SOTB’s regular contributor Vernon Grant has his say on Channel 4’s first ever Grand National broadcast.
After almost 30 years in the business, Channel 4 took over as the home of horse racing on free-to-air television at the beginning of 2013, bringing to an end the BBC’s 60-year reign on the sport’s crown jewel events, including the Aintree showpiece.
Since 1980, Vernon has been a producer of a number of televised sports programmes for major broadcasters, including Sky Sports, ITV and Channel 4, as well as several independent production companies.
He now runs the sports betting website VG Tips and here he gives us his unique and informed take on how Channel 4 handled their first attempt at the covering ‘The People’s Race’.
Follow Vernon on Twitter: @lecrin
Almost nine million viewers watched the Grand National make its debut on Channel 4.
Judging from social media networks, they were almost unanimously happy with what they saw. I was, but before Thursday I had fears for the future of this great sporting institution.
I was concerned that those who lead the sport were not adequately challenging assertions made by the animal rights lobby. The people news broadcasters have on speed dial.
I feared that those who only watch one race each year, via free to air TV, would not find the new and rightful home of the sport of Kings.
People would tune into the BBC only to spend the afternoon watching ‘Homes Under the Hammer’, ‘Escape to the Country’ or a pro-celebrity cook while you sew special (presented by Claudia Winkleman and Davina McCall – naturally).
It was clear from Twitter that some people did not know the BBC had turned its back on the sport that once formed the backbone of Grandstand.
How they didn’t know is beyond me. The Channel 4 promotional department had left nothing to chance.
If you missed one of the many trails for the new look coverage then you must be that person who, years after I worked on Channel 4 programmes, can still not receive their signal.
I cannot recall the last time I saw an event promoted as heavily, or backed as energetically by a broadcaster, as was the 2013 Grand National.
I salute Channel 4 bosses for so doing.
The station transmitted the first two days of the Aintree meeting on Thursday and Friday and the coverage was, on all fronts, excellent.
I knew then that the Grand National was in safe hands.
While C4 was exciting and excelling, BBC News were banging on about the death of a horse on Thursday (through a heart attack) and, on Friday, they wasted no opportunity to show up close and in slo-mo the fatal fall of a punters favourite, Little Josh.
BBC TV went from ceasing to care about a sport to having their news department put the boot in.
For many years Channel 4 Racing has covered the meetings the BBC could not be bothered with. From Plumpton to Pontefract and from Musselburgh to Market Rasen.
The broadcaster supported the sport when others did not. They deserved a crack at the big racing fixtures.
C4’s coverage of the Cheltenham festival in March was encouraging. I had only one criticism at the time. It was frustrating that they did not transmit a full replay of the Gold Cup, with analysis, within the main programme.
But I had no fears about those working behind the scenes. I have worked with some of the camera crew, and they are top class.
Director Denise Large, producer Sophie Veats and executive producer Carl Hicks, are the Charlton, Law and Best of live sports production.
And if you are too young to know who those three were, you clearly did not grow up watching televised sport in an era when the BBC was the home of football and racing.
Now the Grand National has a new abode and, as was evidenced on Saturday, home is where the heart is.
I spent too much of my TV career trying to find fault with my own programmes. I believe they call it perfectionism.
Well I could find no fault with how Channel 4 covered the meeting from Thursday through to Saturday.
The man who towered over the BBC in its early years, Lord Reith, would have approved. We were educated, entertained and informed.
Come Saturday, from the lively opening musical sequence, through to the coverage of the race itself, and on to the closing titles that rightly saw members of the production team receive a credit; this was one of the greatest days of live sports coverage in my decades of watching televised sport.
And I don’t just like to watch! I’ve produced countless hours of sports programmes. So, if the few critics on Twitter will forgive me, it is safe to say I know good production values when I see them.
I know exactly what goes in to producing televised coverage of something as epic as the Grand National.
On Saturday they left me wanting more. That’s exactly how it should be.
It was a team effort. The best TV always is.
But it was clear from Twitter that I was far from alone in being very impressed by the on screen efforts of one man in particular.
A man who, not content with winning the National as a jockey, turned in a brilliant performance in front of the camera.
Former Grand National winning jockey Mick Fitzgerald delivered the best sportsman-turned-presenter performance I have seen.
If ever a man has grown into the job of television presentation, it is ‘Fitz’.
Throughout the three day meeting, his sense of fun and excitement came through the camera and right into my living room.
I love the way he swoons to camera. He is talking to the viewer, not the cameraman. Few presenters achieve that.
Nobody is better placed to film in the jockeys changing room. He pointed out the jockeys by name. And they accepted his swashbuckling style in good humour because Mick Fitzgerald will always be one of them. They respect him.
‘Fitz’ was excellent in the studio. His passion for the sport is infectious.
Presenter Nick Luck was more ‘up for it’ than ever before. He did a great job.
Post race he was joined by Fitzgerald and co-commentator Richard Hoiles to look back at the Grand National in full.
The analysis was visually and verbally superb. Luck highlighted certain runners for the viewer. Hoiles was his usual witty and informative self. Fitzgerald talked us through the race from the perspective of a jockey.
And I have not even mentioned the superb live race commentary from the incomparable Simon Holt. Like Inspector Morse, he drives a jag. And like the super sleuth, Holt is a master of his craft.
The other usual suspects were also on great form.
Nobody is better at talking to winning jockeys than Alice Plunkett.
Rishi Persad looked in appearance to be the same fella as the one we used to watch on the BBC and yet, somehow, he was better.
His former BBC colleague Clare Balding did what she is best at. She was in the paddock and winners’ enclosure with the owners, trainers and jockeys. Telling us things about them that most viewers would not know.
Tanya Stevenson was having much more fun in the betting ring without having to mother the not remotely missed John McCririck.
She was enjoying herself and appeared more relaxed than I have seen her for a long time.
Who have I forgotten? Ah yes. Eric and Ernie.
Now let’s get things straight. I was jesting on Twitter when, after the Cheltenham festival, I decided to christen the pairing of new boy Graham Cunningham and the estimable Jim McGrath as the Morecambe and Wise of Channel 4 Racing.
Cunningham (aka Eric) is never short of a Christmas cracker witticism or two and seemed to be using the knowledgeable McGrath (aka Ernie) as his comic foil.
But there were no such comic turns at Aintree. Whether they pair McGrath with Cunningham, or with Fitzgerald; it works either way. Three wise men.
McGrath is a mine of information. Punters, including this one, value what he has to say about the horses that may carry our hard earned cash.
As a TV producer I could bore you about overhead cameras (terrific), I could point you in the direction of some excellent direction (by Denise Large) and I could wet myself while talking about the quality of the camera work.
But, with my TV producer hat on, the one thing I thought the producers excelled at was what many of you may consider to be obvious.
They deployed their on screen staff perfectly.
Live television coverage, be it a sports event or a rock concert, is all about teamwork.
Like a football manager setting out a team to win a game, get your formation right.
Play to your strengths. Do not try to put square pegs in round holes.
If Alice Plunkett is at one with jockeys – and they with she – then have her walk the horses back to the winners’ enclosure.
If you are going to film a ‘fun’ piece with the crowds then, yes, get Rishi to do it. He’s good at it. That is not to be taken for granted. He’s good at other things. But he’s good with the public, and that is no easy task.
Don’t make one person the obvious star. Spread the load. Have your on screen talent do what they do best. And have them involved on a fairly even basis.
I thought the coverage was stronger for not relying too much on the ever professional Clare Balding.
Frankly, you can have too much of a good thing. And if I know anything about television viewers, it is that familiarity can lead to them saying “oh no, not her/him again”.
Clare opened the coverage, and rightly so. But she wasn’t ever present.
She was employed to do what she does best as part of a coherent, well organised and professionally briefed team.
The programme flowed well because everyone knew their role and they were employed evenly across the many hours of broadcasting.
That may seem obvious but, believe me, the obvious is sometimes a stranger to us television producers.
I went into Saturday believing that the very future of the most watched horse race in the world was in jeopardy.
But the Grand National was saved on Saturday.
Saved from the feral Animal Aid lobby by the tweaks made to the course that saw a proper start to the race, a less bunched up field of 40 runners and, to my eyes at least, tired horses brushing through fences that would have brought them down in the past.
Secondly, its future as a free to air televised event was secured thanks to the efforts of all those who worked on Channel 4 Racing.
Make no mistake about it. The onus was on the channel to deliver coverage that was not just equal to the BBC at their best. It had to be better.
And, in my opinion, it was.
The best result on Saturday was that all the horses and jockeys came home safe.
All those factors will ensure that the race finds a new sponsor.
Sue Smith, a former neighbour of mine in Eldwick, West Yorkshire, trained the winner of the Grand National, Auroras Encore.
He husband Harvey, a man who has never suffered fools or animal rights activists with anything other than contempt, summed up the Grand National better than I could.
Not a man to get over emotional, he said: “This race will go on forever. The public love it.”
After the superb coverage by Channel 4, they will love it all the more.
Visit Vernon’s sports betting website VG Tips – www.vgtips.co.uk