Football On The Small Screen – United!

I was checking the TV viewing figures for the week ending July 9th, 2017 which confirmed my opinion that for the main terrestrial channels such as BBC and ITV, soap operas still have the major audience pull. EastEnders was watched by 6.64million people and Coronation Street by 7.97million. The BBC has been in a constant battle with ITV since the 1960s to knock Coronation Street off its perch, to paraphrase what Sir Alex Ferguson once famously said. Arguably, five decades later, it has still not succeeded. However, in 1965 the BBC introduced a new twice weekly soap to take on Coronation Street. It was based on life at a fictional football club and regularly drew an audience of over 6million. It ran for 147 episodes, yet every single one has been wiped. Nevertheless, the programme lives on in the collective memory of those of us who were fortunate enough to watch. It was called United!

The BBC had struggled to match the success of Corrie. In 1965, the soap was regularly watched by nearly 18million viewers. Compact, a soap opera based in the world of a fashion magazine, had been reasonably successful for the BBC but they decided that it had run its course. The writers – Peter Ling and Hazel Adair – were devastated and took their revenge on the company (and the general population) by moving across to the ATV network and creating their own soap opera, Crossroads. But, there was a glimmer of hope for the BBC, as the figures for Coronation Street had declined by over 400,000 from the previous year. The reason for this was obvious; the BBC had decided to screen the ever popular comedy series Steptoe and Son at the same time on Mondays. However, there were some potential problems with this strategy. Firstly, it is almost impossible to maintain that standard of comedy every week throughout the year. Secondly, Coronation Street was broadcasting twice a week, the second show being broadcast on Wednesdays. The BBC needed to devise a successful soap of its own.

The public perception of football began to change in the 1960s. With the abolition of the maximum wage in 1961, the days of the Brylcreemed, centre parted, hob-nailed boot footballer were gone. As footballers grew their hair and wore the latest fashions, an increasing army of female supporters were being attracted to football stadia. George Best was as likely to be seen in Jackie magazine as the weekly Soccer Star. England was due to host the World Cup in 1966 so football conversations were starting to feature in many differing strata of society. Many of those in employment had far more disposable income than ever before and were choosing to spend it on football. Nevertheless, many of the senior executives at the BBC regarded the concept of soap operas to be “low-brow” and not in keeping with the BBC charter, but many of the younger team of scriptwriters and producers relished the opportunity.

BBC Birmingham were handed the task of commissioning a replacement for Compact which would also challenge the dominance of Coronation Street. It was to be a two pronged attack. First up was The Newcomers, based on a factory in London being relocated to the Midlands. The second serial to be produced had actually been in the pipeline for a while and had not originally been intended as a soap series. It had been devised by BBC Birmingham producer Anthony Cornish and Brian Hayles, a former teacher turned scriptwriter. It was arranged to be a set of six, fifty minute programmes focussing on the fortunes of Brentwich United, a team struggling near the foot of the Second Division but with aspirations of grandness.

Whilst sipping champagne on holiday in St. Tropez in the summer of 1965, Cornish was pleasantly surprised to read that the BBC had decided to launch his original idea as their new soap serial in October. It would be transmitted against Coronation Street on Mondays and Wednesdays (later moved to Thursdays). His writing partner Hayles was to script the first eight episodes .Cornish himself was to produce over half of the episodes. They came up with a name for their project. It was to be called United!

To ensure a degree of authenticity and to grab some favourable media coverage, the BBC decided to bring in the ex-footballer and successful Coventry City manager Jimmy Hill as technical consultant to assist in the production of the programme. As United! was broadcast in black and white, it was almost impossible for the viewer to realise that they were wearing red and white stripes. This may have been why the programme was mainly filmed at Stoke City’s old stadium, the Victoria Ground. In addition, scenes also took place at the home venues of Birmingham City, Coventry City and Nuneaton Borough on occasions.

The publicity team at the BBC used their weekly television magazine, the Radio Times, to highlight their new serial:

“A Twice Weekly Serial Set In The Exciting World Of League Football – United!

Association Football, the made–in–Britain sport which has grown into the world’s most foremost ball game can provide almost every element of drama. Matches themselves are action dramas……….Comedies and tragedies are played out in the rivalries between players , the conflicts of player with managers, the opposing claims of club and family loyalties. The new twice weekly serial (Monday and Wednesday) aims to exploit these possibilities by following the fortunes of one fictional club, United!” – (Radio Times 30/09/1965)

In a more gender defined stereotypical decade, the excerpt above shows that the BBC was desperately trying to attract both the male football fan and the housewife who loved her soaps. It was a bold decision by the BBC. The Radio Times even published a weekly football league table, so eager viewers could track the progress of Brentwich United. But the question remained; would United! pose a serious threat to the dominance of Coronation Street?

So, history was made on October 4th, 1965 when, for the first time ever on British television, a twice weekly football serial was broadcast nationwide. Much of the initial action centred on the manager Gerry Barford (David Lodge), a no-nonsense type brought in to change the club’s fortunes. Many of the themes dealt with by the scriptwriters would still have a resonance for football fans today. His job often led him into confrontations with both players and the boardroom. Brentwich had a business tycoon chairman, Ted Dawson (Robin Wentworth), and his upper crust wife, Clara (Joyce Lathom), the driving force behind her husband. Ted clearly expected the manager to do as he was told. Amongst the playing staff, he had to deal with a difficult captain, Jack Burkett (Bryan Marshall), and a goalkeeper Kenny Craig (Stephen Yardley) who with striker Jimmy Stokes (George Layton) enjoyed reputations as serial womanisers. Gerry introduced his son Kevin (Peter Craze) into the side as striker which caused further disharmony. Jimmy Stokes – with his long dark hair – bore a certain resemblance to George Best. The theme of an interfering club Chairman has certainly stood the test of time.

After the first few months it was clear that United! was struggling to attract the same viewing figures as Coronation Street, so changes were needed. Seven regular characters were axed and a team of new writers was brought in and Anthony Cornish was to take charge of production again. So, in February 1966, possibly to compete with the gritty northern drama of Coronation Street, the storylines of United! were spiced up and became harder edged. However, the BBC drew the line at men’s bare bottoms. The actors still had to wear bathing trunks in the shower scenes, despite pleas from the producers.

But the most sensational development still awaited. In March, manager Gerry Barford was sacked. This development was even covered by BBC News at the time and was featured on the Wednesday edition of Sportsview where presenter Frank Bough broke the news in sombre tone. The reality was somewhat different; actor David Lodge had asked to leave the series. The managerial changes resulted in assistant manager Bob McIver (John Breslin) being promoted. He is remembered mainly for squandering most of Brentwich’s finances on two big money signings who failed to deliver. In a possible effort to attract more female viewers, Anthony Cornish brought in the Compact heartthrob Ronald Allen as McIver’s assistant, Mark Wilson, leading many critics to scathingly refer to the programme as Compact in Boots!

The problem for United! was despite employing a team of strong writers, many of whom were scripting for Doctor Who at the same time, the programme fell between two stools in trying to attract two different types of viewer – the male football fan and the stay at home housewife. Women liked programmes such as Coronation Street because they featured strong young female lead characters such as Elsie Tanner whose experiences and daily struggles they could identify with. In a male dominated football environment, United! was unable to find a place for such forceful women.

For the football fan, there were two main problems. Firstly, the actors chosen for parts in United! were recruited on the basis of having played football to a reasonable standard themselves and were coached in skills, particularly dead ball situations by none other than Jimmy Hill. However, in the actual filmed match sequences they lacked the physical capabilities of their real life counterparts. Hill grew increasingly frustrated with his role in the serial. He was often called upon to add more realistic football based dialogues into the scripts but as he was often away watching matches when United! was transmitted, he was shocked to later discover that most of his recommendations were being ignored.

Secondly, the programme had to interject real football clips into the programme to create a sense of actual match action taking place. This led to some unintentionally humorous moments as described by Gordon Banks, in his autobiography, Banksy:

“…such as when George Layton as Jimmy Stokes would be seen leading the team out of their dressing room, only to cut to footage of Sunderland’s Charlie Hurley running down the tunnel. These surreal images didn’t help the credibility of the story at all.”

Perhaps, because it was being shown in black and white , the producers even managed to insert a clip of Liverpool playing Juventus, purely because Juve wore stripes. Having to intersperse filmed football action into the series meant that the real football fan often felt cheated. For some football clubs, however, the storylines rang a little too close to home. Whilst Brentwich United were fighting against relegation, officials at Wolverhampton Wanderers – who were also struggling at the bottom of the table – felt that the plight of their team was being reflected in the storylines of United! The BBC assured them that it was sheer coincidence.

In one respect United! was ahead of its time. Celebrity charity matches are now a regular part of the football calendar and screened live on prime-time national television. The actors from Brentwich United, from the inception of the series, often participated in fund raising charity matches, especially in the Midlands. The team was often a combination of some members of the cast and retired famous Midland footballers, such as Bert Williams the ex-Wolves goalkeeper. In the image of the programme below, the actors’ character names have been helpfully added in.

Sadly, United! failed to attract a mass audience away from Coronation Street. Ironically, with Brentwich having a successful season and seemingly with a realistic chance of promotion, the BBC decided to cancel the series. Ultimately, despite the talents of the producers and scriptwriters, the programme failed to find affinity with the viewing public and despite attracting sustainable audiences of over six million twice a week, the programme was cancelled. The last episode was broadcast in March 1967.

Although it did not feature many famous actors, past or present, some may still be familiar to a certain generation. George Layton – who played Jimmy Stokes – featured in many programmes of the 1970s such as Doctor in the House and The Sweeney. The Chairman of the Supporters club, Dan Davies, was played by Arthur Pentlelow, who was later to be seen as Mr. Wilkes serving pints in the Woolpack in Emmerdale. The club doctor, Dr. Newkes, was played by Ballard Berkeley, who later played the role of the Major in Fawlty Towers. Ronald Allen, who played the heartthrob assistant manager Mark Wilson, went on to be the heartthrob manager of the Crossroads Motel, David Hunter.

It is possible to make a strong case for the legacy of United! still having an influence in today’s television. No attempt has ever been made since to turn the fortunes of a football club into a twice weekly soap opera. It was the first ever serial to be based on the fortunes of a fictional team and we had to wait over twenty-two years before the concept would be tried again with The Manageress on Channel Four. Perhaps Footballer’s Wives also owes a debt of gratitude, as the opening sequence of the first episode featured a men’s shower scene full of bare buttocks. These programmes managed to blend soap scenes with on the pitch action to great effect, perhaps learning from the limitations of United! Many of the storylines in United! are still relevant to football and society today although the limitations of the 1960s meant that plots featuring illegitimate offspring, cocaine snorting, rape and murder were unfortunately not available to the producers of United! In an era of characters called Curly, Jimmy and Audrey, someone called Chardonnay would have being stretching credibility too far.

Arguably, the influence of United! still lives on in the programme it was designed to compete with as, since 2014, the fortunes of Weatherfield County have been regularly featured in the storylines of Coronation Street. Tim Metcalfe wore a Weatherfield County replica shirt to Hayley Cropper’s funeral and inadvertently injured County’s star striker, Tommy Orpington, when he tackled him in Sally Webster’s garden.

In a supreme act of cultural vandalism by the BBC, all 147 episodes of United! were wiped in a cost saving measure to reuse the tapes again. As the series was never broadcast outside of the United Kingdom the chances of episodes being found in the storeroom of a foreign broadcaster are remote. I can only hope that hidden in a dark attic somewhere are episodes of United! waiting to be discovered.

United! Gone but never forgotten.


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