How they put sport into Saturday’s Grandstand 

29 November 2021


Television Annual for 1961 cover

From the Television Annual for 1961

The BBC’s Saturday Grandstand has been called “a living newspaper of sports and news.” To producer Bryan Cowgill and editor Paul Fox, this four-hour reporting vigil is an exciting experience — but it can be a little nerve-racking too.

“There are three basic hazards every week.” said Paul Fox.”We always hope that things will be all right technically without breakdown in the middle of the afternoon; that the weather will hold for the events we cover so that nothing will be washed-out or snowed-off before we start; and that while we are covering one event nothing really thrilling happens somewhere else.”

Editor Fox showed me a large diary in which he enters sporting events, often up to six months ahead. “We cover as many events as we can in an afternoon. Unfortunately we cannot cover league football live, because of the League’s ban. We can, of course, include events like the amateur cup final and the schoolboy internationals, but I realize our coverage is still incomplete without league matches. But we do keep in touch with what we call the Top Four matches each week. We have four to six reporters phoning every fifteen minutes to give the news from these matches.”

It is his job to decide, in consultation with sports organizer Jack Oaten, what events will be covered. “About two or three weeks ahead I decide the time-table for the afternoon. Suppose we have got racing, swimming and Rugby League. The first thing I must decide is exactly what races we can cover. We may want to do the 3 o’clock, 3.30 and 4 o’clock, but the latter must be left out because it may interfere with the Rugby League match. Often, if we request them, the organizers are good enough to switch a race for us, so then we may do the 2.30, 3 o’clock and 3.30, going ten minutes beforehand to each race and staying until about five minutes after.”

Suppose he’s got those three timings for the racing. The Rugby League match kicks-off at 3 o’clock; he knows that TV is allowed to show only forty minutes, and that viewers will certainly want the last twenty minutes. He decides that Grandstand will cover the match from about 3 p.m. till 3.20, and again from 4 p.m. till 4.20. “That leaves a gap between about 3.35 and 4 o’clock into which fits the swimming. The organizers, again, are kind enough to fix the events we want in the times we give them.

“Without this kind of co-operation we couldn’t do Grandstand. The whole thing depends on goodwill, and if one shows it to the organizers of sports events it comes back to us.”’


David Coleman and a producer at the Grandstand desk


Though there are some gaps in the diary, Paul Fox usually knows what events any Grandstand may cover from three to five months ahead. “A lot of it is based on long-term contracts, where we have the rights, like horse-racing, motor racing, swimming events and Test Matches. This is a good thing in many ways, though it is a little inflexible. It means that outside broadcast units are committed to these events. If something new suddenly comes up, it’s not so much the difficulty of fitting-in the event, as finding the equipment with which to cover it. We did manage that for this year’s Wightman Cup, which was held a little earlier than expected.”

The phone rings. Peter West is about to leave for Paris to cover a Rugby international. Paul Fox gives him last-minute instructions. Bids him a good trip.

“Peter is doing only ten minutes live commentary, the rest is being recorded,” he says. “This match is an unannounced item. We are allowed to cover five Rugby internationals during the year. For other matches, like this one in Paris, we can cover the last ten minutes by special dispensation, so long as it remains a surprise item. But the surprise is wearing a bit thin, because viewers now expect us to do this. They phone and say ’What do you mean by not covering the so-and-so game?’ We say ‘But it isn’t billed in the Radio Times‘ and they reply, ‘But you always cover these matches. Why not today?’”

Assuming the match will finish at 4.28 Paul Fox finds there is no other event before the football results come in at 4.40. So for the twelve minutes between he can fill-up with Peter West’s recording of earlier parts of the game.


David Coleman talks into a camera


Grandstand comes from Studio H, Lime Grove, the same that Tonight uses. Paul Fox sketched the events of a typical Saturday. “At 10.30 Bryan Cowgill holds a rehearsal, where studio ‘moves’ are worked out and the results service tested. There’s a link-up with the OB units to make sure they are there and that all is well technically.

“David Coleman has written the script on Thursday or Friday, but Saturday morning sees some additions. More films have come in. and scripts must be written to accompany them. For example last winter’s Test Match films from the West Indies used to arrive late on Saturday mornings. These can be pushed-in during gaps in the afternoon.

“The rehearsal lasts about an hour and after seeing the late films, we must be in the studio at 12.30 to be all set for going on the air at 1 o’clock.”

Next to him, at a long desk, is producer Cowgill, a vision-mixer, a technical operations manager, a lighting man and two secretaries. In front of them is a double-bank of monitor screens, three of them showing what is happening at the events the OB units are covering. Three more are relayed from the three studio cameras, which have plenty to look at, for there are about seventy people working there, including three sound and camera crews, an engineering unit, sixteen scoreboard attendants, six messengers, six caption artists, four secretaries and many others, including three newspaper sub-editors who deal with sports and news items fed by the nine teleprinters.


A camera man on top of an OB unit

A camera looks down on a horse race from a high tower

The pictures show an outside broadcasts TV unit at a race-course (top) and, bottom, the tower erected to carry the camera. Main sports events require Grandstand to commit outside broadcast units to fixed dates. If some new sports occasion suddenly needs covering, it may be difficult to find the equipment to cover it.


“In addition to the normal studio crew there’s a bunch of people to deal with results, probably four men to each board. Two more stand by the results teleprinter, writing the scores on duplicated sheets, and sending them to the scoreboards. That is in addition to when we put a camera on to the teleprinter and take results direct. Matches don’t normally finish until 4.40 — but by 4.45, or 4.46 at the latest, we have all the results.

“My job is to keep continuity, and see that we leave events and go to others at the right time, but long before the results come up we may have had some exciting switches. There was the motor racing at Goodwood last year when there was a terrific fire. We were in the middle of a swimming race, when the screen to the left of the monitors suddenly showed a great fire at Goodwood. Bryan had only to press a button, tell the swimming unit ‘We’re going over to Goodwood at once,’ and viewers were watching the fire too. That is something that could not be done before Grandstand and cannot be done in any other TV programme.”


Five people cram around a bank of monitors

Where the sports pictures on a Grandstand location are received. To this mobile control room are linked cameras dotted round a race course – including a light “radio camera” being carried on a TV man’s back.


Meanwhile the sub-editors may get a news item of more than passing interest. One phones Paul Fox, tells him the facts, and Paul decides whether to use it. “Depending on how important it is we may even leave an event in the middle to give a news item. We may also superimpose an important international match score over a racing picture. Bryan presses a button and says ‘International match score coming up’ and the commentator will say ‘And now on the screen you can see the latest score from Hampden Park. Scotland 4, England 2′ or whatever it is.”

The TV men have no time for a proper lunch. The best they could do was snatch a sandwich while the American boxing film was on between 1.5 and 1.30. Now, with the results coming in at 4.40, a girl brings them a cup of tea. The end of another Grandstand is in sight.


You Say

4 responses to this article

John King 10 December 2021 at 8:31 pm

It is amazing how Grandstand back then was put together each week, a truly mammoth task.

In an era before satellite outside broadcasts, having to set up OB units using the microwave network was a tough task each week, ensuring all sporting action is fed to BBC Lime Grove back then, and later to BBC Television Centre when Grandstand moved there in time for colour coverage in 1969.

Paul Mason 17 December 2021 at 11:52 am

One of the staples of a childhood Saturday, with Granddad watching Grandstand he had his pen at the ready, newspaper results column to fill in and HUSH as there was no text or playback facilities if a result was missed. We were always hoping for eight draws on the old1-2-X

I wish BBC would bring back Grandstand. Of course the BBC has lost many sports but most Saturday afternoons BBC1 has some sport coverage and Final Score.Of course it would not be needed 52 Saturdays a year . Bring it back with the original theme and opening sequence…

Terry Christie 30 December 2021 at 1:43 pm

Saturday October 11th 1958,BBC-tv Sports Programme,Grandstand introduced by Peter Dimmock for Two Weeks & The Main Presenter is David Coleman at Lime Grove Studios,London.

The Classified Football Results Read by Leonard Martin & The Sports News Service-Rugby & Racing Results Read by John Langham in 1961.

The Great Memories of BBC-tv Sport,Grandstand.

Terry Christie,

Darren Hayward 11 August 2023 at 3:42 pm

Around that time up till the late 70s Rugby Internationals from Paris would only be shown on Rugby Special as highlights not live

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