"The Doyen of Referees"

Arthur Ellis, Newark, 1980Merry whistleblowers they may be, but every contest involving teams needs a referee to officiate and see that fair play is not only done but is seen to be done.

That’s why Arthur Ellis’ contribution to It’s a Knockout was so important, but his thirteen year association with the programme is only one facet of this proud Yorkshireman’s life.

Arthur Ellis was born on July 8th, 1914 in the Pellon district of Halifax in what was then Yorkshire’s West Riding, the first of two sons born to his father William and mother Zylpha. He was educated at Christ Church School in Pellon, but aged fourteen as with so many of his peers at that time he began work in the local textile mills. Away from work football became a main preoccupation for Arthur and with the encouragement of his father he began to adopt the role in which he would become so famous. He donned the black kit of the referee and in 1930, aged sixteen, he refereed a football match for the first time.

He moved up the ranks quickly, refereeing junior and amateur football and in 1936, he was appointed to the Football League’s list of officials, a position he was to hold until 1961. He continued to referee regional football matches during World War II and he had enlisted to the Royal Air Force as a physical training instructor. At the end of hostilities, he returned to the textile industry and stayed until 1952, when new opportunities arose in the brewery business - but much more of that later.

Arthur’s exploits as a football official are legion. His first international match was as a linesman in 1946 and Fifa (football’s world governing body) appointed him to their list of officials for the 1950 World Cup Finals, a role he would reprise at the 1954 and 1958 championships. Also in 1950, he refereed West Germany’s first ever match after the now partitioned country was reinstated to international competition after World War II.

He refereed the FA Cup Final in 1952 between Arsenal and Newcastle at the Empire Stadium, Wembley - a fact he later mentioned during the 1979 Knockout British Championship. He stated that the referee was offered either the match fee or a Cup Final medal, not both... and you always took the medal.

The 1954, the World Cup Finals in Switzerland produced one of the most infamous games in Arthur’s career. The so-called ‘Battle of Berne’ between Hungary and Brazil which has been recorded as one of the most brutal matches in World Cup history. The tackling between players was crude and at times violent. Arthur was left with no choice but to send off three players and award two penalty kicks amid chaotic scenes and his decision to dismiss players left Arthur facing criticism from some quarters of the press. Despite the turmoil of such an event, he retained the confidence of football authorities and Fifa later rewarded him with their highest honour – the Fifa gold medal.

Arthur Ellis referee for 1956 European Cup FinalIn 1956, European Football’s governing body Uefa staged the first ever European Champion Clubs Cup Final at the Parc Des Princes in Paris and Arthur was appointed to referee the game between Real Madrid of Spain and Stade de Reims of France. The photograph, right, shows team captains Robert Jonquet (Stade de Reims) and Miguel Munoz (Real Madrid) exchanging team pendants, with Arthur as the jovial middle man.

Arthur’s career in football continued in one form or another throughout his life. In 1963, he joined the Pools Panel, an organisation set up by the Football Pools promoters to predict the results of matches postponed due to bad weather. He stayed on that particular group until 1995. He also wrote two books on his football experiences, Refereeing Around the World and The Final Whistle.

I think there is no better recommendation about Arthur’s football career than to quote from Jeffrey Hill’s article about him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: "He brought to refereeing a skill which has rarely been surpassed and made an important contribution to the development of the modern game. The respect in which Ellis was held by both players and spectators resulted from his combining good humour and unequivocal authority. Players knew that it was pointless to argue with Ellis, yet his relations with them were jovial. He knew how to defuse confrontations, and to the delight of spectators he took every opportunity within reason to keep the game flowing". How television viewers and Knockout fans would become aware of this in the years ahead...

In 1966, the Fifa World Cup Finals were to be staged in England and Arthur joined the BBC’s team of experts covering the tournament - others included Jimmy Hill and fellow referee Ken Aston - and his involvement eventually led to a invitation to join It’s A Knockout.

Eddie Waring had been the referee on Knockout’s first three series - but following Waring’s elevation to co-host after Katie Boyle’s sudden departure from the show, a new referee was required and Arthur Ellis was the right man at the right time. His debut came in 1969 at Eastbourne and it was a dramatic beginning as the winners were decided by the toss of a coin after a tie. More was to follow as Shrewsbury won the International heat of Jeux Sans Frontières at Edinburgh and then went to be joint winners of the Grand Final at Blackpool.

For many years, he was Great Britain’s official on the continent with Jeux Sans Frontières, working alongside international referees Gennaro Olivieri and Guido Pancaldi. Even when Mike Swann took over more of the overseas responsibilities, Arthur was still on set for the British heat of Jeux Sans Frontières. During the 1974 series, he deputised for Guido Pancaldi at the international heat held at Northampton.

I recall a fantastic photograph of all the officials prior to the 1978 Jeux Sans Frontières Grand Final at Montecatini Terme, Italy - and there is Arthur beaming his smile for all to see. I feel that shows the warmth of the man and the affection he had for these programmes.

Arthur Ellis tells off Stuart Hall, Bury, 1979Central to Knockout’s success was the camaraderie between the trio of Stuart Hall, Eddie Waring and Arthur Ellis. One could tell of the respect that Arthur and Eddie had for each other in the occasional times when they featured together, but it was the Ellis and Hall who seemed to bring out the best in each other when on screen together. The 1979 heat at Bury is a good case in point - during one game where two teams had finished, and the third was struggling to complete the course, Hall intervened to help out the stragglers. Arthur Ellis then chastised the compere, saying "Now just a minute! Your job is to commentate, not help the teams! I don't want you doing it again. Seriously." But this was all done in such a cheerful manner with Hall adding, "Red card? Smack me bottom?". "Oh, I'll do that alright. I'll give it a kick!" came Ellis with the punchline. There were also the occasions when Hall would encourage the crowd to boo Arthur upon a controversial decision and Ellis would retort, "I’ve heard it all before". One more moment that I cherish - at the end of the 1979 British Championship, the trophy had been given to the winners and while Hall and Waring were doing their farewells to the camera, Ellis can be seen in the background, a warm smile on his face, heartily shaking the hand of the winning captain.

Mention must be made of Arthur’s double act with fellow referee Mike Swann. They, along with the numerous score girls, provided the most vital element of Knockout - to make sure the games went smoothly and all was above board.

Arthur was not afraid to send himself up occasionally in the cause of good laugh, whether that meant his joining the team dressed as a policemen in homage to Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the Police force, or standing in his angler’s waders in the middle of the River Derwent at Cockermouth to referee a game. There was also the time when he dropped all his scorecards onto the soaking wet floor at the Derby Baths at Blackpool, not to mention his contretemps with Norman Wisdom and then with Rod Hull and the infamous Emu at the annual It’s A Celebrity Knockout. And who can ever forget he cameo appearance in The Goodies and the Beanstalk? Watch the DVD and hear the audience’s instant recognition of him when he appears on screen. The last time I saw Arthur on the box was during BBC2’s themed Football Night, where he joined Clare Grogan (famed for her role in the football film, Gregory’s Girl) to tell her to get off his garden and brandished the referee’s infamous red card to full effect stating, "Go on, get off!"

Arthur Ellis and Stuart Hall, Swansea, 1975Refereeing It's A Knockout was something Arthur took seriously, despite the suggestion from some quarters that it was just an easy ride for him. This is what Arthur had to say on the subject in 1976: "If people think Knockout is easier to referee than an international football match, they should swap places with me for just one competition. Not so long ago, there was a game where a team member with a fire hose had to fill a bucket held by a team mate. The object was to collect as much water as possible. It went so well in rehearsal that the British team decided to use their Joker - which means if they won, they'd get double points. But when it came to the actual show, the British strong man with the hose couldn't move it an inch and the girl who was holding the bucket didn't collect enough water to fill an egg cup... so Great Britain lost. The strong man just couldn't believe it. Later that evening, he turned detective and discovered that his hosepipe had been bolted down... the whole team couldn't have budged it, never mind one man. After that, it was decided that thirty minutes before each programme, all the judges would inspect every game. When you're on the Continent, you've got to watch the teams. They don't half pull some crafty strokes!"

Arthur remained with Knockout until the BBC series ended in 1982, but his connection with the show remained for several years, working alongside Stuart Hall in several Knockout-style events for corporate organisations. Such was Stuart’s admiration for Arthur, that he devoted a chapter of his autobiography, Heaven And Hall - A Prodigal Life. I quote from the text: "I knew him best from It’s A Knockout, famous with his dipstick and his insistence on fair play. He was inspirational. A man of total integrity and honesty. He was ever cheerful. I never, in thirty years, saw him lose his temper. He was a man in his own skin. Grateful that life was everything he had wished for".

Later on in his book, Hall described a visit to a villa in Passariano in Italy by a delegation of people from the competing countries in Jeux Sans Frontières. The villa produced Italian wine which had been distilled in vats that had been there for two hundred years and were now an ancient gold colour. Inspecting the pipeline of the vats Arthur informed his host, "Ah’ll tell thee wot mararquesa - if them pipes hat bin in t’brewery - tha cud see tha face in ‘em". And Arthur could speak with some authority on the subject of breweries as for thirty years until 1982, he was a representative for a local brewery company, Thomas Ramsden, which subsequently became part of Allied Breweries.

Arthur married his wife Kathleen in 1937 and they had two sons. They lived all their lives in their native Halifax and were married for 49 years. Arthur lived out his retirement in nearby Brighouse, West Yorkshire, enjoying sporting pursuits well in to his later life. Arthur Ellis died aged 84 on May 23rd, 1999.

Arthur was the referee’s referee there is no doubt about that, but really I consider him to be a guardian. A guardian of life’s riches, honesty and fairness, with a smile as warm as the sun.

by Mike Peters with Alan Hayes