‘They think it’s all over’ was just a start for TV football

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the 1966 World Cup in England. PHILIP BARKER’s account of the broadcasting of the tournament shows that, even if England’s football hasn’t improved, television coverage has

ITV and the BBC, the two rights holders for the European football championship this month, have divvied up the coverage so far, so that, apart from the final, there is no game being broadcast on both channels simultaneously: it fell to ITV to report the sorry end of England and after the Beeb had had the plum group tie which matched the English against Wales.

It's only just begun: BBC's World Cup commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme
It’s only just begun: BBC’s 1966 World Cup final commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme

But 50 years ago this week, both channels were making their final preparations for the biggest football tournament the world had ever seen.

The 1966 World Cup, hosted by England, was too big for either of them to go it alone, and so they were forced to work together. In 1964, they set up a consortium to act as host broadcaster and produce the television pictures for the rest of the World.

“It could only work if we split coverage and worked harmoniously together,’’ said the BBC’s Alec Weeks.

The BBC decided that their cameramen and production staff should have as much practice as possible in covering football, so in August that year, Kenneth Wolstenholme hosted a new programme called Match of the Day.

The World Cup group draw took place in January 1966. It was a far cry from Sepp Blatter’s celebrity ego massaging of recent years.

It was all reassuringly dull, and quite… well… British. BBC News carried only a very brief report, while ITN appeared to ignore it altogether. Both did their viewers a bit of a favour, because Sir Stanley Rous, then FIFA President, was not a natural television star.

The names of the 16 competing national sides had been written down dutifully on slips of paper by FIFA Secretary, Helmut Kaser for Sir Stanley to pull out and announce. Rous struggled to pronounce Uruguay, England’s first opponents. Argentina was announced, in imperial fashion, as “The Argentine”.

What passed for the FIFA press office then seems to have operated on the same principles in 1966 as it does today, as the tournament organisers would have us believe that “the staging of the draw as an image-builder could hardly have been a greater success’’. Hurrah!

No one in those days talked of a “Group of Death” but Brazil, the 1962 winners, Hungary and Portugal were together on Merseyside and in the Midlands there were West Germany, Argentina and Spain.

After the international interest generated by the draw, it was realised by the organising committee that, “Arrangements had to be made for journalistic activity on a 24-hour basis in reasonable proximity to the areas chosen for the playing of the matches.’’

All you needed to know about covering the 1966 World Cup for television
All you needed to know about covering the 1966 World Cup for television

The then recently built BBC Television Centre, just up the road from one of the tournament venues, White City, became the hub of a World Cup Operations Centre. “Generous facilities with night service are offered” in the BBC canteen.

“We hope to be able to help you to reflect on the television screens of your own countries, the skill and excitement to be found in the 32 matches,’’ said Peter Dimmock, of the BBC, and his ITV counterpart, John McMillan, who between them headed the broadcast consortium.

At Wembley, there were 32 commentary boxes, each facing the Royal Box with space for a commentator and summariser. The commentary positions were equipped with a microphone, two pairs of headphones, a television monitor and what was described as a “Eurovision commentators communication set’’. A flick of a switch would enable telephone calls to be made from this gizmo.

BBC pictures went round the world from Wembley, while ITV provided the coverage in Birmingham, Manchester and Sunderland.

Recordings of the matches were available on video tape and 16mm film or “kinescope’’ for countries “not able or not wishing to accept video tape recordings’’.

The broadcast consortium had appointed two senior producers in Alan Chivers, for BBC, and Grahame Turner, for ITV. The channels went head-to-head on all England’s matches, though ITV were still at the Rover’s Return in Coronation Street when the Queen declared the whole thing open.

The flags of all the competing teams were unfurled, including the correct North Korean flag (which was more than the Olympic organisers in 2012 managed at the first game of their football tournament). President Kim Il Sung decreed that the television pictures would be seen in Pyongyang. It was one of the Great Leader’s better decisions because North Korea did an “Iceland’’ and even had the temerity to lead 3-0 against Portugal in the quarter-final, before Eusebio intervened.

The approach to preparation and planning was a little different half a century ago. “It is essential that commentators are in their positions at least 30 minutes before transmission or recording,’’ insisted the 1966 commentators’ handbook.

The international broadcast control room for the 1966 World Cup at BBC Television Centre
The international broadcast control room for the 1966 World Cup at BBC Television Centre

Among those hastening to the cubicles a full 30 minutes before kick offs were some familiar names. SJA member Barry Davies was on ITV’s roster of commentators then, while the man who was to become ITV’s voice of football, Brian Moore, was working for BBC radio.

The studio panel was not yet a fixture but the expert view came from the likes of Sir Walter Winterbottom, Don Revie and Ron Greenwood, all of whom would at some stage manage the England team, however briefly in one case.

Coverage also featured the Coventry City manager, Jimmy Hill. Within two years, he had quit football management to forge a his own influential career in television.

There was, of course, a special edition of Radio Times, which included these prophetic words in its preview: “In every soccer competition there is always something which happens so quickly that not even the sharpest and most experienced observers can be absolutely sure of exactly what took place. Stop action recording in which the vital moment in the play is captured and frozen… will tell the truth where the eye may deceive.’’ Oh well…

Unlike the month-long Euro2016, the 1966 World Cup, with its simple format of four groups of four teams, followed by knock-out quarter- and semi-finals, saw the Wembley final staged barely three weeks after the opening match. The TV coverage of that final has seen Kenneth Wolstenholme’s words enter the national psyche. ITV’s final commentator was Hugh Johns.

Television graphics in 1966 did what they needed to do: tell the viewer what game they were watching
Television graphics in 1966 did what they needed to do: tell the viewer what game they were watching. In glorious black and white

And yet all the wonderful coverage was beamed across the world in glorious living … black and white. It was said that the government was pressurised by television manufacturers not to bring in colour television until 1967. “Politics won,” Weeks said, somewhat bitterly. It was Weeks who turned down the offer for a live half-time interview with Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

From all available evidence, comment in the world’s press and from their own professional judgement, indications were that overall television coverage of the 1966 World Cup was very successful. “They did not consider that a better service could have been provided.’’

For all that, the European award for the best programme of 1966 went to an outside broadcast from the Vatican.

Relations between BBC and ITV were never quite as cordial again. Three years later, the production teams of both broadcasters came to blows on the same Wembley pitch while chasing interviews at the end of the FA Cup final. Their successors will surely behave themselves better on Sunday when they both broadcast the European championship final live from Paris. Won’t they?


  • Thu Dec 15: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery