JSF 1970: When Cardiff Stormed the Castle!

In May 1969, the hosting of a domestic heat of It’s a Knockout in Cardiff had been largely ignored by the local press, which had seemed pre-occupied by the countdown towards the Investiture of the Prince of Wales, the Lord Mayor’s Parade taking place the same weekend, and the news that the Apollo 10 spacecraft had successfully orbited the moon! In 1970, it was very different. Cardiff was playing host to the 5th international heat of Jeux Sans Frontières. The press followed events closely, and there was a tangible sense of excitement and interest in the days leading up to the competition, to be staged in the castle grounds on August 5th.

Reading through the archive newspaper reports, now only available on microfiche in Cardiff Central Library, two things emerge clearly: pride that the eyes of Europe would be on Cardiff and Wales; and excitement about the competition itself. I have combined these press stories with a viewing of the competition itself from the archives, as well as my own knowledge (as a one-time employee) of Cardiff Castle and its grounds, to try and give an overall account of what happened that week and what it must have been like to be there at the time. So let’s turn back the clock to August 1970!

The weekend before the event saw the competitors arriving from all over Europe. On August 3rd, the South Wales Echo published photographs of them at their base: the Halls of residence of the Cardiff College of Education in Cyncoed, Cardiff (now the University of Wales Institute Cardiff). One photograph showed Gianfranco Schmid, captain of the Swiss team Locarno, discussing the games and training schedule with his team, while another depicted the West German team Kleve reading local guide books and writing letters home!

August 3rd was the day the competitors had their first visit to Cardiff Castle to inspect the games which had been kept secret from them until then. The high perimeter walls of Cardiff Castle would have made it difficult for them to see anything from the outside, but it must have been a breathtaking sight for them as they went through the south gate. There before them were the enclosed eight acres of castle grounds, edged by steep tree-lined banks leading up to the outer castle walls. There would be no need for a make believe set as in front of them stood the 800 year old stone keep on top of its 40ft motte, while to their left stood the spectacular castle apartments, with their 500 year old outer shell, surmounted by Victorian fairytale towers and spires.

In front of these buildings were set out the games, ready and waiting: a six lane obstacle course, each lane colour coded by country: three giant see-saws in front of the motte; to the right, three towers, some 25 feet high, each one a block of red, yellow and black, complete with steps, a shoot and a length of rope suspended to ground level from a gantry. In the far north of the grounds stood a row of seven castle towers (yes, this part was a set!) for the climax of the competition, in front of which were laid out seven lanes and colour coded carriages. This was to be only the second JSF broadcast in colour, and the first to be presented in colour by the BBC, so it is perhaps not surprising the extent to which colour coding was splashed throughout the set.

That night, all teams attended a reception given by Lord Mayor Alderman T.E. Merrells in Cardiff’s splendid Edwardian City Hall, adjacent to the castle. Team members received gifts of traditional Welsh dolls, statuettes, and hampers of local food. The Lowestoft team members (representing Great Britain) provided everyone with sticks of Lowestoft rock!

Rehearsals and team selections started in earnest on August 4th. Barney Colehan told the South Wales Echo that he thought this heat would be one of the funniest of the international heats. The Echo also reported that the winning team would get a £200 trophy shaped like a television screen.

Rehearsals began with a demonstration of the games by the Cardiff 1969 JSF team, invited back for this purpose. One photograph in the South Wales Echo showed them demonstrating Game 1, by negotiating the obstacle course in a race described as “part caterpillar, part cakewalk”.

Early on, this heat demonstrated it was going to take a heavy toll on the teams: a member of the German team fractured a collar bone, while two French and one British team member were treated for torn muscles. By the end of the rehearsal day, nine players were out with injury (by the end of the competition the total injured was to climb to eleven). That evening saw the dress rehearsal, which was won by Belgium.

August 5th: the day of the recording. The day began with Belgium, Switzerland and Germany proclaimed as favourites. The Echo produced a special supplement all about the competition, the competing towns, and JSF itself. Sadly, no copies of this are known to survive. However, the main edition of the newspaper carried one interesting insight: the choice of games was up to a European Committee, based on suggestions made by each country. Apparently, experts could tell which country had proposed which game: the British favoured games to test strength and toughness, while the Germans went for games which involved dressing up. Meanwhile the French favoured a sense of danger, although it meant that many of their suggestions had to be turned down for being too risky!

As the clock counted down to the transmission time of 9.05pm, the August weather remained favourable, and all was set for a classic piece of television.

The live broadcast opened with an impressive twilight fanfare from atop the floodlit Norman keep, played out by trumpeters and drummers of the Welsh Guards, in their red uniforms and bearskin helmets, as host David Vine entered the castle grounds through the Roman North Gate. Surrounding him atop and beside the gate were the teams in all their colours waiting to be introduced.

The crowd was large and in full cheer, especially as the first game got underway, a straight race by six teams resembling a caterpillar: seven team members attached one behind the other by harnesses at the waist, and each one holding a beach ball to their heads, had to manoeuvre an obstacle course of bumps, dips and wires and finish by throwing a football through a hoop. The Dutch team got off to a flying start by playing their joker and coming first. Lowestoft finished third.

This was followed by the first “Marathon” (the term Fil Rouge was not then in regular use) hosted by Eddie Waring: “The Swivelling Donkey”: the ‘donkey’ in question straddled a swimming pool, and its body was in effect a series of rotating cylinders. In this timed game, starting at the tail, two female competitors had to crawl along the body, trying not to make the cylinders spin, collecting numbered carrots suspended over them, and feeding them to the donkey once they reached the head. One intriguing aspect of this game was how players from different countries chose to carry the carrot while commandeering the cylinders: the British and Dutch daintily carried them in their mouths, the Germans and Italians stuffed them down their cleavage! The Swiss, Dutch and British were to finish joint first in this competition.

The second game, in two heats, had three 25ft towers with a rope suspended the full height from a gantry. Two male competitors from each country had to climb their tower using the rope, collect a football from the top and launch it down a shoot, before descending and swinging on the rope to catch it. No team managed more than three successful runs, with Lowestoft just missing out on equalling the highest score by not placing one of their caught balls properly in the basket - an error that was to cost them final victory later in the night! However, from this game, thanks to 8 points on their joker, Lowestoft entered and maintained the lead right up until the final game.

Game 3 returned to the, now re-arranged, obstacle course used for Game 1. Four competitors, male and female, had to negotiate the course carrying an 8 foot pole suspended from which was a hollow cylinder housing a freely rolling football. The course had to be completed in the fastest time without letting the ball roll out.

Game 4, “Ducking the Witch”, saw the first hint of costume in the programme: one male from each country had three attempts to roller skate down a slope, throwing a football through a hoop, each throw on target resulted in the poor witch being ducked into the pool!

Game 5 was possibly the most dangerous and stomach churning of the competition. Again, this game was played in two heats, this time with the splendour of the castle apartments acting as a backdrop. Two men from each country had to balance on what was part ladder, part giant seesaw, one passing a football to another, who was then hoisted up to 20 feet in the air to place the ball in basket. In order to do this, he had to stand upright on the ladder and keep his balance as it was hoisted high in the air.

In Game 6, pairs of competitors in prison uniform had to run up and down the course collecting water in buckets and depositing it in a large well. To make it difficult, the competitors were held together at the ankles by ball and chain, and after each run became chained to two more team members until there were in all six competitors with ball and chain trying to collect the water.

Game 7 paid tribute to the football World Cup held in Mexico earlier that summer. Competitors from each country dribbled a ball along a catwalk without going over the edge and tried to score a goal at the end. To try and prevent them other countries swung giant punchbags at them, while a mechanical goalkeeper operating by an opposing country slid right to left in front of the goal. This game seemed to prove too difficult for the countries. No country scored more than two and four countries scored just one goal.

After the Marathon result had been added to the scores, the countries entered the last game with what appeared to be a considerable range of scores: Lowestoft (GB) led with 36, followed by Hoogland (NL) on 34, Locarno (CH) on 30, Kleve (D) on 28, Genk (B) on 26, Rimini (I) on 25 and Reims (F) on 21. However, five countries chose to play their joker on the last game (still permitted in 1970), something which was to throw the order up in the air!

The final game was as simple as it was spectacular. Two men from each country had to race down the course carrying a carriage towards seven castle towers, one for each country, on top of which waited a damsel in distress. They then had to climb the tower, hoist their country’s flag and rescue the damsel by carrying her down the tower and into the carriage. Once she was sat in the carriage, she had to be carried back down the course to stand on the podium at the end. The combination of the set and the colour made this the most visually appealing of the games and began what seemed like a long tradition in British JSFs of beginning and ending the competition with a big race!

As the game unfolded it became clear that the British who, while the first up their tower, had disappeared on the descent! The Belgians meanwhile had played a blinder and bombed back down the course with their damsel while most of their rivals were still descending their towers.

Britain trailed inexplicably home in last place, way behind the other countries. The result, with the impact of the jokers added, completely altered the positions. Belgium was catapulted from 5th to joint 1st place with Switzerland on 40 points. Italy rose from 6th to joint 3rd with Britain and the Netherlands on 37 points. West Germany fell from 4th to 6th place with 36 points, with France the only country to hold its pre-game position in 7th with 27 points!

So ended this competition, with a presentation of the trophy (only one could be seen!) to the winning teams by the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, as the Welsh Guards once again beat out a fanfare. Jeff Frost, British team captain, told the Echo, “We are very happy about the result, and we have every confidence that we shall get into the finals”. Alas for Lowestoft, their mistakes on the night were to cost them dear and they were to be denied a place in the international final of 1970.

Given the spectacular JSFs which were to hit our screens in the years to follow, it is clear with hindsight that we were seeing a still emerging JSF formula. Games were still largely being played in tracksuits and sports kit (albeit colour coded by country). It had not yet reached what Stuart Hall was later to call “theatre and pantomime under the arc lights” where music, costume, humour and staging were to be as equally important as the fierce international rivalry and tests of strength and skill. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the combination of live and colourful television, with unusual games and fierce international competition, was proving hugely popular with audiences across Europe, and was here to stay.

by James Cowan