So many memories as Channel 4 prepares to bow out
Nick Luck is the current presenter of Channel 4 Racing
PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos) So many memories as Channel 4 prepares to bow out By Lee Mottershead 6:10PM 18 DEC 2016
AN era in sports broadcasting is coming to a close.
For more than three decades horseracing has been inextricably linked with Channel 4. In just nine days' time the two will be parted. With the farewell show from Kempton and Chepstow well in sight, Channel 4 Racing is deep inside its final furlong.
The network that killed off televised racing on the BBC has now itself been slain. The assassin this time, with no little irony, is the broadcaster responsible for the sport finding a home on Channel 4. It was thanks to ITV that Channel 4 Racing was born. Now, 32 years on from the arrangement that caused racing to switch platforms, Channel 4 must reluctantly hand the baton back to ITV.
In 1984 ITV's racing portfolio featured all five Classics. Alongside Newmarket, Epsom and Doncaster, it held the rights to York, Sandown and Kempton, plus many of the sport's smaller tracks. Saturday action was generally packaged in a double-header format as the ITV Seven within World Of Sport, while midweek programmes were common, as they were on the BBC.
The problems were money and ratings. Racing is expensive to televise, while the underwhelming number of viewers frustrated ITV's regional hubs. When the Central region opted out of an afternoon at York and discovered a black-and-white movie received a bigger audience, racing on ITV was doomed.
Fortuitously, Channel 4 had arrived in 1982. What it lacked was programmes, while it owned almost no sport. Senior Yorkshire Television executive Tony Preston, a former member of the BBC racing team, orchestrated a deal recalled by Andrew Franklin, executive producer of Channel 4 Racing for 28 years and previously an editor on World Of Sport.
"Racing still had some powerful supporters within ITV," he says. "They were keen to look after the sport and said to Channel 4 they were happy to continue paying the rights fee and production costs but Channel 4 could take over the midweek coverage. It was a massive relief for the team."
That team moved channels. Yet the people presenting and producing the opening Channel 4 Racing coverage on the Thursday of Doncaster's Lincoln meeting in March 1984 were the same people doing the same jobs when the Lincoln itself was shown two days later on ITV. When in October 1985 World Of Sport was axed and racing output on Saturdays also moved to Channel 4, the personnel line-up remained unchanged.
At the helm was Brough Scott, assisted by Derek Thompson, John Oaksey and Jim McGrath with John McCririck in the ring. John Tyrrell read out the betting shows and results, while Graham Goode led a commentary squad completed by Raleigh Gilbert and John Penney. When former champion jockey John Francome joined the team in Channel 4 Racing's infancy, a true ensemble cast was complete.
"I wanted what we did to be different to the BBC," says Franklin. "I was a terrific admirer of the BBC but we couldn't take them on at their own game. If we had tried to replicate their style we would have come off second best. I also thought there was an appetite for an alternative way of covering racing."
The Channel 4 way was lighter than that of the BBC. An effort was made to make the coverage not only informative but entertaining. Wisely, Franklin and colleague John Fairley had employed some entertaining people.
"The fun element was the difference between Channel 4 Racing being such a success and just another TV sports programme," says Thompson.
"The humour we had was so important," he insists. "Brough and I would sometimes stand next to each other for two hours. You can't do that without making a few quips and jokes. You need a bit of light and shade. At the same time, there was nothing amateurish about what we did. It was 100 per cent professional."
The 1986 Arc de Triomphe won by Dancing Brave
PICTURE: Gerry Cranham
So professional, in fact, that in 1986 Channel 4 stole the rights to French racing from the BBC. It was on Channel 4 that Dancing Brave's iconic Arc was shown, while such was the network's enthusiasm for racing, it gave viewers live coverage of the Prix du Jockey Club, Prix de Diane, the Arc trials and even the Prix Jacques le Marois. Further afield, there were annual Breeders' Cup programmes, most famously in 1990 when the Classic was shown live and preceded by a highlights package that featured Dayjur jumping a shadow and Lester Piggott's extraordinary victory on Royal Academy.
"That was the best thing we ever did," says Scott. "I promise you the hairs stood up on the back of my neck when Lester won. He came to our interview position with mud on his face and teeth lit by floodlights. He had been retired for five years and had been to prison. I suggested to him that even by his own standards this must have been pretty difficult. His answer was wonderful. He said: 'You never forget.'"
One year earlier, Franklin had been surprised by something said by Channel 4's head of daytime television.
"He asked if we wanted to do a Saturday morning show," he says. "He also said they didn't have much money, which I remember being said to me at the start of many phone calls. That was three weeks before the first edition of The Morning Line."
Franklin's aim, with BBC Radio's Test Match Special in mind, was "to retain the interest of the aficionados but also reach out to others and entertain them". The programme did just that, so much so that in its heyday it was enjoyed by viewers with no interest in racing, a key reason being the chemistry that existed between the team members.
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"We were a family that moved around like a circus," says McCririck, who fondly remembers interviewing film stars such as Walter Matthau and Robert Morley. He had less courteous exchanges with racegoers in the ring, often shouting at them to "grow up" or "behave". In what was perhaps a first for sport on TV, he also once had an ice cream pushed in his face while trying to read out a betting show.
"I did shout at people but I was very careful," he says. "I never took on anyone who was bigger than me. I also often explained to them only one moron was allowed on Channel 4 and that was me."
McCririck, of course, was known as Big Mac, for on Channel 4 Racing people had nicknames, many of them bestowed by McCririck himself. Francome was 'Greatest Jockey', McGrath 'Jimbo', Thompson 'Tommo' and Oaksey 'The Noble Lord'.
Some of those who joined the team later were similarly rechristened, with Simon Holt, who became principal race caller in 2000, referred to by McCririck as 'Languid', Emma Spencer as 'The Pouting Heiress', Alice Plunkett 'Saucy Minx', Tanya Stevenson 'The Female', Nick Luck 'Lord Snooty' and Alastair Down 'Fat Al'.
For those broadcasters an annual highlight was working at the Cheltenham Festival, which until 1995 had been a bastion of the BBC. Sensationally stealing it off the corporation, having reportedly offered more than ten times what the incumbent had been paying, gave Channel 4 the jewel in its crown.
"We tried to wrest Cheltenham from the BBC five years earlier but lost out," says Franklin, who five years later met Cheltenham chairman Lord Vestey and managing director Edward Gillespie. Also present, and absolutely invaluable, was Channel 4 boss Michael Grade.
"Michael delivered an absolute masterclass in schmoozing," says Franklin. "I have never witnessed anything like it since, nor will I again. He pressed every button immaculately and made an offer that proved to be acceptable.
"When we got the festival it was a heavyweight but it wasn't the super heavyweight it became. I like to think the Channel 4 involvement was not coincidental to the meeting growing into what it is now."
The traffic did, however, go two ways. In 1995 the BBC took back the Arc, while in 2001 it regained the Derby as part of efforts to boost the race's profile. As a form of part payment, Channel 4 was given Newbury, while Goodwood later went in the same direction, as did other meetings dropped by the BBC.
Some of the BBC's growing dissatisfaction towards racing stemmed from the fact that, although it paid for all its rights, Channel 4 did not.
From 2005 onwards Channel 4 required racecourses to subsidise its production costs. Over the following years the Levy Board, on behalf of the tracks, paid £5.275 million to meet Channel 4's demands. That, however, was not enough. In 2005 Channel 4 threatened to pull out of racing unless a programme sponsor could be found to the tune of £2m per year. The Tote stepped in but two years later stepped out.
"Life-support systems for racing have come along at amazingly timely moments," says Franklin. His assessment is accurate. First Channel 4 arrived and saved racing on commercial television. Then the Tote came along to rescue racing on Channel 4. Not long later Sheikh Mohammed did the same after the Tote abandoned the sponsorship deal, although his multi-million-pound assistance was only secured after Thompson made a vital phone call to one of Sheikh Mohammed's aides. "There is no question," says Franklin, "that move by Tommo saved Channel 4 Racing."
By that stage, Channel 4 – which had already threatened to withdraw when it was rumoured the BBC was poised to win back Cheltenham – was not merely making demands of racing but also of Highflyer, the company that had officially been producing the programmes under Franklin and Fairley since 1994. Channel 4 bosses demanded Highflyer spend around £10,000 less on each programme. They also made other demands.
The Morning Line was revamped by head of sport Andrew Thompson, the roles of Derek Thompson and McCririck were reduced and the sport's two codes were divided up with Down and Plunkett hosting in the jumps season and Spencer and Mike Cattermole taking over during the Flat campaign.
The significance of money soon raised its head again. Bookmaker advertising on television was legalised. Channel 4, whose commercial breaks had hitherto been filled with shots of Thora Hird on a Stannah Stairlift and plugs for Chums Trousers, saw the chance to make big money out of racing. It made an offer racecourses accepted and grabbed all the BBC still possessed, notably the Grand National, Royal Ascot, the Derby and British Champions Day.
The deal, for 2013 to 2016, was announced in March 2012. Six months later it was revealed new Channel 4 sport boss Jamie Aitchison had selected IMG over Highflyer as production company. Franklin was replaced by the BBC's ex-racing editor Carl Hicks, while BBC racing anchor Clare Balding crossed to Channel 4. It was only in October that McCririck, Thompson, Down, Cattermole, Lesley Graham and Stewart Machin were told they would not be involved.
After 27 years as a pundit Francome made the decision himself.
"It was the camaraderie we had as a Channel 4 team that made it special, but towards the end it started to go," says Francome.
"There began to be a them and us feel to things. It started to become a bit cliquey. Once people aren't included in what you're doing you're no longer a team. It didn't go down well with me. I was ready to go."
John McCirick led the Channel 4 coverage in 1985
PICTURE: Getty Images
Others were not. McCririck alleged age discrimination and took Channel 4 to court. He was not successful and estimates he lost £100,000 in pursuing the case. Like Franklin, he was not invited to a farewell party given by Channel 4 last month. Both men agree over why Channel 4 lost out to ITV.
"The viewers did the talking," says McCririck, describing the fall in ratings as "catastrophic". For the Derby, Royal Ascot and Champions Day, whose audiences plummeted following their move from the BBC, he is undoubtedly correct, while for other fixtures and The Morning Line the numbers have gone in the wrong direction.
"I'm genuinely surprised no attempt was made to relaunch the programme," says Franklin. "They ploughed on and ended up paying the ultimate price. Having said that, I have absolutely no doubt everyone has worked their socks off over the last four years. In fact, at least half of those behind the camera worked with me in the Highflyer era."
In the IMG era it would be wrong not to highlight that prestigious awards have been won, as they were when Highflyer was in charge. To some tastes there has been a lack of fun since 2013, while the decision to use a studio will not be repeated by ITV. Nonetheless, it would be impossible to question the professionalism, polish or enthusiasm that has marked what have turned out to be the final four years of Channel 4 Racing.
But at just before 4.15pm on Tuesday week it will all come to an end. Kempton's 32Red.com Handicap Chase, accompanied by a Holt commentary, will be the last race shown by Channel 4. In a nice touch, schedulers have then given the team around half an hour to say goodbye. Leading that team will be seven-time broadcaster of the year Luck.
"I feel for a lot of people at Channel 4, as I know how committed they have been to racing," he says.
"My own view is the coverage has got better, particularly at the big festivals. In the same way, it's almost inconceivable ITV's coverage won't be better in two and a half years' time than in month one.
"When it comes to an end, the sadness will be born out of a fondness, not only for the brand, which is strong and identifiable, but the people I've been sharing time with in front of and behind the camera."
That time has almost run out. The promotional films for ITV Racing, to which Plunkett, Mick Fitzgerald, Rishi Persad and Sir Anthony McCoy will transfer, have already been transmitted. Channel 4 Racing is nearly at an end. Luck admits he has given some thought as to how he will end it.
"I'll try not to change the game too much," he says. "If I do there's more scope for getting it wrong. I am conscious of the fact, though, that in its own slightly odd and somewhat unfortunate way, it is quite a big responsibility to take us off the air for the last time."
Not surprisingly, there is emotion in his voice. Channel 4 Racing has been an important part of his life. It has also been important to the lives of those who have tuned in over some or all of the 32 years.
The very fondest of farewells is in order.
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