Having finally come down off the ceiling, following England’s unbelievable and thrilling victory in the Cricket World Cup Final (Channel 4/Sky Sports) – and before football grabs my full attention again – it is a good time to try to unpick what there was about it that made it a great piece of TV and what was the magic of sport at its most intense. Of course, the “magic of sport” works both ways: the most magical moments that come to mind are always the ones when the team (or individual) you support triumphs. Having waited so long for England to win the Cricket World Cup and for it then to happen in such an incredibly close and tense way obviously has an impact on my feelings (and sport is nothing if not an emotional and partisan experience – I have absolutely no time for “neutrals” or the concept of “may the best team win”), but I also know I wouldn’t feel quite the same way if I were a Kiwi.
As is often the case with cricket, a memorable finish is often preceded by an ordinary contest – one of the great glories of the sport is how the climactic turning points, which can be extremely intense in both the five-day and one-day versions of the game, arrive out of otherwise attritional play – but you have to watch it all to appreciate and understand the importance of those moments. In television terms, the close but relatively unexplosive first 90% of the World Cup Final was unremarkable, but once Stokes and Buttler had painstakingly brought England to within reach of a potentially dramatic victory, it required those providing the television coverage to raise their own game to do the situation justice. Together, the cricket team and the TV team provided something unforgettable. Cutaways to crowd behaviour, previously a filler for quieter moments, suddenly added to the intensity. Close ups of the players’ faces revealed the emotional turmoil they were going through. Replays of every amazing incident – the six which was nearly a catch, the four overthrows off the diving Stokes’ bat – were analysed to infinity. Putting all this together and retaining the flow of the game required brilliance from the TV team.
Then, with the teams tied, we got to the unprecedented “super over” – the vital explanation of how it would work (I’m sure very few people knew – unlike a penalty shoot-out it was such an unlikely possibility) was deftly done and the speculation on tactics was spot-on. The fact that the super over itself ended tied was just too much, but we all knew that England would win in that situation, as did the teams, so the excitement was even more intense. The run out off the final ball was brilliantly covered and we were able to jump up and down with rapture even though the on-field umpire called for a replay. In an earlier blog on VAR, I lamented the loss of the ecstatic moment which referral technology can bring, but in this case we could see England had won and the team knew it, too, so their wild celebrations could be effectively covered, just like those at Edgbaston back in 2005.
Another point about the World Cup Final was how many channels it was shown across, with Sky allowing live free-to-air coverage on Channel 4 and More 4, with C4 providing their own commentary team. Add BBC radio and it was truly a cross-media event, much like the Apollo 11 coverage exactly 50 years ago, which has been the subject of a large number of commemorative programmes.
The live coverage of the World Cup Final will be preserved for the future – the BFI has been recording Channel 4 programmes off-air since 1985 and nowadays automatically records its complete output, as it was seen by the viewer. The situation was much different back in 1969. No recordings of the coverage of the landing on the moon or the first moon walk were made by either the BBC or ITV. Yes, we have the NASA feed, but not Michelmore, Burke and Moore in the BBC studio, or David Frost on ITV. The situation is much the same in other countries – many years ago the International Federation of Television Archives asked its members if they had recordings of their own coverage of the event and very few did.
However, there is plenty of filmed and news material extant, and, of course, the coverage was well recorded in the USA, so we do have the major networks’ output. This material formed the basis of the two main documentaries transmitted to mark the anniversary – one on BBC, the other on Channel 4. Both took the theme of “liveness” as their main approach and both used the American TV coverage, snippets of news from elsewhere and the recordings of the astronauts’ conversations with their Houston Space Center base. The only real difference was that the BBC documentary used the audio recordings as the basis for reconstructions, with actors playing the astronauts and lip-synching to the recordings. As a result, the Channel 4 documentary was by far the better piece.
It also meant there was more time given over on Channel 4 to the US TV coverage, which for me was the main draw, especially the CBS recordings featuring the wonderful Walter Cronkite – an incredibly eloquent and authoritative presenter who even managed to impress with the quality of his commentaries when he was saying that he could find no words to convey the magnitude of what we were seeing. Just as he did on the famous recording of his announcement of JFK’s death, it was the simple act of taking off his glasses which spoke the loudest. I once had the honour of meeting him and having a brief chat – this was at the opening reception of the 2005 International Federation of Television Archives Conference in New York, hosted by our colleagues at CBS News, at which he was the special guest. He was long retired at that stage, of course, but still had a lively engagement with what was going on in the world of TV news.
Both documentaries demonstrated what was missing from the archives without the need to acknowledge it. Much the same would be true of a retrospective cricket compilation from the same era or well into the eighties, because all the footage would come from the evening highlights programmes – most of the daytime transmissions were not kept.
So, am I putting the World Cup Final onto my shortlist for best of the year? I think not, on the grounds that I recognise my own massive bias in this case. Yes, the coverage was great, but the event was greater. Live television (as distinct from news journalism) does have a place at annual awards ceremonies, but there are only usually a couple of categories (sports and events) and they are always relegated to the “awards presented earlier” section of what actually gets broadcast. Which is a shame, because they can be truly iconic. On the other hand, they are also “of the moment” and can never really be appreciated in quite the same way on replay, even in a highlights show the same evening – as someone who often follows the advice to “look away now” in order to avoid seeing results which may alter the enjoyment of an imminent highlights show, I can attest that the excitement is just not the same, even if you don’t know what happened. When such things are re-visited in years to come, as with the Moon landing coverage, it is usually for either nostalgic or academic reasons. You can get a sense of the excitement of the moment, but not truly feel it in the same way.