Ian Wooldridge’s pioneering TV work gave viewers a window into the world of sport

A five-time winner of the SJA Sportswriter of the Year Award, Ian Wooldridge was an industry legend who also made over 120 television documentaries, with his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s; ahead of this year’s Sports Journalism Awards, we look back at some of his most memorable films for the small screen…

By Philip Barker

When our Sports Journalism Awards began almost half a century ago, the name of Ian Wooldridge was inscribed on our Sportswriter of the Year trophy alongside that of another legendary figure, Hugh McIlvanney.

This year, our young Sportswriter of the Year will again receive the Ian Wooldridge Trophy, but the great man’s name might equally well have adorned the prize for television documentary of the year.

His TV work was accomplished simultaneously with a sports column in the Daily Mail which was invariably ‘required reading’.

“The Mail was happy to fit in with his television adventures,” recalled Tom Clarke, his Daily Mail sports editor of a dozen years.

“My favourite recollection stems from a few words I spotted at the back of Sports Illustrated in April 1976, the result of a dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome, the 1,110-mile Iditarod Trail across Alaska.

“I reckoned this was the Last Great Race on Earth and Wooldridge was the writer for it. He loved the idea: it was almost in the footsteps in the snow of one of his heroes, Jack London.”

The newspaper articles came first. Wooldridge and photographer Monty Fresco followed the race in a tiny Piper ski plane, and as Clarke recalled “sharing freezing nights in bivouacs and log-cabins with the mushers and their huskies.”

Later, producer Tony Salmon and his team combined with Wooldridge to fashion a television masterpiece, screened in 1979 as part of the BBC’s “World About Us” series.

“The distance is greater than that from London to Rome, temperatures fall to 100 degrees below freezing, and gale force winds blow incessantly from the Arctic,” noted the Radio Times.

‘The Last Great Race on Earth’ was shown as part of the BBC series ‘The World About Us’

“It was the best example of how filmmakers slotted in with Ian’s wonderful words for the Mail,” Clarke reflected.

“It was a challenge to persuade him, with little resistance, to find new adventures in sport and to encourage him when he wanted to go off the beaten track of sportswriting.”

Whatever the medium, Wooldridge’s work carried a unique imprint, whether hurtling down the Cresta Run, flying with the Red Arrows or encountering a fearsome member of Argentina’s military junta who just happened to be in charge of organising the 1978 World Cup.

One of his earlier television subjects was England manager Sir Alf Ramsey, in the words of Wooldridge’s narration “England’s first Soccer ‘Dictator'”.

He suggested Sir Alf’s “least favourite race” was journalists.

“They want something from me, that I am not prepared to give them,” Sir Alf explained in an interview which was polite, but also typically guarded.

A few months later, a fresh-faced Brian Clough received the Wooldridge treatment for an episode of ITV’s Sports Arena screened in March 1970.

Wooldridge interviews Brian Clough for Sports Arena in 1969 (ITV)

“I’m nervous about talking to you,” Clough admitted, perhaps for the only time in his career.

“Last August, we asked Clough to take part in a television experiment, to commit himself on film as to how Derby would fare in the First Division,” explained Wooldridge.

“The deal was that the interview would not be screened until this Sunday in March, Clough also agreed to review his remarks seven months later and to re-evaluate his original assessment of this Derby County team.”

Wooldridge and Ali, 1969

That year, Wooldridge also travelled to Miami for ITV to interview the most outspoken of them all, Muhammad Ali.

“The one thing that comes through is the goodness of the man,” Wooldridge reflected years later.

“In 1969, Ali was already a big figure, a controversial figure, but if you really wanted to put yourself 20 years ahead, I could never imagine he would become the figure he did.”

In 1986, Wooldridge donned batting gloves and pads to face the schoolboy bowlers of Harrison College in Bridgetown, Barbados whilst making “Calypso Cricket” for the BBC.

Produced by Clem Vallance, later mastermind of Michael Palin’s adventures, it was an enquiry into the secret of the then “all-conquering” West Indies team.

A quarter of a century earlier, Wooldridge witnessed Sir Frank Worrell’s fabulous 1963 side with fast bowlers Wes Hall and Charlie Griffiths as the twin spearhead.

In 1986, England’s batsmen were shown taking evasive action against a succession of frightening bumpers from a quartet of fast bowlers.

“This is now what you have to face when you play West Indies at what was once known as cricket. It isn’t cricket or much approximating to it,” Wooldridge observed (this was, remember, some seven years before Shane Warne revived the art of spin bowling).

Wooldridge about to face bowling in Barbados for ‘Calypso Cricket’ (BBC)

In the early 1980s, few outside the sailing world knew much about the America’s Cup, but Wooldridge changed all that.

In 1983 the Australians relieved American skipper Dennis Conner and the New York Yacht Club of the trophy. It was the first time it had changed hands since its inception in 1851.

Wooldridge was particularly fascinated by the effect that defeat in 1983 had on Conner.

The next series was to be in Fremantle, Western Australia, at the end of 1986.

“The 25th challenge for the America’s Cup, the holy grail of yachting, is lying, spying, chicanery and duplicity on a scale that makes you wonder whether the Mafia are running it,” wrote Wooldridge in the Sydney Morning Herald.

His three masterly television documentaries on the series were in the same vein.

“It is a story of bankers, tycoons and assorted multinationals determined to get their hands on the Cup for reasons which don’t have that much to do with sport,” the Radio Times promised.

Apart from millions of words in print, Wooldridge made around 120 television documentaries. His excellence in both printed word and electronic media provides a superb example for our winners next month.

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