The last stand for a grand old institution

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THEY might have given it fifty. When it was announced last year that Grandstand was to be phased out, the BBC said the end would take place by 2009, which would have allowed the show to notch up 50 years of service.

Instead, in a hasty and little-publicised move, today's edition will be the final Grandstand after 48 years, three months and 17 days of broadcasting sport to the nation. It says a lot about the bureaucratic modernising BBC and its fine disregard for its own history that the corporation couldn't even allow the old boy of sports broadcasting to hit a glorious 50 and then retire.

The iconic programme with its oh-so-familiar theme tune could no longer be adapted to meet scheduling demands largely dictated by ratings-obsessed managers, sponsors and, dare we say it, satellite television, so the Beeb decided on a quick unobtrusive kill, with a no-doubt well-produced tribute which will be shown at the end of today's programme. That wonderful theme tune will sound one final time and then nothing. All over. Like Top of the Pops, Grandstand is as dead as Pauline Fowler and Victor Meldrew.

But then BBC button-pushers and bean-counters, by definition, have no sense of drama and no romance in their souls. Not one of them has the capacity to achieve anything as singularly memorable as one of Bill McLaren's mellifluous Borders-drenched phrases, or Sir Peter O'Sullevan's gentle lilt rising to a crescendo as he called home the latest Grand National winner.

Grandstand made Bill McLaren, O'Sullevan and a host of others literally household names. Each Saturday afternoon, and later on Sundays, they would come into our homes and guide us through the afternoon's sport.

It is difficult to understate how important Grandstand was to sporting and broadcasting history. It was first shown on October 11, 1958, and it pioneered many television staples such as the Teleprinter for results, colour coverage of sport, and more outside broadcast innovations than probably any other programme worldwide.

Grandstand latterly showed that women could present sports programmes too - the late Helen Rollason, our own Hazel Irvine and, for today's last edition, Clare Balding, were all equally as professional as the four male presenters over the years - David Coleman, Frank Bough, Desmond Lynam and Steve Rider. A fifth, Peter Dimmock, presented the first three editions before Coleman took over.

And without Grandstand we would not have had a litany of memorable moments from sport - Gary Sobers' six-runs-from-six-balls over, the first live televised hole in one by Tony Jacklin in 1967, and any amount of great football goals and fabulous rugby tries.

The programme's largest audience was for the 1966 World Cup final, when 27m viewers tuned in to watch England beat West Germany at Wembley, with Kenneth Wolstenholme's famous "they think it's all over...it is now!" remark as Geoff Hurst scored the last goal becoming arguably the single most famous piece of sports commentary in history.

There were moments of controversy, too. In 1971, after a clear round in the Hickstead Derby, showjumper Harvey Smith gave a two-fingered salute to a judge who had criticised him, prompting a days-long national debate on the decline of society. Grandstand also brought us tragedy - both the Hillsborough and Bradford City disasters were covered as they happened in a highly professional way. But there were also many lighter moments - the Boat Race was a hardy annual, and how many of us didn't quite suppress a chortle when Cambridge sank in 1978?

Horse racing was a staple of the programme over the years, and O'Sullevan had to do the commentary when his famous hurdler Attivo won several races: "trained by Cyril Mitchell, owned by Peter O'Sullevan" he said, without any change of inflection.

A personal favourite memory is of Grandstand breaking up its schedule to show Frankie Dettori record his seventh and final win on the day of the Magnificent Seven at Ascot in 1996.

But it is the commentators who we'll remember most of all. Apart from the very best - Wolstenholme, McLaren, O'Sullevan, Richie Benaud on cricket, Cliff Morgan on rugby, Henry Longhurst and Peter Alliss on golf - there was Eddie "oop and oonder" Waring for rugby league, Dan "oh I say" Maskell at Wimbledon, the Davids Coleman and Vine everywhere, and of course, John Motson, who never sounded too unhappy when England were winning.

Harry Carpenter's excitement at any boxing match was always memorable, Dorian Williams and Raymond Brooks-Ward loaned their plummy tones to showjumping, while petrolheads won't forget that Murray Walker started out with many years on Grandstand. They were all different, some even a tad eccentric, but all contributed to our enjoyment of sport. Latterly, BBC Scotland brought in its own experts to cover Scottish football and rugby matches, because the nation's blood boiled when commentators and former England players couldn't hide their bias.

In truth, it is not entirely the BBC's fault that Grandstand died. There were just fewer people able or willing to watch the programme on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, as there are now plenty more alternatives out there in a digital world. Surely the Beeb could have made an effort to save the former flagship, though no doubt they were encouraged by the lack of an outcry from the viewing public.

The clamour to save Grandstand has been conspicuous by its absence and the few voices raised in opposition were always destined to fall on deaf ears, because they largely belonged to people with pensions and grey hair.

You don't believe it's an old versus young thing? Go on the internet and check BBC director of sport Roger Mosey's blog on http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/sporteditors/2007/01/farewell_to_grandstand.html There, one viewer remarks: "People like me are over 50 and therefore don't count for anything with the people who decide what's on television. If something is perceived as 'old' then it has to be got rid of."

Another reply states: "As a 70+-year-old having watched Grandstand for as long as I can remember, ending this most enjoyable programme will be a big, big mistake."

But at least one young man disagrees with the Beeb's savagery: "I'm in my twenties and do not believe that the Grandstand brand is synonymous with a bygone era. The brand and the theme tune are just as relevant today: whenever people hear the name or the music they recognise it immediately as being synonymous with quality BBC broadcasting."

Maybe it will be like University Challenge and Tomorrow's World, both killed off by the BBC only to be resurrected when somebody in the corporation realised that a bloomer had been made. But, for now at least, it is time to say farewell to Grandstand.

And to Lynam, Coleman, Balding, McLaren, O'Sullevan and all the rest - aye, even those that thought they were working for the English Broadcasting Corporation - a genuine thanks for the memories. You and Grandstand will not be forgotten.