Using archive to create the BBC iWonder guide around the 1966 Football World Cup

Is there anything the archive can tell us about the 1966 World Cup that remains obscured, untroubled by over-familiarity?"Warren Bell
Date: 18.06.2014     Last updated: 18.11.2014 at 14.10
Category: Archive
Find out how the News Archive Project raided the BBC vaults to answer the question ‘Did the 1966 World Cup mark the birth of modern football?"

A Russian linesman making an early case for the introduction of goal-line technology, some people on the pitch thinking it was all over as Geoff Hurst prepared to complete his hat-trick, Bobby Moore receiving the gleaming Jules Rimet trophy from the Queen and Nobby Stiles dancing...

Many moments from England’s 1966 World Cup success are seared into the collective public imagination.

These golden nuggets of archive are replayed and revisited so often that they blur the distinction between past and present - as much part of the build-up to a World Cup tournament as office sweepstakes and blind optimism.

Take that footage away though, and what are we left with? Is there anything the archive can tell us about the 1966 World Cup that remains obscured, untroubled by over-familiarity? This was a question recently posed to us in the News Archive Project by BBC Sport.

In the run-up to the 2014 tournament in Brazil, they were running a multiplatform offering called World Cup Rewind. Famous and infamous World Cup matches featuring England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were to be replayed in their entirety, “as live” and with all the attendant web and social media interaction that games at this year’s World Cup will receive.

We committed to doing some archive research to contribute to the strand’s initial outing - the 1966 World Cup final. The original idea was to set the tournament within the cultural context of the day. Football was not really considered headline news in those days, so what was? How did the World Cup tournament fit into people’s lives in the midst of a nationwide wage freeze, the swinging 60s and the first “television war” in Vietnam?

An initial sweep surfaced stories covering all these things, with football very much losing out in the competition for airtime on the national news. There were also several editions of the BBC’s World Cup Report and World Cup Highlights programmes broadcast throughout the tournament.

We expected little more than the odd line about how the tournament was being received in England and some studio links we could use to allow comparison of the progression of the tournament itself with the news of the day. In fact, they contained many gems that made us reconsider our offering.

There before our eyes were David Coleman’s quite remarkable interactions with “Mrs. Jimmy Greaves” and the wives of two other members of the England squad. Were we witnessing the birth of the ‘WAGs’ phenomenon?

There was also a (relatively) young Jimmy Hill offering his views on all the kissing and cuddling going on in the goal celebrations. Was this the dawn of the sort of exhibitionism that would lead, with sad inevitably, to Daniel Sturridge’s questionable dancing?

Suddenly, due to some unexpected gems lying in the BBC vaults, we had a new theme - did the 1966 World Cup mark the birth of modern football? Further clues were there among the footage. Indeed, the very volume of the coverage itself was significant.

Between the BBC and ITV, every moment of the World Cup was covered on television and 38 million people watched the final in the UK. With this amount of exposure, football quickly moved from the margins to the mainstream of British society, with the archive footage illustrating that many of the tropes we associate with modern-day football (for better and for worse) were rooted in the World Cup of 1966.

WAGs, wild celebrations, panels of pundits and even slow-motion replays - all of these things may have existed before 1966, but the very scale of the coverage served to fix a lot of these aspects in the public imagination. This was when the broadcasting template was established, with much of what we see in Brazil this year merely a refinement on what went to air in ‘66.

It was decided that the best place to showcase this content was with the BBC’s brand new online storytelling platform, BBC iWonder. Forming the content around this fantastic archive was crucial to its success - within 24 hours of publication it had become the most popular piece of content on BBC iWonder to date.

World Cup Report anchor David Coleman takes in four live games at once in the BBC TV studios during the 1966 World Cup

At its best, the BBC archive can evoke nostalgia, memories and fondness while also provoking - teaching us things we never knew, reminding us of things we had forgotten and challenging received wisdom. Hopefully we used the fantastic archive we uncovered in a way that achieved some of these things. It was certainly good sport putting the piece together. 

BBC iWonder: Did the 1966 World Cup mark the birth of modern football? 

Warren Bell is a Producer on the News Archive Project