A Football365 love letter to… Standing Room Only

Date published: Saturday 15th July 2017 1:57

Johnny has drawn his mighty love sword from its well-oiled sheath and is going back to early 90s “Yoof” telly for an influential, original magazine show. That’ll be Standing Room Only then.

 

Why the love?
Running from 16th September 1991 to 4th May 1994, it was the first football magazine show aimed initially at younger people, or at least the first with a younger, less stuffy, more informal style and approach. Produced by the BBC’s Youth and Entertainment Features department which was headed up by Janet Street-Porter, it was broadcast in the just after tea-time “Def II” slop. I never knew what Def II meant and I still don’t.

Uniquely it was a mix of serious and irreverent, and now looks like it was made on a shoestring budget, but none the worse for that, as the opening titles well illustrate.

It was such an enjoyable, accessible programme mostly because it was presented by Simon O’Brien, Shelley Webb and Kevin Allen. If you’re under 30 you won’t really recall it, and you will take for granted the advances it made in what was possible in football broadcasting, but the synopsis of a few shows will give you a flavour:

‘Simon O’Brien drops in at Glenn Hoddle’s house to watch the England v Germany game on television. And there’s a report from Dresden on the neo-Nazi threat among the crowds of the German first division, the Bundesliga.’

‘Why do big clubs with multi-million pound players not have qualified physiotherapists on their staff? Standing Room Only joins former England star Danny Thomas on his first week as a qualified NHS physiotherapist. And ex-PFA Chairman Garth Crooks has the chance to put last year’s FA Cup Final referee Roger Milford on the spot.’

‘The big money behind video soccer and West Germany’s World Cup star Jurgen Klinsmann on paparazzi pressures at Inter Milan.’

‘French tennis star Yannick Noah talks about his team Paris St-Germain and there’s an interview with Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff.’

‘Former Spurs player and ex-Newcastle manager Ossie Ardiles reflects on his career. And, in the week that Dutch club Ajax play Genoa in the Uefa Cup semi-finals, Bobby Robson discusses Ajax’s innovative youth policy.’

I think we’d all watch such a programme today, wouldn’t we? Sounds bloody great.

 

Superhero skills
Consider a programme that employed the talents of not just three good broadcasters but also David Baddiel and Rob Newman, hot comedy property at the time from the Mary Whitehouse Experience, who would add in silliness via their Sepp Maier’s Comedy Shorts pieces. Add in impressionist Rory Bremner and cartoonist Steve Bell and we can see that this was high talent on a low budget.

In perhaps a foreshadowing of what came to be known disparagingly to some as hipster football, they would consider European and global issues as well as domestic. They looked at social and societal questions, they went into health and fitness as well as interviewing players and managers.

They also got great access to football stadium, so one week they’d be at Blackburn Rovers, the next Derby County or wherever. The fact it wasn’t studio-based gave the whole show energy and connected it directly to its subject matter.

Some of the features became legendary, but the one that sticks in my mind is the one about Wayne Lineker’s bar in Spain, presented by Kevin Allen. This is, let’s not forget, 1992 and yet the manner in which it’s done could easily be 2017. The mix of straight interview and comedic presentation, was very ahead of its time. Nobody else was doing things this way and certainly not on a consistent basis in football broadcasting.

The programme also had a SupporterLoo; a mocked up toilet in a trailer where the public could sit and complain to camera about something that they really didn’t like about the game, ending by pulling the flush. That encapsulated the show, really. At once both serious and silly.

Producer Mike Wadding who worked on all seven series, tells me that the programme regularly got 1.5 million viewers even though it wasn’t in the most advantageous time slot. So it was proof that you don’t need to dumb down to get your audience, a lesson too many in football broadcasting have been too slow to learn.

 

Style guru?
Not a show for the show pony, not least because much of the time it seemed to be recorded in the depths of winter and everyone is in coats, hats and gloves. In fact, in these days of sculpted eyebrows, suits and expensive hair, it all looks very down-home, very ungroomed, very… well…normal. This was also key to its success. It looked and spoke like us. It had no airs and graces and felt part of the community that it was reporting about, even to the extent of soliciting stories and topics from fans themselves by providing a number to call. Today we call that interactivity like it’s new.

 

Proper Football Man rating
Frightened.

See, this is where it all started going wrong Jeff. Programmes on the telly presented by a lad, a woman and a bloke with big eyebrows. And then having the cheek to do features on European football, I mean nobody wants to see that, literally no-one even knows where them places are. They’re just trying to be clever and being clever is just stupid, if you ask me. What you want is some old pros dressed for a day at the golf, talking about how brilliant it is to be able to kick someone’s knee cap off and about the time they ran over someone in Thailand while drunk on snake venom cocktails.

They go on about it being original and that but that Kevin Allen looks just like Keith Allen and nearly has the same name. That’s just a rip off. I’m not ‘avin it, me, Jeff.

Baddiel and Newman? I never liked alternative comedy. Too many jokes about tampons. There’s nothing funny about them, even though I have no idea what they’re for and no bloke does, which is exactly why it’s not funny. What’s wrong with Stan Boardman? The Germans bombed his chippy. Jeff. Ha Ha. It’s funny ‘cos it’s true but Alexei bloody Sayle making jokes about cars made in the Albania while wearing suit that’s obviously shrunk in the wash, that’s just rubbish. What you need is a bloke pretending to be riding an ostrich. That’s quality.

SRO was the very antithesis of the all-mates-together, alpha male, bosh n josh culture of football at a time when the PFM culture was at its zenith. So no PFM worth his Preparation H is going to look back on it with any affection.

I don’t even watch BBC2 anyway, Jeff. I’m not like that, me.

 

What the people say
It was never a mainstream show out on BBC2 and it’s non-traditional approach meant it wouldn’t attract the parents into the room, so inevitably the audience was a little limited, but those who found it, clung to it and loved it and it was those people who got in touch with their memories.

‘Groundbreaking in that it covered football from a fan culture perspective. Unfortunately, this massive gap in the TV market remains.’

‘There’s no programme I’d like to see again more. I was 21 when first shown and recall loving it, but the world’s a different place, now.’

‘The one I’ll never forget was Wayne Lineker going to a Barca game and being annoyed because Gary had fallen out with Johan Cruyff.’

‘Forgotten but important part of TV football programme history. Wouldn’t have had Fantasy Football, Soccer AM and the like without it. Also the only decent programme in the execrable Def II strand. Would’ve probably made more impact if it’d been in a weekend slot.’

‘Remember it as my old lady would always say “it’s Damon from Brookside” presenting! Also first memory of a woman presenting football on TV.’

‘The only tv show to actually get why fans go to football, a world away from today’s packaged Premier League content focused on armchair fans’

‘Much better than Soccer Am.’

‘First football show on telly that realised fans were crucial and anything other than background noise’

‘It made an effort to be different, but tried to hard to be a TV fanzine and it didn’t work because fanzines are so specific to their club.’

‘Devoid of cliche, a portal to the exotic (foreign player interviews!) but mainly talked about football like ordinary fans did. Without descending to the level of Soccer AM which talks at us and wants our approval. SRO talked to us. A crucial difference I think’

‘Most of SRO was pilfered as content by Fantasy Football & Soccer AM, with little of the intelligent thought going with it.’

‘Really good show & hasn’t been bettered for fan culture.’

‘It was an entertaining show. Even though I was quite young’

‘I could enjoy it and they didn’t dumb down.’

‘A great show. It just “got it”. Nothing like that on nowadays.’

‘A televised football fanzine (sort of). And an early example of a woman fronting a UK football show. Shelley Webb we salute you.’

 

Future days
This blend of straight reporting on a contemporary issue mixed with comedy sketches and cartoons, was so successful that you’d think some coked-up TV exec would nick it wholesale and pass it off as original 2017 broadcasting.

In one sense, it would be wrong to say SRO led the way in modern entertaining football magazine shows, because nothing really took the baton from them and ran with it. It still rather stands alone in the pantheon of football telly programmes. Fantasy Football was certainly in the same ballpark but it was pretty much pure comedy and some feel it hasn’t aged as well. There was Soccer Am which was much more downmarket and crass, and there’s been any number of serious football documentaries or features within programmes like Football Focus, but the blend so winningly mixed on SRO has never been replicated.

Simon made a career doing presenting gigs and is apparently a property developer too. Kevin Allen went on to be a screenwriter, film director and film producer. Shelley Webb became Shelley Alexander and is now the highly prestigious and important BBC Sport Lead for Diversity and Women’s Sport. Perhaps this winning mix of intelligent, articulate and highly talented people was always destined to be a one-off hit.

 

John Nicholson

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