Gavin Willacy’s No Helmets Required

By GAVIN WILLACY

A DECADE before Stevo graced our screens, televised rugby league in England was fronted by a rather different and now even more famous face.

It was a time when regular coverage on the telly consisted of a 40-minute highlights programme, only shown in the north.

League fans still complain about three live games a week on Sky, eight from the NRL on Premier and the BBC showing England’s Four Nations matches in primetime; we’ve never had it so good on the now not so small screen.

When the BBC decided they would no longer show league matches and instead concentrate on cup ties, Granada and Yorkshire bought the rights to the Slalom Lager Championship. By February 1981 they had signed a deal with the RFL for a new Monday night highlights series, RL Action, the first time league had been on channel three since 1967. And league turned out to be a platform for several future household names to launch themselves on the road to broadcasting stardom.

The coverage started in March 1981, in time for the climax to the season. YouTube clips reveal a jazz funk theme tune and a bright green backdrop behind host Bob Hall, crass chintz now, very on-trend then.

wsU9gC1450436921The Yorkshire TV production team played it safe, with experienced Red Rose Radio commentator Keith Macklin on the mic and international star George Fairbairn among the early interviewees. One of the earliest editions showed rugby league in all its muddy, wild glory.

The Second Division clash between promotion-chasing Huddersfield and top of the league Wigan was soon being dubbed ‘The Battle of Fartown’. Referee Vic Moss, complete with an incredible black quiff, sent off six players, co-commentator Lewis Jones called the game, “a disgusting exhibition.”

Moss was oblivious to his role in things getting out of control as he bravely faced the YTV cameras to explain the mayhem. He handled the punch-ups and questions from sheepskin-clad Macklin equally sanguinely.

Studio guest David Oxley, the RFL head dressed in rollneck and velvet jacket, admitted it was disgraceful. He pointed the finger at Moss but admitted he is yet to see a referee: “Try to stick the nut in.” Imagine Nigel Wood saying that on Sky.

Perhaps fortunately for the image of the sport, this display of what one report called, “premeditated thuggery” was only seen on Yorkshire and Granada. The rest of the country sought its Monday night thrills in Squeeze – Live at Nottingham or a dose of laid-back doctor Quincy. Second season commissioned, Border signed up, production shared between Yorkshire and Granada.

When it was a Granada programme, a young producer called Paul Doherty was in charge. His relationship with RL on TV would be one of the most important in the game for the next 30-odd years.

Strangely, RL Action was not on every week. It began in late September, ran for six weeks, stopped for three months and returned in March 1982, by which point Bob Hall had been replaced by a new studio presenter: a young Richard Madeley.

The fresh-faced Essex boy had spent the previous couple of years at BBC Cumbria and moved to Yorkshire TV to report news.

“I’d actually left YTV by the time RL Action launched and was at Granada,” Madeley explained to Forty20. “My first on-screen job was as a reporter/presenter at Border TV in 1978, then on to Calendar in 1980 with Richard Whiteley, Geoff Druett and Marilyn Webb, then to Granada and Granada Reports with Tony Wilson and… Judy Finnigan. “I think I was asked to host RL Action because it transmitted in both YTV and Granada franchises, and I’d become a familiar face in both by then.”

As Arthur Clues added summaries of the other games following the main match, and Oxley joined Macklin in the commentators’ gantry, Madeley took the reins during an astonishing season.

Having finished ninth the year before, Leigh came from nowhere to win the title. Alex Murphy’s mob won 19-18 at Leeds in front of the ITV cameras on the penultimate weekend of the regular season to set up the finale perfectly.

On 26 April 1982, the cameras were at Naughton Park, rammed with over 18,000 to see if Hull could snatch the title. They beat Widnes 21-3 but Leigh also won and so only needed a point in their rearranged game at Whitehaven to be crowned champions. Two days later the Leythers secured the title with their sixth win in seven games.

Madeley settled in well, learning a new sport in a similar way Clive Tyldesley did at Granada at the end of the 1980s and Clare Balding at the BBC. “My only knowledge of rugby was from playing rugby union for my grammar school in London,” he admits. “So I had to mug up pretty quickly. I felt a bit of a fraud, if I’m honest – there were plenty of sports presenters who knew far more about rugby league than me – but I gave it my best shot and quickly got into the game.”

The producers trusted Madeley enough to let him loose on the touchline. In April 1983, he was allowed to sit in the Hull FC dug-out at the Boulevard and toss gentle enquiries at bemused coach Arthur Bunting after each try as the Airlie Birds beat Barrow to win their first ever championship in front of an extraordinary crowd.

It’s listed as 17,000 but seems many more. Madeley is confident and succinct interviewing skipper David Topliss and man of the match Lee Crooks on the pitch, which is soon followed by a Haka.

“I genuinely enjoyed watching Keith’s highlight packages and discussing them,” recalls Madeley, who spent 13 years hosting ITV’s flagship show This Morning with Finnigan before moving to Channel Four for most of the noughties.

“RL Action went out live, but I can’t remember any cock-ups – it was pretty straightforward. I didn’t mind it being part-networked. The combined Yorkshire and Granada audience was substantial.”

With the BBC taking the occasional cup game, weeks would pass without any rugby league on TV, however, RL Action gave airtime to clubs rarely seen on TV these days. Barrow’s trips to Hull in 1981 and Wigan were both the main game, and viewers got early sight of Fulham when they drew 12-12 at Headingley in 1982. Whitehaven appeared a couple of times.

Things changed for 1983-84 as Yorkshire moved RL Action to Friday nights with highlights edited rapidly so it could be screened a couple of hours after the main game had finished. That meant an end to Madeley fronting the show.

“It meant driving across the Pennines [from Manchester to Leeds] and back on programme nights and several times I wasn’t able to, due to heavy snowfalls. That meant missing Granada Reports the next day. Twice I also nearly didn’t make it in time to front RL Action because of snow, so I handed to baton to Elton Welsby, who wasn’t on daily news duty.”

Ironically, Granada took over the production of RL Action the following season anyway but, by then, Madeley was on a different career trajectory.

The new team saw Vince Karalius as co-commentator, John Helm touchline reporter and national coach Phil Larder providing a statistical breakdown. It was back on screens in the north for the 198485 run-in as Oldham fended off Saints – Mal Meninga et al – 20-18 under new floodlights at Watersheddings, Cas beat Hull KR and St Helens hammered Hull.

But with TV producers moving these fixtures from Sundays to Friday nights, clubs were soon up in arms at the disruption. Sound familiar?

With Yorkshire TV’s signal spreading across the Peak District to parts of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and as far down as North Cambridgeshire, there was potential for a whole new audience for the sport. Instead, RL Action was soon moribund.

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