❉ David Lewis looks back on the fondly remembered childrens drama, released on DVD this month.
“Not even English soccer legends phoning in the kind of performances that make Michael Owen look charismatic can put a dent in Jossy’s Giants – a working class sitcom from a period when work was scarce and the North was being alternately demonised and neglected by the Conservative government. Despite the humour and charm, there’s an occasional air of period melancholy, the ghosts of devastated industry, collapsing economics and derelict housing just out of shot. It’s not quite the younger brother of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, but it shares some of the same DNA.”
Before the Premier League, there was the old First Division – permed cloggers in obscenely short shorts kicking seven bells out of each other on quagmire pitches, with the occasional fleet-footed genius gliding through the mud and making everyone else look stupid. Before the CBBC Channel, there was Children’s BBC – two-and-a-bit hours of programming for young people hosted by a man in a cupboard and a guffawing glove puppet. And before Jamie Johnson there was Jossy’s Giants – a comedy sporting drama written by a darts commentator. Football, the madly catchy theme song claimed, was just a branch of science.
Today, it all sounds as bewildering as a particularly abstruse Mark E Smith lyric, but this was the 1980s: only three decades ago but light years away from the professional sport and light entertainment that modern audiences are used to. The novelist L.P. Hartley famously described the past as a foreign country; after returning to Liverpool from Juventus, Ian Rush said the same thing about living in Italy, which gives a flavour of how deranged things were. Britain at the time was a bleak place – high unemployment, strikes, a constant threat of terrorism and a Conservative government seemingly bent on destroying the country in order to serve the whims of the privileged few (plus ca fucking change). It’s no wonder escapism was so dementedly potent. It needed to be to blot out the horrors of reality.
At least, that’s how it appears from a 21st Century perspective. But to the youthful TV audience of the time, the world was a much simpler place. The laws of the playground remained as arcane and labyrinthine as ever, but concerns about jobs, the decline of industry and a pervading uncertainty about the future were strictly for adults only. For the kids, there was footy, telly and dreams. All three were neatly encapsulated in Jossy’s Giants by, of all people, Sid Waddell, best known now as the voice of professional darts.
However, Waddell was more than just a commentator. Born in Alnwick, Northumberland in 1940, he had won a scholarship to St Johns College, Cambridge to read Modern History. After graduating he worked in the Social Studies department at Durham University and was later a producer at first Tyne-Tees, then Granada and finally Yorkshire Television.
Although his first love was darts – at Cambridge he organised inter-college championships and his pub games show the Indoor League brought the sport into millions of homes for the first time – he was almost as fond of football. Running parallel to his flourishing career in television was an ongoing passion for Newcastle United, who were packing out St James’ Park on a weekly basis, despite the empty shelves in the trophy cabinet and fluctuating form which saw them vacillating between the top two divisions of the Football League (plus ca fucking change again).
Waddell had also been part of the writing team on The Flaxton Boys, a historical drama broadcast between 1969 and 1973. A decade or so later, now working as a producer for the BBC in Manchester but still living near Leeds, he came up with the idea for another children’s TV series when his nine year old son Dan joined a new football club named the Churwell Lions. Churwell was a professionally-run outfit, and several of their alumni went on to play professionally, but the team were no world-beaters. ‘These lions don’t roar,’ Waddell remarked after another defeat.
In his imagination, they metamorphosed into the Glipton Grasshoppers: a woefully incompetent youth team unable to win a single match until a saviour descends and turns the Grasshoppers into Giants. The Lions’ founding coach was onetime Leeds United midfielder Walter ‘Sonny’ Sweeney, an eccentric but endearing Scot. Waddell swapped Glasgow for Gallowgate and made his version of Sonny an ex-Newcastle player instead.
Waddell pitched the idea to the BBC Children’s Department and the series was commissioned in mid-1985. Produced by Paul Stone, whose list of production credits includes The Box of Delights, The Children of Green Knowe, The Machine Gunners, Moondial, Running Scared, Gruey, Aliens in the Family and the Chronicles of Narnia, and directed by Edward Pugh (who’d worked on Grange Hill and would later direct another Geordie-flavoured show for children, Byker Grove), the first series was filmed in the winter of 1985/1986 in Stalybridge, Greater Manchester, with the match scenes recorded in Chadderton at a pitch belonging to a works team named George Dew (later known as Oldham Town).
Jim Barclay was cast in the lead role as Joswell ‘Jossy’ Blair – ‘nickname from the age of 13, “the Cramper”’ – a perpetually strapped-for-cash expatriate Geordie whose professional football career was curtailed by injury on his first team debut. Jossy takes over the wretched Grasshoppers from their founding coach Albert Hanson (Christopher Burgess) and restyles them as the Glipton Giants, changing their kit from a sub-Wolves disgrace to the black-and-white stripes of his beloved Newcastle United and instilling them with the winning mentality that they previously lacked. Albert, a kind of Foggy Dewhurst in waiting, is kept on as assistant manager, along with Tracey Gaunt (Julie Foy), the team’s bucket-and-sponge carrier.
The Giants themselves are a wayward but charming mix of chancers, poseurs and proto-bantersauruses. The majority were selected from local youth teams around the Manchester area rather than from drama schools, the rationale being it was easier to teach a footballer to act than it was to teach an actor to play football. Mostly, it pays off. Julian Walsh as goalkeeper Harvey and Mark Gillard as striker Ross (son of emblem-of-the-Eighties rich bookie Bob Nelson, played by John Judd) are excellent from the beginning, when they clash over the Grasshoppers’ final defeat before Jossy’s arrival; even the ones who aren’t so convincing tower over the adult guest stars from the world of football. Bobby Charlton is not so much wooden as ossified, while Bryan Robson demonstrates all the charisma of a sloth at a tedious drinks engagement. Willie McFaul, Newcastle’s manager at the time, has the good sense to restrict his utterances on-screen to taciturn grunts.
But not even English soccer legends phoning in the kind of performances that make Michael Owen look charismatic can put a dent in Jossy’s Giants – a working class sitcom from a period when work was scarce and the North was being alternately demonised and neglected by the Conservative government. Despite the humour and charm, there’s an occasional air of period melancholy, the ghosts of devastated industry, collapsing economics and derelict housing just out of shot. It’s not quite the younger brother of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, but it shares some of the same DNA.
Despite being written for children, Sid Waddell’s scripts never talk down or patronise. In fact, there are plenty of gags and asides that would have sailed over the head of the average ten-year-old in 1986. Nothing smutty or untoward; just arcane references to Malcolm McDonald and Northumbrian expressions that raise as many eyebrows as laughs. You can certainly imagine Sid using them in commentary. Modern dramas might treat the title character’s blatant gambling addiction as a serious issue rather than comic relief, but there’s nothing light-hearted about the Giants’ militant defence of their ground when developers try to knock it down. Even though they’re kitted out like a mad juvenile version of the Dirty Dozen (with support from Superman, Nelson and a troop of pigs), their passion is unmistakable. The passion found a new outlet in the second series, when girls replaced football in the boys’ adolescent affections, but the show was already in injury time. After a paltry ten episodes, the gates of St James’ Park were closed for good.
Although fondly remembered by a select few, Jossy’s Giants seemed to slip through the cracks of TV history. When Sid Waddell died in 2012, only a handful of obituaries devoted more than a line to it. With this long overdue DVD release, seasoned devotees can relive their distant youth while precocious newcomers can see what all the fuss is about. Happily, the chemistry of footy, telly and dreams remains as potent a mix as ever – proving that football really is a branch of science.
With thanks to Dan Waddell.
❉ Jossy’s Giants: Series 1 And 2 out on DVD, 12 March 2018, RRP: £24.99, Certificate: TBC. Run Time: 300 mins approx. on 2 discs. Click here to buy from Simply Media!
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