I left the Cheltenham area in 1971 and moved to a new job in Cambridge. It was while living there that I saw an advert in the local paper in late 1972. The town of Ely, near to Cambridge, were looking for people to take part in the 1973 edition of It’s A Knockout. I wrote to them and went to their meeting, which was very well attended. The people in charge were so much more professional and better organized than those in Cheltenham or Tewkesbury. I made the team and we had regular training sessions which led to the my first It’s A Knockout for two years, playing for Ely at home against Hertford on Sunday 5th June 1973. (The programme was transmitted on BBC1 the following Wednesday.)

The Ely Team on Home Ground

The Ely team pictured on home ground.
Ian is the chap at the extreme left in the back row.

We had to do a run through for the benefit of the BBC, so they could check that everything would work and we were a little naughty... We conned Hertford into thinking we were a soft touch and purposely did badly! We actually lost the run through by about 12 points to 8. The event proper was a different proposition and we destroyed the Hertford team, with the biggest winning margin that It’s A Knockout had ever seen: 19-1! Hertford’s only point was from a drawn game - we left the field unbeaten! I took part in a game where I (and two other team members) had to swing one at a time on a rope from the top of a pedestal, holding a football. We had to drop these in plastic tubes at ground level as we swung over them, the points awarded being higher for getting the ball in tubes that were further away than for those that were nearer. Chalk up another win for Ely!

The Ely team arrive in ArnhemOur prize for winning (convincingly!) against Hertford, was a trip for Ely to Arnhem in Netherlands (the picture on the left was taken shortly after our arrival - that's me giving the thumbs-up in the foreground). We went there in high spirits after the Hertford win and I was determined to finally make it to a final. At the time, we did not realise that the Dutch were a bit nervous about how a British team would feel about being in Arnhem as it was the site of such a bad defeat and a huge number of British deaths in the Second World War. The BBC said it would be alright, however, and we felt OK about it too. It was a very emotional night and the Dutch spectators were wonderful, giving us as much support as their own team.

Unfortunately, we did not settle in very well in practice and had quite a few mishaps with accidents, etc. We were not feeling too confident. We were allowed to practice all of the games beforehand but we were not actually allowed to choose who would do each particular game. The idea behind that was to ensure that no team loaded their team with 'specialists' as the Germans had done in the past, so there was always an element of luck involved with each game. You had to keep your fingers crossed that people were matched to their abilities - in other words you had to have well balanced team relating to agility/strength. In my case, as I have said earlier, I did not like to get involved in games requiring pure strength as agility was my forté.

Well, we were not too upbeat after rehearsals and once the final game draw was made our mood did not really improve. Most of us were not too comfortable with the games we were drawn to do. My game was not too difficult but I thought a lot of it depended on luck. I had to throw hoops over numbers during the mini marathon. I used to analyse the games fairly well to "get an edge" but I could not find any edge in this game other than to throw as many hoops as possible and hope for the best.

We did not get off to a very good start on the night, though we were always in contention through the first 5 games. Luckily, in my game we came in second which put us two points in front of the Germans at the top of the table, with just one game to play. When the Germans fell, we just had to finish 4th to win, which we did with 41 points. The German and Swiss teams tied in second place with 38 points apiece.

Once we knew that we had won, pandemonium broke out and we were celebrating all night long. Ely is a really small town and it was a really big deal for them and me!

The Ely team celebrate their memorable victory in Arnhem.

Once again I found myself in a British team poised to go to the International Final. We all kept our fingers crossed that no other British team would beat our score and that it would be third time lucky for me. Thankfully, we ended up highest scoring British team - and we were off to Paris!

We went there brimming with confidence. The final was to be held on the banks of the River Seine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower - the scene was set for a great finale to what had been an incredible year already for Ely. Rehearsals began - and, unlike Arnhem, everything seemed to go right from the off. We were really keyed up for the final and when the draw was made for who would do each game, we were even happier as almost all of us were drawn in games that we wanted to do.

The Saturn PropAs I said, I used to analyse the games to get an edge and I found one in my game which consisted of a large model of Saturn with a platform half way up. The model was anchored on the ground but could turn, the idea was that you had run around the rim twice and then climb to the top and place a flag on top. In the meantime, contestants from the other teams were turning it in the opposite direction with attached ropes. The winner was the flag-placer with the fastest time. Now, that model was HEAVY - and it always took a couple of seconds for the guys underneath to pick up any kind of momentum. I decided that I wanted to run from behind the start line when they started the game so that I already had momentum when I crossed the start line. I cleared this with the judges who said I could begin running before the start as long as I did not cross the line before the start signal. One other point was that during rehearsals people would be forgetting to bring the flag down resulting in scheduling time being wasted so they brought in a rule that said that if anybody forgot the flag they would be disqualified. I was ready!

We started fairly well, coming 3rd-3rd-2nd in the first three games. We missed Game 4 and could only come last in the mini-marathon. After Game 4, we were in 5th place but we came to back to win the next game, climbing to equal 4th. I was in Game 6 and as I had done well in practice I had the joker on my game.

You are probably aware that there are many judges from different countries checking for any rule breaking in the games. The British judge was Arthur Ellis, the former football referee, and he was around the base of Saturn. Well, they started the countdown and I was about 4-5 paces behind the start line but as they said go I was already running fast as I crossed the start. In fact I was going too fast and fell off the rim (we were tethered with a rope so that we could not fall off completely). I recovered and put the flag in in about 26 seconds - the fastest time so far. Then near disaster! I started climbing down without the flag, when I heard a bellow from below saying "Get the fucking flag!!!" - it was the "impartial" Arthur Ellis. I scampered back up and got the flag. He saved me from being disqualified. I still break out in a cold sweat when I think how close I came to being the villain instead of the hero.

Nearly a cropper! Coming down - this time with the flag!

Ian at the top

So nearly a cropper!

Coming down - with flag!

Anyway I won the game and - with the Joker being played - got 12 points for the team which put us in equal 1st place. We then won Game 7 - our third won game in a row, moving us up to a clear 1st.

Coming into to the last game, we were in equal 1st place with France. They came 7th and we came 3rd and as they say the rest is history. We scored 43 points, with the Germans sneaking into second place behind us, having won the last game and the mini-marathon. We had won the International Final!

Ely - 1973 Jeux San Frontières Champions

Ely celebrate the culmination of their legendary year in It's A Knockout.
Paris belongs to Ely, JSF Champions 1973.

The 1973 series was commemorated in a highlights show transmitted from BBC Manchester over the Christmas holidays that year. The Ely team's exploits were replayed and we were all invited up to the studios, where we sat in the audience. A great way to round off a successful campaign.

Ian Rodger with Ely's JSF TrophyAs you can imagine, taking part in all the It's A Knockout competitions was great fun and winning the final with Ely was just unbelievable. I did not plan that night in Paris to be my final participation in the series - I would have liked to have continued competing but in November 1974, I left England, one year after the Ely win. Initially, I worked in Germany for six months (but didn't explore the possibility of competing there!). In 1975, I went to Pretoria, South Africa where lived for two years. As you can probably tell, I enjoyed travelling and, in July 1977, I decided to go to Venezuela where I ended up living for fourteen years. My wife, Carmen, is from Venezuela and both my daughters, Anika (17) and Erika (14) were born there. We have been living in Fort Worth, Texas for the past twelve years, so both my daughters have grown up here in the States. Both Anika and Erika were, like most teenagers, a little blase about my IAK involvement. However, after seeing a recording of the Ely v. Hertford heat, they both said it is something they'd like to do and both of them enjoyed watching their father's brush with fame...

by Ian Rodger