NEWS
Tuesday November 24 2020
Exclusive: Football Italia, the Channel 4 years

Following the release of his book Golazzo: The Football Italia Years, former Gazzetta Football Italia producer Jonathan Grade had a catch-up session with Susy Campanale, as they remember working on the Channel 4 show.

Their conversation covered James Richardson’s ice cream, why you’d never get David Platt driving with a cigar now, covering live football in the age before the Internet and espresso-addicted statisticians.

Why is the Channel 4 coverage of Football Italia still so beloved many years later?

Back then, there wasn’t any competition on a Saturday morning, so any football fan would start their weekend by putting Gazzetta on at 10am and I don’t think a show like that has been replicated since. It was a magazine show, we had so much going into it. If you want to interview a star now, it’s all agents, press officers at the club, they are all media trained. I think we did an interview with Roberto Baggio on international duty, must’ve been 1994, and literally James grabbed Baggio as he was leaving and got a five-minute interview. Now, you have a whole cavalry around players. I think the fact James did his charming act with these clubs, that his Italian was so perfect, it meant they really warmed to the production. It was going out in England, it wasn’t a big deal for them, and James got what he needed from these clubs.

You got Attilio Lombardo to do the lambada. Did he just leap straight into that or need coaxing?

It was at the training ground, they had the sound guy dancing with Lombardo, it was such a funny link. Would you get that now? It’s all about image and social media, it was a very different time.

And you had Paul Gascoigne.

Oh my God, some of the stuff… I was looking through old videos and he was riding around on a motorbike in his garden, we had him doing a fake arrest by the police in the middle of Rome, we had him doing links with his head in a massive chocolate Easter egg. We got David Platt to do a sort of hard guy opening link where he’s screeching around in his car, with a cigar in his mouth, a bandana around his neck, doing Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions. We could get away with it then! Players know now if they do anything controversial, 10,000 people will have seen it in minutes on social media.

Every now and then you’d have famous people turn up at the stadium.

I know, Elvis Costello… He went to a game in Florence that weekend, we got in touch with him and he said yes, he’d love to come on. It was amazing. When James went through the half-time scores, every single score he went through had a reference to an Elvis Costello song, so Olivera’s Army, Accidents Will Happen when there was a red card, we were in stitches.

Paul Heaton turned up as well at one point.

He did, there was such an interest in the programme, because people watched it, they really got into the whole Gazzetta thing. It was the only live football on terrestrial TV and people loved watching it, because it had the best players and Channel 4 was bringing it to you every week in its pomp.

It got a new following that wouldn’t have got into Italian football otherwise and people just loved the shows. I think a lot of it also was when we got the contract originally there was this perception of football being negative, but the first game was Sampdoria-Lazio and it just went on from there. It was so entertaining and people loved it.

How do we get rid of this cliched idea that Serie A is boring, when even this season it’s had more goals than any other top five league?

People have their preconceived ideas. Being the sad stats person that I am, I did research and out of the 10 years, Serie A had a higher goal per game average, overall outscoring the Premier League pretty much through that time. It blew that theory away, because we had some fantastic matches. When we were off air, we watched some Premier League games and some of them were just dire. People grew to realise that this league wasn’t boring, it had star players, incredible attackers and was exciting to watch. It was the place to be. If you were a top star in European football at that time, you were playing in Serie A.

Not to mention the glamour of the location, which also helped, and you tried to put that into the show with James Richardson and his settings. Everyone wants to know, did he eat the ice cream?

I don’t know. It was done to make it look like a continuous flow, but obviously it wasn’t done in one take. A lot of people loved it because you’d see the world go past while he was doing his news and it brought a bit of Italy to everyone’s living room, I think. We were in Sardinia, Venice, Verona, Bari, and that was part of the attraction, going to places the average English viewer wouldn’t normally see or even think of.

James had a run-in with some Fiorentina fans, didn’t he?

Yes, it was Fiorentina-Lazio in 93 or 94, and Lazio scored after the 90th minute. Fiorentina aren’t the calmest, certainly not then, and they literally smashed up the crew car, which had a Roman number plate. I guess they assumed it belonged to Lazio fans. The back window was smashed with a baseball bat. We filmed it and used the shot in all manner of features after that. There were some traumatic times, as we were covering the Genoa-Milan match when Vincenzo Spagnolo was murdered outside. It was half-time, the Genoa fans were ever angrier and wanted the game called off, but we didn’t know why. There was no social media, we didn’t know what was going on, we just saw thousands of irate Genoa fans behind the goal. Nobody had a clue someone had been killed.

Not even in the stadium?

No, nobody knew. We were filling with God knows what, chatting and chatting, in the end it was announced the match was off and we came off air.

When I was doing the voice-overs, I was only there for one year, but I had two or three different producers and they all had different ways of doing things. One wanted me to pronounce things very Italian, like putting on an exaggerated accent, then more natural and someone wanted me to just really Anglicise everything.

That was the first year in Leeds, wasn’t it? We were literally finding our feet and it was a completely different way of working. We were starting on a tapeless environment, but everything in the archive was on tape, so we had to feed it into the machine.

Wasn’t it the same studio as a soap opera, I seem to remember Emmerdale actors wandering around?

Possibly, yes. Ken Wolstenholme did it for many years and then you did it, but he was an impossible act to follow. Impossible.

Anyone who followed Ken would be torn apart, so I didn’t take it personally when there was criticism, because of COURSE there’s no comparison. He was a legend, but he had to retire because he wasn’t well. Thank goodness we didn’t have Twitter back then.

Well, exactly. Nowadays, if you’re doing a live game, you get teams all over social media an hour before kick-off. Our only way of getting team line-ups was to call the floor manager in the stadium with James and she’d literally read them down the line half-an-hour before kick-off. Peter Brackley was asking what are the teams, and it was the only way we could get them! There was no Internet, no social media.

Try telling people that today and they won’t believe you.

I know, that’s literally what it was like! Our stats guy, Ray (Della Pietra), he knew pretty much who was playing.

Tell our readers about Ray, please!

His knowledge is unreal. He was an absolute one-off, he just knew everything, from tactics to all these ex-players, coaches, he was like a Bible of Italian football.

He was also chain-smoking and constantly had an espresso in his hand, as I recall.

Yeah, four sugars.

Didn’t he used to feed the commentator statistics and stuff in the gallery during games?

Yes, he’d feed Brackers stats and whatnot. Peter got a lot of information fed through from Ray, because he knew whoever played for in the past and scored a goal against, so he was brilliant.

I’ll tell you another story, we were doing Parma against Juventus in 1998 and Parma went 2-0 up. It was 2-1, and the feed went. We were like, what are we going to do? In the end, we got the unilateral camera that we had in the stadium for James to cover the match, single-camera, and while we were doing that, Inzaghi equalised. You can see this camera panning around showing Inzaghi, then the players run back to the centre-circle, but there were no replays! Brackers was commentating and we were just covering these players slowly walking back to the centre-circle. That is how we covered that game for about 5-10 minutes and there was a goal when it happened.

Sometimes the feed went and we’d get our camera in the stadium to provide coverage of the match instead of just apologising for lack of pictures.

The most amazing version of that was in 2000, when Juve lost the title in Perugia and there was that big delay for the rainstorm.

I wrote about that in the book. I remember that like it was yesterday. We showed the first half and it was 0-0, Lazio were 2-0 up against Reggina, so they were always going to win easily. Then it just started raining at half-time and it was the archetypal biblical storm. It came just a week after another controversial Juventus incident with the Cannavaro header for Parma.

Which was disallowed.

So obviously there was a lot of anger, Lazio were going for their first title in 25 years or whatever.

Lazio had threatened to pull out of the league.

Yes, (President Sergio) Cragnotti threatened to do that. So we were following the pictures, (Pierluigi) Collina kept coming out and trying to bounce the ball, just dropping it into this soggy turf. Then eventually they make the decision that Lazio would have to continue playing. Rome and Perugia aren’t that far away, but in Rome it was the most beautiful summer’s day and in Perugia it was something you’d never seen.

So they decided to finish the Lazio game, they won 3-0, and then we eventually restarted in Perugia. I don’t think they would’ve restarted if it hadn’t been the final day. There were moments in the coverage where if two players went into a sliding tackle, the water went everywhere. It was crazy, then (Alessandro) Calori scored that goal, and Juventus just couldn’t get back into it. The conditions were so bad and the irony is that the Perugia coach was Carlo Mazzone, the massive Roma fan, who ultimately won Lazio the league. The ultimate irony.

Did you have to put off the next programme? It was a long delay.

It was about an hour and a quarter. Channel 4 knew they couldn’t take us off the air 45 minutes before the end of the season, so we kept going over to Rome, seeing what was going on. Every so often, they’d show images from the Stadio Olimpico, with these Lazio fans sitting in the glorious sunshine expecting a goal to go in for Juventus at any time. Juve needed a goal in that second half for a play-off. The whole thing was an absolute farce, but it’s one of those things when the Almighty decided Juventus wouldn’t get the title on a mad day. Mad day. Then the shift of power moved to the Capital, Roma won it the next year and it was a big change.

And then there was the famous three-way battle on the last day in 2002. How do you cover three different games all connected?

That last season we weren’t live, as Channel 4 pulled the plug on us after the 2001-02 season. We had La Partita, which was an hour of highlights. That day we did it as live and it didn’t work out as complex as it might’ve done, because Juve were two goals up in the first 10 minutes against Udinese, so that basically ruled Roma out, so it was a Juventus-Inter battle. Inter went 2-0 up at Lazio and completely fell apart. We had that image of Ronaldo in tears on the bench, another mad finish. That game, I’m sure you remember, Lazio ultras were telling everyone to wear Inter shirts, wave Inter flags, they couldn’t bear Juventus winning the League.

Or Roma…

I think they were going for a UEFA Cup place, but it was such a strange day and Inter completely collapsed. Such a weird day. I don’t think anyone saw it happening, we thought finally it was going to be their first league win since ’89 and it all went up in smoke. I’ve written in the book is the irony is that Diego Simeone scored basically the goal that secured it for Juventus and he scored the goal two years before that kept Lazio in the title race.

And now his son is playing in Serie A. Doesn’t it feel weird seeing the sons of these players we used to watch? We’ve got Enrico Chiesa’s son, who runs exactly like him, sort of hunched over. We’ve got the third generation of Maldini playing now.

It’s quite scary, because I remember their Dads playing. We’re all getting so old now.

I remember when Gigi Buffon made his debut, that was on Channel 4 too.

That was in ’95 against Milan and he had an absolute blinder. Everything Milan threw at him… Actually, the highest-rating game we ever had on Channel 4 was the World Cup play-off in Russia. We went to Moscow and it got five million viewers. I think the highest Serie A one we got was three million, Gazzetta got 600-700,000.

What would you like to tell people about working in that environment?

My role changed from being a runner to a junior associate producer and upwards, and on matchdays it was so busy, I’d be up doing replays, analysis and whatnot in the edit. Things could change rather dramatically. If there was a late goal, it wasn’t like now in a television gallery where you turn it around within seconds, we literally had to edit a goal. If someone scored in the 93rd minute, we’d go into the edit suite and edit while we were doing replays from earlier. It was a completely different way of working back then to it is now. Some days, it was so stressful, because we were turning stuff around with seconds to spare before it was needed. It was really challenging, but good fun with a complete adrenaline rush.

Then I started producing the show, we moved up to Leeds and it was all really good fun. It was such a unique show to work on, we had all these stars on every week, from Batistuta to Totti, Del Piero, Vialli, Shevchenko, Weah, Ronaldo, even Zola doing his funny links in broken English. It was one of the best jobs to work on, because it was football, but different and nothing like football as it is now.

And still appreciated all these years later in your book.

It’s a lovely look back at a great time, so will bring back a lot of memories for Italian football fans. The whole time we had on air was never really summed up, so all these years on I thought it’d be nice to reflect on such a popular show and bring people back to an amazing period of broadcasting sport on TV. The thing that really pushed me to do this was I went to Peter Brackley’s funeral a couple of years ago and thought, we should honour Peter, Ken and Tom Docherty, our director who sadly passed away a few years ago, and it was nice to pay tribute to them. It was a golden era and they shouldn’t be forgotten.

Golazzo: The Football Italia Years is available to buy in paperback and on Kindle at Amazon.