The World Cup final of 1966 had the biggest audience in British television history: more than 32 million. This is probably an underestimate, since the collective watching in public places and living rooms that occurs during big sports games does not register well in ratings systems. The figures were even more impressive because only one of the home nations was playing: many Scottish viewers did not watch, like the Man United striker Denis Law who took himself off to the golf course for the afternoon.
The 1966 World Cup had brought in new audiences for football, especially women. For the final, the gender gap among viewers had almost closed. Two men who were watching on their own were the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge, neither of whom had a TV, and who saw the final in the flat of Lodge’s Birmingham University colleague Stuart Hall, who was away that weekend and lent them the keys to his flat. As one of the founders of British cultural studies, Hall obviously did have a television.
The 1966 World Cup was also the moment that televised football developed its own visual and verbal lexicon which made it ever more unlike the experience of watching on the terraces. It was when TV began to surround the match with commentary – half an hour of verbal overture beforehand and twenty minutes afterwards. Tyne Tees Television also pioneered low level cameras to show the players as other players saw them, in the thick of the action.
The BBC first used its new slow-motion ‘action replay’ in the opening match between England and Uruguay. They were waiting to use it for the first goal but none came, so towards the end they used it on a near miss. Everyone, including the commentator, was taken aback, and the BBC’s duty log was besieged with calls from confused viewers asking whether the match was live or recorded. ‘This sleight of hand with time – that’s how it seemed to me – added an entirely new dimension,’ wrote a critic in The Listener.
Halfway through the first period of extra time in the final, with England and West Germany tied at 2-2, the BBC made crucial use of its new technology. But even an action replay, and a camera positioned low down behind the goal, could not prove conclusively whether or not Geoff Hurst’s shot had crossed the line. The England right-back watching from the halfway line, George Cohen, later confessed that ‘the relatively infant TV technology wasn’t really conclusive but when all the emotions had drained away I had to concede that the most beautiful goal I have ever seen was also one of the most dubious’.
As Hurst’s final goal went in, Wolstenholme said: ‘And here comes Hurst! He’s got – some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over – it is now! It’s four!’ These words did not resonate immediately with viewers, no doubt because they were drowned out by millions of living room cheers, which was probably just as well since they inconveniently drew attention to the fact that the goal should have been disallowed because there were spectators on the field. It was only when the whole game was repeated on BBC2 in August 1966 that their concision and neatness caught the public mood. As a piece of Wolstenholme commentary, it was atypical. He was best known for his clipped RAF tones and meaningful silences, for he believed that words should merely annotate what was on screen. Wolstenholme’s standard response when a player scored was ‘it’s a goal,’ a phrase so familiar to 1960s TV viewers that the Beatles, none of whom were football fans, sampled it on a loop for an alternative mix of the song ‘Glass Onion’, which later appeared on Anthology 3.
Over on ITV, only about four million viewers heard Hugh Johns’s more prosaic celebration of the winning goal: ‘Geoff Hurst goes forward. He might make it three. He has! He has! And that’s it, that’s it!’ But Johns’s voluble commentaries, delivered in a rich voice honed in theatre rep, coarsened by chain smoking and lubricated with Brain’s Bitter, became the default commentating style.
In his book 4-2, the film critic David Thomson recalls watching the World Cup Final at home and seeing Hurst’s final goal fly in: ‘I roar in the living-room in Isleworth in front of the black-and-white TV. Mathew [his son] cannot quite yet know the grace that has touched Geoff Hurst. So he cries in alarm. But I was crying first. His mother comes into the room and tells me not to scare him so.’
Of the end of the game, Thomson writes: ‘All over the land, people were going to the bathroom, walking out into the garden to breathe the air, dashing off to neglected shops before they closed. The collective kettle was being put on. Old balls were fetched out and kicked around in the noble knock-on of victory.’