Thursday, August 3, 2017

"Primitive, Revolting and Obscene" – Roller Derby on ITV, 1966-67

The Bay Bombers, 1968
On Saturday 8th October 1966, ITV broadcast roller derby for the first time. Billed as “Roller Skating” in TV listings[i], it was run as a segment on the Saturday afternoon magazine show World of Sport, preceding coverage of horse racing from Redcar and a rugby league fixture between Leeds and Hull. Roller derby would go on to feature sporadically over the following months – appearing at least another six times between November 1966 and April 1967,[ii] before selected regional broadcasters ran highlight packages on Sunday afternoons in the summer of 1967.

The inclusion of roller derby, featuring both men’s and women’s teams from the United States and Australia, may have seemed a strange programming choice but was an early example of World of Sport’s eclectic mix of sports drawn from across the globe. Throughout its 20-year run, from January 1965 to September 1985, the show would augment its schedule with such minority sports as international canal vaulting, log-rolling and target diving. While this programming has come to be regarded as a nostalgia-ridden figure of fun,[iii] it was, in no small part, ITV’s attempt to turn a necessity into a virtue.

Since its inception, the network had struggled to compete with the sports coverage offered by the BBC. As Garry Whannel has written, the BBC “had established close relations with many major sports, based around long-term contracts, and this, coupled with the built-in handicaps ITV suffered as a result of the regional system, gave the BBC a powerful position in sports coverage.”[iv] When World of Sport was launched in direct opposition to the BBC’s flagship sports programme Grandstand, it inevitably suffered from these constraints. Dickie Davies, who became the full-time presenter of World of Sport in 1968, said, “We knew we were up against it with the BBC having all the rights”.[v] Despite ITV’s recognition of these facts and attempts to change the situation – the network announced the formation of a Central Sports Unit to focus on the acquisition and presentation of sport on ITV in December 1966 – the conclusion remained that “[i]n organisational and institutional terms the dice were always loaded in favour of the BBC”.[vi]

In this context, the inclusion of roller derby during World of Sport could be seen simply as an attempt to fill the Saturday afternoon schedule. Yet there was good reason at the time to believe that roller derby might attract a sizeable viewership in the UK. Growing out of the fad for endurance skating in the 1930s, roller derby had achieved something of a cult following in the United States and, to a lesser extent Australia, in the 1960s. During the 1940s and 50s, the roller derby promoter Leo Seltzer, and latterly his son Jerry, would reimagine roller derby as a full body contact sport, involving both men and women.[vii]

For a time, roller derby assumed the style of manufactured, contrived violence much akin to professional wrestling. However, by the mid-1950s, Seltzer changed tack and roller derby attempted to “restructure itself as a serious sport”.[viii] New rules were implemented, with players rewarded for passing opponents on the track while others acted as ‘blockers’ or ‘jammers’. There was also an attempt to build the sport around ‘big personalities’.[ix] This repackaging exercise was successful to an extent: by 1969 the “Bay Bomber’s team had their matches video-taped and sent out to 79 stations all over the U.S. (plus Japan), which schedule the tapes at their own convenience.”[x] It was claimed “their live and TV audience is matched by very few teams in any sport” and, importantly, that the “audience is predominantly female”.[xi]

It is unsurprising, then, that officials at ITV thought they had stumbled across a potential ratings winner. Not only was there the possibility that roller derby would capture the imagination of people in the UK, it might also allow the network to attract a demographic – women, or more specifically young women – who were not traditionally drawn to sports coverage on any channel. As such, the optimism of the Associated British Corporation’s (ABC) Brian Tealer, does not seem misplaced:
“There seems to be no reason as to why Roller Derby should not become as popular a spectator sport here as it is in America and Australia, and we should like to make it a reasonably frequent item in our schedules both from time to time in World of Sport and in our Sunday lunchtime OBs in the Summer.”[xii]
However, it appears that the reaction from the ITV audience was not altogether positive. On the day of roller derby’s first transmission, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) received two complaints from viewers who felt so aggrieved by what they had seen as to phone the ITA with their thoughts. The first described the match between the ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Hawaiian Warriors’ teams as being a “cross between rugby and wrestling on roller skates. Not what I call sport and when the women’s teams came on even less so.”[xiii] The second lamented that the “item showing [people] on roller skates fighting each other is neither sport nor entertaining and viewer thinks very unsuitable for young sons”[xiv]

These complaints continued through November and December of 1966. Extracts from the ITA Line Log Books record that there were three complaints lodged on 19th November 1966, where viewers were said to have “disliked having American sport” on television.[xv] Subsequently, one viewer complained that “Roller Derby was not really ‘Sport’”[xvi] and another dismissed it as “pathetic”.[xvii] Following the broadcast of a match between the Australian Thunderbirds and the Texas Outlaws a viewer phoned the ITA to say, “Let’s hope that Roller Derby does not catch on here.” Seemingly blind to the meaning and beauty of any sport, they added, “It all seemed rather pointless.”[xviii]

Aside from these general denunciations of roller derby, there were also complaints about its physicality. In December 1966, a viewer felt compelled to write to the “Controller of Programming” at the ITA:
“I have seen some vicious programmes on television in the past but your item “Australian Roller Derby on today’s ‘World of Sport’ makes most of them seem like kindergarten stuff. In fact your transmission was only slightly above BBC level – and I cannot say worse than that.”[xix]
In March 1967, another wrote to the Lord Hill, chairman of the ITA:
“These programmes are primitive, revolting and obscene, and it is a gross misuse of language to describe the staged butchery as sport. Furthermore the programmes are totally unsuitable for children…”[xx]
While these complaints represent a remarkably small sample given the (potentially) millions of people who had watched roller derby on World of Sport, they were a part of a steady trickle of negative feedback that focussed on three distinct tropes. Firstly, that roller derby should not be classified as a sport. Secondly, that the ‘violence’ of the sport renders it unfit for viewing by (young) children. Thirdly, the fact that women participated in the sport was particularly unpalatable – a view which increasingly came to reflect the position of the ITA.

Officially, the ITA practiced a cordial neutrality. In response to a letter from a viewer which contained some rather strident criticisms, Bernard Sendall replied curtly, “We have taken note of them”.[xxi] In March 1967, Lord Hill responded to concerns over the violence of roller derby by comparison to other sports broadcast on World of Sport:
“Like many sports involving physical contact – boxing, or rugby football for example – it can be rough and tough. Its presentation on television is not without its problems. Both we here, and ABC Television, are aware of this, and we are attempting to arrive at some assessment of its suitability.“[xxii]
Correspondence from the ITV viewers was being carefully monitored by the ITA and people within the network. In January 1967, a viewer’s letter prompted Sendall to contact Tealer in order to discuss the continued broadcasting of roller derby. “The receipt of the enclosed vigorous complaint about Australian Roller Derby reminds me of our earlier discussion and leads me to enquire how you now feel about this sport in the light of the coverage that has been given it so far.”[xxiii] Ten days later an internal ITV memo suggested that “We may be having some trouble with this ‘sport’, and you might therefore think it worthwhile watching the next match, which is this coming Saturday.”[xxiv]

Brian Tealer was unmoved. He (rightly) suggested that there had been relatively little negative feedback and that the sport required more airtime before any firm decisions could be made about its future:
“We agreed to wait until we had run Roller Derby and tested audience reaction for some time before we decided whether it had a future on our screens. [par] Mr. Goldsmith’s letter is in fact, one of only a few complaints we have received after four transmissions. Reaction otherwise has been favourable; not even the National Skating Association has surfaced again since their pre-transmission protest.”[xxv]
Yet behind the scenes there was a growing concern over the continued broadcasting of roller derby and it centred around women’s participation. P, Dannheisser, filing a report as the monitor for programmes on Saturday 31 December 1966 remarked, “I found women hitting each other where nature never intended them to be hit – unpleasant.”[xxvi] At the bottom of that document, written in pen, is the question: “Anything to log about Roller Derby? Any comments from any of the girls?”[xxvii]

Bernard Sendall also expressed concerns over the presence of women in roller derby, albeit in circumspect fashion: “I would not care to go beyond saying that we are content you should continue to feel your way as regards the presentation of this sport, but have some definite qualms about the involvement of women. To give any clearer indication I should need to ‘take a view’ here and it is perhaps a little early to do this a while.”[xxviii]

There is no more correspondence past this date contained within the archive. There is no record of a decision being made about the broadcasting of roller derby, nor any reason as to why any decision may have been taken. What we can say for certain is that roller derby was last broadcast on World of Sport on Saturday 29th April 1967, after which it does not feature on the programme again.

However, from May to July roller derby is broadcast on Sundays in certain ITV regions. Unsurprisingly ABC lead the way, showing seven programmes over a three-month period. Other regional broadcasters – Anglia, Ulster, Scottish, Border, and Tyne Tees – also offer the programme in the same time slot, but with the occasional variation. For instance, on Sunday 18th June 1967, it only appears in the ABC (North and Midlands) listings; Border and Ulster are hosting a show on farming while Anglia carried the Suffolk Military Tattoo. Similarly, on Sunday 25th June 1967 roller derby is shown on Scottish but not on Tyne Tees.

It is impossible to say with certainty why roller derby was dropped from the ITV schedule. Certainly, there is evidence that roller derby offended male sensibilities about women in sport, with both viewers and administrators voicing their displeasure at women taking part in contests of such physical intensity. However, one might also speculate roller derby was the victim of poor ratings or lost amidst the institutional reshaping of the network’s sports coverage in the late 1960s. What we do know is that the sport makes its final network appearance on Sunday 30th July 1967. The next time it appeared on ITV is as the backdrop to an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man in April 1978.[xxix]



[i] TELEVISION AND RADIO. (1966, Oct 08). The Guardian (1959-2003) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/185164342?accountid=10472
[ii] There is a slight confusion over the number of broadcasts. TV listings record three roller derby segments broadcast between October and December 1966. However, correspondence contained in the archive suggests there was another broadcast during this period. Given the occasionally ad hoc nature of World of Sport at this point in time it is reasonable to conclude that there are a number of discrepancies between the sports advertised and the sports that made it to transmission.
[iii] “ITV World of Sport Tribute Part 1 of 5”, YouTube video, posted by “Sid N”, accessed 3 August 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6P0tq0mFMw
[iv] Gary Whannel (1992) Fields in Vision: Television Sports and Cultural Transformation, Routledge: London, p45
[v] Dickie Davies quoted in Martin Kelner (2012) Sit Down and Cheer: A History of Sport on TV, Bloomsbury: London, p150
[vi] Bernard Sendall (1983) Independent Television in Britain, Vol 2: Expansion and Change, 1958-1968, MacMillan: London, p238
[vii] Maddie Breeze (2015) Seriousness and Women’s Roller Derby, Palgrave MacMillan: Basingstoke, pp2-3
[viii] Frank Deford (1971) Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby, Little, Brown and Company: Boston, p73
[ix] Barbee J and Cohen A (2010) Down and Derby: The Insider’s Guide to Roller Derby, Soft Skull Press: New York, p21
[x] Frank Deford (1969) “The Roller Derby” in Sports Illustrated, 3rd March 1969, available at https://www.si.com/vault/1969/03/03/558511/the-roller-derby
[xi] Frank Deford (1969) “The Roller Derby” in Sports Illustrated, 3rd March 1969, available at https://www.si.com/vault/1969/03/03/558511/the-roller-derby
[xii] Letter from Tealer to Sendall, 16th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xiii] Extract from HQ Monitor’s Reports, Saturday 8th October 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xiv] Extract from Lines Log Book, Saturday 8th October 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xv] Extract from Lines Log Book, Saturday 19th November 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xvi] Extract from Lines Log Book, Saturday 3rd December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xvii] Extract from HQ Monitor’s Reports, Saturday 3rd December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xviii] Extract from HQ Monitor’s Reports, Saturday 19th November 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xix] Letter addressed to The Controller of Programmes, ITA, 31 December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xx] Letter addressed to Chairman, ITA, 11 March 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxi] Bernard Sendall, Reply to viewer’s letter of 31 Dec. 1996, 6th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxii] Lord Hill, Reply to viewer’s letter of 11th March 1967, 20th March 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxiii] Letter from Bernard Sendall to Brian Tealer, 6th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxiv] Memo from HPS to DDG, 16th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxv] Letter from Tealer to Sendall, 16th January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxvi] Headquarters Monitor Report, Saturday 31st December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxvii] Headquarters Monitor Report, Saturday 31st December 1966, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxviii] Letter from Sendall to Tealer, 23rd January 1967, (“World of Sport – Roller Derby: File: 5010/5/1), ITA/IBA/Cable Authority archive, Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University
[xxix] TELEVISION/RADIO. (1978, Apr 25). The Guardian (1959-2003) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/186024492?accountid=10472