Part One (1982 – 1992): “Suddenly The Refrigerator Was a Bigger Name Than Gary Lineker”

By Chris Hughes

First published November 2002

In 1982, sport on television was straightforward. Saturday afternoon meant Frank Bough or David Coleman anchoring Grandstand on BBC1, five hours made up of staid football chat, racing and rugby, before the teleprinter clattered out the afternoon’s results and Dr Who’s TARDIS materialised.

Or it meant ITV’s World of Sport with Dickie Davies, who, as Clive James once memorably observed, “folds his hands, leans forward and smiles at you from under his moustache” while linking the ITV Seven, Kendo Nagasaki’s latest bout and the World Target Clown Diving Championships or the World Bus Jumping Classic.

Back then, Sky was still an obscure network pumping out rock videos and reruns of I Love Lucy to disinterested cable viewers in places like Swindon. The idea that one day fans would be paying them to watch live coverage of top-flight football seemed an unlikely one, largely due to the fact that until the mid ’80s there was no live coverage of top-flight football on any channel.

It was this sporting cartel that, in the autumn of 1982, Channel 4 was to shatter. On Sunday 7 November at 5.30pm, the network’s multi-coloured 4 logo first donned a gridiron helmet and snorted steam to herald its first sports programme. And for the first 10 years of Channel 4′s life, American Football was to be the flagship of its sporting portfolio.

The scheduling attracted a decent audience of young men eager to escape Songs Of Praise and Antiques Roadshow. But there was a problem. The NFL players had gone on strike over pay negotiation rules. It meant presenter Nicky Horne and sidekick Miles Aiken had to front matches played earlier that season. It barely mattered – after all, most of the viewers didn’t know the teams, the players or, indeed, the results.

Being as new to the sport as those at home, Nicky Horne’s role was to guide the viewers through the its arcane rules and rituals, and ask the questions were we were asking. Initially, the sport had been selected by Channel 4 chief executive Jeremy Isaacs and the network’s first head of sport Adrian Metcalfe. “[It] appealed to us both as a fierce new addition to British sport and as an exotic spectacle,” explained Isaacs.

Eventually the players abandoned their braziers and disbanded their picket lines in time for Channel 4 to broadcast the NFL’s showcase occasion, the Superbowl, live for the first time in January 1983. In London, Horne was joined by British-born former NFL star John Smith, while Aiken reported from Pasadena.

Much of the sport’s early success should be credited to production company Cheerleader Productions, who managed to explain the game in simple terms within a slick, modern programme. “Cheerleader and producer Derek Brandon made it work,” said Isaacs. “To do so they used every technical trick in the book. I prefer sport straight on television, unedited, unprettified, without intrusive commentary. Cheerleader adopted the other approach. Using the angles and replay the US networks’ coverage afforded him, Brandon gave it the works. To the sound of pop hits, quarterbacks threw, wide receivers leaped, tight ends crashed, running heroes touched down for glory, and bounced, signalled and postured in celebration.”

By 1984, John Smith had become Horne’s new regular on-air partner, and by the following year, the sport had developed from a cult to a mainstream interest, millions tuning in every Sunday teatime. In no small part, it helped that soccer was largely blacked out from BBC and ITV throughout the autumn of 1985, due to a row over rights fees. Overnight, the NFL was the only game in town.

“There was nothing else to watch in football terms,” said ITV’s head of sport John Bromley, “and suddenly The Refrigerator was a bigger name than Gary Lineker, the Chicago Bears better known than Arsenal among the kids. Soccer made a big mistake – you must never go off the box.”

Channel 4′s coverage even earned the approval of Desmond Lynam. “I think [it's] exciting and interesting. We’re far too insular with our sports but Channel 4 have shown that people can have an interest in a sport such as American football if it’s presented in the right way and it was – let’s teach them about the sport. Personally, I wish the BBC had done it.”

The success of the Bears in the Superbowl of 1986, hosted by Horne from a London Superbowl party – probably marked the high Gatorade mark of the NFL in Britain. If the notion of the Superbowl party was something of a metropolitan media myth, the next couple of years did see a blitz of NFL merchandising and endless media features on what their kind of football had that ours didn’t.

“The Superbowl, live into the night, became a national event,” said Isaacs. “Newspapers, which came to jeer, ended up reporting the game as if it was ours, a welcome strike against insularity in sport. Large men in padded shoulders and crash helmets started to appear on poster sites advertising anything you cared to name. Life was imitating television.”

And to cap it all, suddenly they were over here. In August 1986, the NFL brought the Bears and the Dallas Cowboys to Wembley for a Sunday night pre-season kickabout called the American Bowl and Channel 4 gave it the works, with two hours of coverage and a behind-the-helmets documentary.

But 1986 marked the first of several abrupt changes in Channel 4′s gridiron coverage. Out went Horne, and in came former New York Giant and legendary broadcaster Frank Gifford as anchorman, John Smith remaining as reporter.

“For the first time this season the NFL show is being produced entirely in the United States,” announced TV Times. “John Smith films his feature on a Sunday or Wednesday, the match of the week is edited on Thursday. Frank Gifford adds his commentary on Friday and the finished programme is satellited to Channel 4 on Saturday.”

For the first time, C4 provided extended coverage of the entire 1986 play-offs, sometimes just hours after the match had finished. And in January 1987, Gifford and Smith provided their own commentary on the Superbowl, replacing that of the host network.

But then it all went wrong. Charlotte Street decided that Frank Gifford was a bit too … well, old. And knowledgable. And being merely one of the most respected players and sportscasters of his generation, it was clear he had to go. After just one season, he was replaced by … an alternative comedy double act.

The Vicious Boys – Angelo Abela and Andy Smart – were recruited to front the 1987 NFL coverage, which now consisted of two 75-minute highlights packages, on Sundays at 6pm and Tuesdays at 10pm. And, broadcasting out of what resembled a nascent version of the Fantasy Football League set, decorated with NFL stickers and pennants, they were terrible.

Perhaps it wasn’t their fault, as they had been miscast by the normally sure-footed Cheerleader. But one early exchange between the two summed up everything that was wrong with the 1987 series. Smart attempted to explain the term “sacking” – to dispossess an opposing player, resulting in the gormless Abela helpfully enquiring, “Sacking? Does that mean he loses his job?” Fortunately, the “comedy” was toned down quickly, and John Smith was still around to supply gravitas, but nobody was surprised when Smart and Abela were – well – sacked.

The 1988 series went back to basics, recruiting another British ex-NFL star, Mick Luckhurst to co-host with John Smith. The coverage still consisted of the traditional Sunday teatime show, with a Tuesday highlights programme shown at 5pm and repeated at late night. And for the first time, Channel 4 transmitted a regular season game live, transmitting the Redskins-Giants clash in the early hours in September.

The following season brought further improvements to the coverage. From September 1989, Channel 4 introduced same-day coverage of Sunday’s top match, condensed into 90 minutes and transmitted around 11pm, although the Sunday teatime round-up remained at 5.30pm. On New Year’s Eve 1989, Luckhurst fronted an NFL review of the 1980s, and fittingly, the first programme of the 1990s on Channel 4 was coverage of the play-offs. Another innovation that season was live coverage of one of the two Conference games which determined the two Superbowl teams.

The 1990 season brought another rejig. Laconic reporter Gary Imlach joined Mick Luckhurst to front a 90-minute highlights show at 8pm on Sundays, and a new 30-minute magazine programme, Red 42, on Friday teatimes. The following season, Red 42 moved to Saturday lunchtimes at 12.30pm, but the Sunday night coverage remained pretty much where it was.

Inbetween, the NFL had attempted the capitalise on the fervour generated in the sport in the UK by Channel 4, by setting up the World League Of American Football, involving teams both in the US and Europe, including the London Monarchs. In the event, interest in the sport here was on the wane by 1991, but the Monarchs still managed to win the first World Bowl, and Channel 4 transmitted a series of Saturday morning highlights packages in the spring of 1991, fronted by Jeff Stelling, latterly of Sky’s Soccer Saturday.

10 years earlier, when the channel was being set up, the idea of a professional gridiron team playing out of Wembley Stadium would have been laughed at. It was thanks to Cheerleader’s innovative approach and Channel 4′s spirit of adventure that British sporting horizons had been widened. But the network’s buccanering approach to sport had largely been a case of necessity.

“It soon became obvious we could not do without sport,” recalled Isaacs. “We had no contracts, and did not want merely to operate the fag-end of ITV’s. But someone would have to deal with it, and with them. Anyway, sport was part of life.

“I invited Adrian Metcalfe, Olympic silver medallist, [later] an ITV athletics commentator, to give us sport on television that was different. Since we had no contracts, and since the BBC was sewing up nearly everything in sight, that was our only course. Adrian brought both a committed professionalism and a spirit of adventure to sport on 4.

“We failed to snitch New Zealand rugby or one-day cricket from the BBC and the stay-close-to-nurse conservatism of its administrators.”

In 1982, Metcalfe announced that he felt the British viewing public were ready for a broader sporting diet, citing “moribund viewing figures” for football.

“We feel we have a responsibility to broaden the interest of sport, not suicidally by inflicting minority sports on people all the time, but we have to give those sports a chance to state their case on television. One of the aims is to allow women’s sport to be seen,” he said.

“We have to change people’s perceptions of what constitutes a minority. Badminton is the most popular sport in every indoor sports centre in Britain, an extremely demanding game that requires a high level of skill. Yet the game has just not come across on TV.

“The whole point of Channel 4 is that it is an alternative channel. If we do things like snooker and darts, then we are not giving the viewers an alternative. Obviously we can’t do everything at once, and the most important thing is to make basketball work.”

If American football proved to be the success story of Channel 4′s first decade, basketball goes down as its biggest failure. “We plumped for the healthy family image of British basketball,” moaned Isaacs, “[and] watched it resolutely fail to take off.”

From November 8, 1982, Monday night was basketball night on Channel 4, with the station transmitting highlights of the first period and live coverage of the second half of a Division One match, deploying seven cameras around the court, with microphones on the coaches and match officials.

The first match saw the Birmingham Bullets take on Crystal Palace, with Simon Reed and Miles Aiken commentating. And although in that first season attendances rose and sponsorship went from £50,000 to £250,000, there were soon problems.

“Channel 4 originally signed an agreement with the clubs which meant that every First Division side had coverage in that first season,” said Paul Stimpson, ex-player and commentator. “But the problem was that poor games were shown which weren’t a good advert for the sport and viewing figures soon went down.”

The press ignored the game, and the fact that both players and teams were constantly on the move, with clubs sometimes moving cities and robbing the sport of any identity and fan loyalty. Rollerballesque corporate-sounding entities like Bracknell, Solent and Hemel Hempstead were hardly likely to stir the passions, but the now forgotten exercise of bringing the Warrington Vikings under the Manchester United banner didn’t help either.

“We gave it a lot of air time for three years and didn’t see any discernable growth in audience in interest,” said Metcalfe. “We told them we couldn’t go on giving the same amount of coverage when few people were tuning in.”

The 1982/83 season had climaxed with live Saturday primetime coverage of the national championships, won by Sunderland in overtime. In 1983/84, Channel 4 persisted with Monday night games, but by 1984/85, the primetime games had been slashed back to a few matches on Thursday nights, including a World Cup thriller in which England came back to beat Czechoslovakia by a point, having been 19 points down at one point. But the rest of the coverage was largely exiled to Sunday teatimes.

In 1985, basketball on C4 was downsized to Go 4 It!, a half-hour magazine largely aimed at kids, featuring news and action from Britain and America, coaching tips and music videos. In addition there was live coverage of the Prudential Cup, although the clubs had to pay the costs of the tournament.

“When they showed it first, it was trumpeted as Britain’s fastest growing team sport,” reckoned Jonathan Martin, then head of BBC Sport. “I think they were ahead of the game. Sometimes when an event comes to an end it is because the TV viewer has rumbled it.”

In contrast to the razzmatazz of American football and basketball, the next big addition to Channel 4′s sporting roster – horse racing – possessed altogether more sedate charms, although Jeremy Isaacs appeared to have rather prosaic reasons for acquiring the rights. “I wanted an outdoor feel to the channel,” he said, “and liked the idea of the green of the track, the most restful of colours, on our screen in the afternoons.”

In reality, the deal came about when ITV tired of having to allocate weekdays afternoons to racing. “We found it was clogging up the daytime audience – largely the woman viewer,” said John Bromley of ITV. “If women don’t watch, basically you’re catering to a minority. Channel 4 said they would take it as it would be good for them, helping 1.5 million race followers to find their button. It gave ITV the room to do a lot more soap operas.”

“When ITV dropped it, we [Isaacs and Metcalfe] disagreed on whether or not to take over [the] contract. But if pluralism counted, the horsey interest also deserved to be catered for. So we took over ITV’s racing. Adrian and his team made a good thing of it,” recalled Isaacs.

As Metcalfe pointed out, “It would be hard to justify half the broadcasting system suddenly dropping a major industry like racing on its nose.” The Jockey Club still had to accept an £800,000 drop in rights fees, however.

So Channel 4 took over the weekday coverage of racing at Epsom, Newmarket, York, Sandown, Kempton Park and Ayr, kicking off at the start of the Flat season on 22 March 1984 with four races from Doncaster.

The switch meant a superior service for the punter, with Channel 4 able to show more races than ITV, whose coverage had been hemmed in by daytime dramas and Children’s ITV. Moreover, the team, led by Brough Scott, Derek Thompson and John McCririck actively promoted their sport. Especially McCririck, described by writer Giles Smith as “a large man with a booming voice, clothed in various floppy hats and velvets and tweeds rarely seen this side of amateur productions of Toad of Toad Hall.”

“I am aware he can go over the top,” admitted producer Andrew Franklin. “It’s not really what he says, but the way in which he says it. But no one is more critical of his own TV performances than John. He sits down every week and analyses everything he does.”

Despite his many faults, McCririck was ultimately to become the face of racing on TV, and conveying the latest odds through whirling demonstrations of tic-tac semaphore while surrounded by boozed-up punters, at least he was enthusiastic and clearly having a good time. Unlike sour-faced Julian Wilson and the rest of the BBC’s patrician racing team.

The split in courses with the BBC meant that Channel 4 had all five Classics in its portfolio, and in June 1984, it covered the Derby for the first time, with Judith Chalmers joining the team to guide housewives through the betting and look at the hats. However, because the Derby was a listed event that had to be available to the entire population, and because not everybody could yet pick up Channel 4, the race itself had to be simulcast on ITV up to 1988.

But Channel 4 had less in the way of jumping coverage. “I’d love to cover Cheltenham,” admitted Franklin, “but I’d probably miss the big race because we’d be showing John McCririck telling us about some padre putting on a few grand!”

Still, Channel 4 Racing was to expand on 5 October 1985, when ITV scrapped World of Sport. It might have spelled the end for the ITV Seven, but with Channel 4 now taking over the Saturday card as well, it had become the unofficial home of racing. It started covering the big international races like the Breeders Cup, the Arlington Million and the Prix de L’Arc De Triomphe, snaffled away from the BBC to the public irritation of commentator Peter O’Sullevan. And in October 1989, Channel 4 added The Morning Line, the Saturday preview programme, smartly scheduled at 9am for the punter to gauge the odds before heading down to Ladbrokes.

Despite its commitment to minority sports, in 1984 Channel 4 had lined up £5m coverage of the biggest event of the lot, the Olympics, in tandem with ITV, who believed teaming up with Channel 4 would finally allow them to beat the BBC.

“The BBC has never had the problems of a federated company system and that has always worked to its advantage,” said John Bromley. “Now that ITV and Channel 4 have actually got into bed together we can at last offer what the BBC has been able to provide for years – proper two-channel coverage of long-running events like the Olympics.”

Following the success of ITV’s midnight hours coverage of Torville and Dean’s world skating glory, it was felt Channel 4 could attract a decent audience for Coe, Cram and Thompson as they bid for gold. Producers Thames even considered running a newspaper-style bingo game to lure viewers away from the BBC.

However, in June, TV-am pulled out of the coverage, following a row with broadcasting union ACTT over staffing levels. ITV considered putting the early morning coverage onto Channel 4 as well, but just three weeks before the Olympic torch was lit, ITV and Channel 4 pulled out of the games altogether.

Four years later, it was a different story, ITV and Channel 4 covering the Seoul games. Channel 4 stayed up all night to cover the big events live, with film critic Barry Norman, who had been itching to front sport on the BBC for years, leading the chat with the likes of Steve Ovett and Alan Pascoe around midnight, before Elton Welsby arrived to anchor the action. Then at 7am, Nick Owen and Alison Holloway presented C4′s first ever breakfast show, rounding up the night’s news.

In the ratings, however, Channel 4 suffered against the public’s natural instinct to press the BBC1 button when it came to the big event. Moreover, some viewers complained that Channel 4′s coverage simply wasn’t, well, Channel 4 enough, failing to recognise that it was simply ITV’s coverage being transmitted on their button.

By that stage, Channel 4 had been covering athletics in tandem with ITV for three years. The main commercial channel had beaten the BBC to the rights to British events in 1985. In practice this meant that ITV would cover the first hour of a major Grand Prix at Crystal Palace or Sheffield on a Friday night, then the second hour would be covered on C4 from just before nine, with the team of Jim Rosenthal, Alan Parry, Peter Matthews and Steve Ovett. Channel 4 also helped out its big brother when it came to covering the big events like the World and European Championships.

Channel 4 would also share coverage of gymnastics and ice skating, the latter as part of a four-year contract ITV signed in the wake of Torville and Dean’s success in the mid ’80s. But interest in the sport had already peaked, although in 1989, Channel 4 undertook a one-off experiment where viewers were able to vote whether they preferred commentary or simply to listen to the music the competitors were skating to.

One inheritance from ITV that Isaacs and Metcalfe came to detest, however, was snooker. Despite Metcalfe’s worthy pronouncements in 1982, a four-year deal between ITV and the WPBSA in 1984 meant that Channel 4 agreed to carry weekday afternoon coverage of four tournaments – the opening autumn ranking event, the World Doubles, the Mercantile Credit Classic and the British Open, all fronted by Dickie Davies.

“This we both resented, Adrian strongly. But for the sake of our partnership with ITV, I had to insist. I pretended not to notice the hike it always gave our ratings,” sniffed Isaacs.

Ultimately it was Isaacs’ successor and nemesis, Michael Grade who took action in 1988. “One of my first decisions was to expunge any trace of the hours of snooker Jeremy had filled the schedule with,” he recalled.

But Isaacs and Metcalfe’s devout opposition to snooker seems at odds with the amount of airtime devoted in the channel’s early years to professional golf and tennis, neither exactly worthy minority sports.

Isaacs was happier, at least, with his channel’s coverage of cycling. “When Adrian Metcalfe came up with City Centre Cycling, I curled a lip but agreed because, as he pointed out, it could not be an altogether bad thing to have the traffic stopped of an evening in one of six British cities, while cyclists chased each other lap after lap round the centre, commending Channel 4 to its citizens and advertising the city, and Kellogg’s the sponsor to our viewers. But I did not really fancy it, and I still don’t much. It’s the same view over and over again of Birmingham’s Bull Ring or Glasgow City Chambers.

“What I did fancy,” said Isaacs, “and always had since I first read Geoffrey Nicholson’s reports in The Guardian, was the Tour de France. That was real spectacle – the plains of France, the steep cols of the Pyrenees and the Alps, the finish on the Champs Elysees at the Arc de Triomphe. And now there were British riders – Bob Millar from Glasgow – in with a chance. [Programme controller] Paul Bonner and Adrian Metcalfe both demurred when I said we ought to cover it. But we found a way – French time being a vital hour ahead of ours, we could with the aid of Phil Liggett’s expert commentary just manage an edited report early each evening.”

Channel 4′s first coverage of Le Tour came in 1985, with weekday updates from Phil Liggett, while in successive years the network transmitted a nightly report at 6.30pm, fronted from what looked like a bike shop window by Nick Owen and latterly Richard Keys.

“It was Phil Liggett’s memorably raw commentary on the epic Alpine performance of Irishman Stephen Roche (‘There’s someone coming through the mist … it can’t be … it is! It’s Roche! It’s Stephen Roche!‘) during his triumphant 1987 Tour that initiated my fascination,” admitted writer Tim Moore, who went on to cycle the route of the Tour for his book French Revolutions.

That year, the network’s cycling coverage expanded to take in the Tour Of Britain. Prior to this, Isaacs had been rewarded for his commitment to the sport. “FT Bidlake was a much-respected speed cyclist of the inter-war period. In 1986, after the Tour de France I was solemnly, delightfully presented by the British Cycling Federation with the FT Bidlake Memorial Award for Services to Cycling,” he recalled. “The chief executive of Channel 4, I did not have the heart to tell them, cannot ride a bicycle.”

If, until 1986, C4 seemed to have the magic touch when it came to importing new sports, it mislaid it when it came to baseball. On New Year’s Day 1986, the network, “by popular request”, transmitted highlights of the previous autumn’s World Series, presented by ITV football commentator Martin Tyler. The following autumn, C4 covered the World Series, with highlights on Sunday lunchtime and in midweek at 6pm.

But unlike gridiron, the sport resolutely refused to catch fire in Britain. As Des Lynam pointed out, “It’s inbred in the Americans like cricket is with us and may not transfer. American football is a physical spectacle – big guys crashing into each other like a car crash.”

Channel 4 persisted with its coverage in 1987 and 1988, the final year seeing David Jensen replace Tyler, but it never really caught on, and it was almost a decade until the sport returned to terrestrial networks when C5 picked it up.

Still, there were always inspired successes, like sumo wrestling. “I do not know what it was about sumo wrestling that persuaded me we ought to do it,” recalled Jeremy Isaacs. “It may have been a traveller’s tale, or a picture in a magazine, or a newspaper report, but something suggested that sumo, with its strange ritual, should be pursued before someone else had the idea. Nothing happened, I grew impatient. Eventually, at New Year 1987, Channel 4 screened sumo – the preliminary scattering of salt, the flaunting of 20-odd stone of force-fed muscle, all the foreplay prolonged before the frenetic few seconds of skilled combat.”

From that first programme, the channel’s coverage expanded to yearly series covering a basho or tournament in its entirety, with commentary from Lyall Watson and later, Brian Blessed, briefly making stars out of the likes of Konishiki, aka the Dump Truck, a 36-stone Hawaiian.

And then there was Kabaddi, the sport which all good observational comedians of the early ’90s pointed out was “a bit like British Bulldog”. Starting in May 1991, C4 showed the Indian and Pakistani sport where teams attempted to score points by crossing the pitch’s halfway point, taking in a deep breath and chanting ‘kabaddi’ to prove they are expelling breath before touching the opposing defenders to score points.

Coverage of sports like these was entirely in the spirit of Channel 4′s early years. Since 1983, in the weeks when the network wasn’t covering American football or basketball, the Sunday teatime slot featured the likes of volleyball, showjumping, bowls, netball, swimming, curling, rowing, dressage and table tennis.

For three series between 1983 and 1985, viewers were able to watch teenagers belting one another and Henry Cooper matily suggesting “let’s go take a shower” in his Golden Belt series. And throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, there was regular coverage of Australian Rules Football and gaelic football and hurling.

Perhaps the height of minority sportism came in 1985, when C4 covered the inaugural World Games in London, devised as an alternative Olympics. Simon Reed, John Taylor and Gerald Sinstadt gamely commentated on roller hockey, waterskiing, karate, bodybuilding, archery, korfball, trampolining, speedway, 10-pin bowling, tug of war, petanque and faustball. Whatever that was.

Channel 4′s coverage of sport largely eschewed the magazine approach of Grandstand and Sportsnight. In 1988, this was rectified by Running Late, a sort of sporting equivalent of After Dark but with added highlights, with Observer editor Donald Trelford and coach and journalist Tom McNab in charge of the two series.

The following spring saw LWT’s 7 Sport, a spin-off of sorts from Network 7. The aim of the team comprising Jaswinder Bancil, John Fashanu, Peter Davey and future ITV F1 commentator James Allen was to cover sports action in a new way, and examine sports personalities and current affairs. The series showcased waterpolo, ice hockey, speedway and beach volleyball, profiled boxer Johnny Nelson, golf caddy Ian Wright and athlete Renaldo Nehemiah, presciently profiled the rivalry between Nigel Benn and Michael Watson and looked at issues such as tennis burnout and a row in the world of, erm, climbing.

And in October 1989, Transworld Sport arrived at Saturday breakfast times. TWI’s excellently compiled weekly syndicated examination of sports action and personalities big and small is still a part of Channel 4′s sports coverage today, having survived a second decade that would see big changes.