been the Corporation’s flagship sports programme since its inception in 1958 to its regrettable closure in 2007.

It made household names out of its presenters David Coleman, Frank Bough and Desmond Lynam.

Those were the days when it was the heartbeat of British sport, but its pulse-rate slowed the more Sky gained a monopoly with its five channels.

ITV’s Saturday afternoon offering was always the poor relation to the BBC’s Grandstand, which had all the important contracts at the time. So WoS occasionally had to use their imagination and dream up events like the Dewar Cup tennis or target-golf from the inside of Sandown Park racecourse, plus bizarre sports imported from North America, like the Calgary Stampede and Roller-Ball.

Eamonn Andrews was head-hunted from the BBC to front the first few shows before handing the reins to the dependable, debonair Richard – later Dickie – Davies.

What does you do when the BBC have all the big race meetings on Saturday afternoon in the winter, like Cheltenham, Newbury and Ascot?

You go to the smaller tracks and co-operate with the bookmakers to produce a super-bet like the ITV Seven, where punters are invited to pick all seven winners in a roll-over accumulator, with the chance of pocketing a small fortune at the end of it.

By way of response, the other side came up with the BBC-3, which never took off.

And what happened if meetings forming the ITV Seven were snowed off?

ITV turned to a greyhound meeting, with Gary Newbon fronting from an empty stadium and boxing man Reg Gutteridge calling them home.

The motto was the show must go on ... but it didn’t prevent World Of Sport getting the chop in 1985.

For years this was the segment that formally kicked off Grandstand.

It was imported from the United States, always with Don Dunphy (you can hear him on Rocky) at the mic.

It’s funny how particular fights stick in the mind – in this columnist’s case, a young Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali) getting a thorough test from Doug Jones before winning on points.

The BBC’s attempt at a soccer panel game, featuring players and a celebrity fan in a team of four.

David Vine was in the chair and panellists had to answer questions with a varying degree of difficulty.

Route One in those days didn’t mean Wimbledon-style, up-and-at-’em direct football – it referred to the hardest question in Quizball.

By contrast, route four (invariably the footballers’ choice) was the easiest. What innocent fun we had pitting our brains against football’s finest ... or not!

Right up there with the worst shows ever on television– ITV’s shame-faced attempt to cash in on the popularity at the time of A Question of Sport on the BBC.

ITV even lured Emlyn Hughes from QoS to be one of the captains, with Jimmy Greaves in the opposing chair.

Amazingly, it survived for four series but it should have been buried at birth.

For many, the highlight of Grandstand as the

nation gathered round their sets for the soccer results as they came in.

The immediacy and the expectation provided the big draw,

and David Coleman came into his own.

As the result Arbroath 1 Forfar 0 came in, Coleman would confidently proclaim as quick as a flash: “That was Forfar’s 14th match without a score-draw.”

Frustration crept in when you looked away for a fraction of a second and the scoreline you had been waiting for disappeared behind the bar of the teleprinter. You also had to endure several Football Combination results before your team’s arrived.

The forerunner of Football Focus, no-frills and no-budget!

It was fronted by Fleet Street heavy-hitter Sam Leitch, also of the heavy jowels , who went on to run the entire sporting output of the BBC and later ITV.

The Saturday football preview on ITV, which proved such a successful vehicle for Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves it was renamed Saint and Greavsie for a while.

The show made the BBC look to their laurels and did what so few po-faced soccer shows manage these days – it looked at the game with a sense of humour.

Greaves and St John were the masters of the genre and it was never quite the same when Gabby Yorath and fashion victim Barry Venison took over the gig!

A programme whose title underlined how important David Coleman was to the BBC output of the 1960s and 1970s.

Live Wednesday action was the staple. The grand idea was to show a live Football League match on a Thursday night, but League secretary Alan Hardaker and co refused to play ball, fearing it would affect attendances.

The BBC were ahead of their time but Sky made their successful pitch years later, changing the face of televised football by waving a huge wad.

The BBC, with the ubiquitous Eddie Waring, had it all in the days when the game was played on a Saturday afternoon in the winter... when it should be played now.

You name it – the Challenge Cup, the John Player Trophy, the Captain Morgan Trophy, internationals – the BBC had it.

In fact, they couldn’t get enough of the game and even invented the Floodlit Trophy for a midweek slot.

Trouble with the Floodlit was that they only showed the second half, so if a side led 26-0 at half-time the broadcast could be a non-event.

Possibly the best sports show the ITV North West region ever produced, with the best of largely small-hall action, and with Jim Watt and Reg Gutteridge working in perfect harmony. They even showed promotions from Thailand or another far-flung outposts.

ON BBC2, first the International Cavaliers, followed by the John Player League.

The Corporation cleared their schedules and the 40-over format was perfect for TV.

The BBC always seemed to find a remote ground where church bells peeled late in the afternoon as the worshippers gathered.

John Arlott, normally a radio man, was on duty, often with Learie Constantine alongside.

On one memorable day, the action at Trent Bridge was washed out, without a ball being bowled, to leave the BBC with vast hole in the schedule.

It was Arlott’s cue to go into the pavilion and give an impromptu masterclass lecture about some of the legendary cricketers depicted on the hallowed walls.