Ever wonder what the British do on Sunday evenings in the fall? You won't believe it. It's 6:15, shortly after dark. The master of the house has long since driven Mum and the kiddies out to Surbiton to visit relatives. He has had his traditional dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and he has put on his slippers and patted the dog. Now he settles back to watch the latest installment of what the Daily Mirror calls a "bone-crushing form of unarmed combat practised by incredibly agile 20-stone [280-pound] hulks who can run like the wind and dress up like space warriors." It's time for some good old-fashioned NFL matches on the telly.
American Football, which amounts to a vigorously edited one-hour tape of the best NFL game played the previous week, has become something of a phenomenon on British TV since debuting last November on Channel 4, the new quasi-public network. Some 1.8 million viewers tune in each Sunday, and more than 4.5 million watched Channel 4's live, full-length telecast of the '83 Super Bowl, although the game didn't end in Britain until 2:30 a.m. The NFL often kills cricket on the telly and sometimes even beats soccer in the ratings. Granted, American Football doesn't face much competition on Sundays—6 to 7 p.m., traditionally set aside in Britain for religious programming, is known as the "God slot"—but 1.8 million viewers each week is no small piece of kidney pie.
You'd be surprised how much like Star Wars the NFL looks in Britain. Because the game is heavily edited—timeouts, huddles, penalties and incomplete passes wind up on the cutting-room floor—ordinary blokes in Derbyshire, say, probably think pro football is little else but spectacular catches in the end zone and outrageous player reactions. The Brits see lots of 40-yard "torpedoes" (their wonderfully apt term for a tightly spiraled pass); occasional "punchups" on the "pitch" (especially when the Raiders are playing); exceptionally jarring tackles and plenty of cheerleader razzmatazz. Some fans cheer Mark Gastineau's sack dances and the in-your-face spikes after touchdowns. Says Malcolm Phillips, a theater worker, "That's valuable tape. British soccer players jump up and kiss each other after they score."
The NFL also airs in such places as Japan, Italy and the Philippines, but it has made its biggest cultural splash in Britain. Last August, 32,847 curiosity seekers paid from $8 to $75 to attend a Vikings-Cardinal exhibition at London's Wembley Stadium. A ragtag amateur American football league with 17 teams has formed in Britain, and two members of England's hottest rock group. Culture Club, wear football uniforms.
So what is there about the NFL and Britain that has prompted 20,000 fans to write in for their very own Channel 4 Idiot's Guide on NFL rules and teams? Is it the hitting? My word, do the Brits talk about that. "To see those guys hittin' like that is superb!" says Steve Higgins, a civil engineer who plays cornerback for the London Ravens, a team in the amateur league. "They really do ta'e a knock. It's the old gladiator principle, isn't it? Watch them killin' each other. The crowd goes home satisfied."
Is it the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, who are famous now in Britain? Ah, the understatements they do elicit. "They're pretty tasty," says TV director Andrew Croker. "You ought to go to a U.K. basketball game to see the difference."
Channel 4 buys the games, complete with the U.S. TV announcers' voices, for $200,000 a year. But it uses two studio hosts as well, a 5'1" English disc jockey named Nicky Home and a 6'7" former St. Bonaventure basketball player named Miles Aiken. Two Sundays ago Home cited a delightful report that the gorillas and orangutans at Washington's National Zoo have begun watching Redskin games on the TV sets in their cages.
"Yeah, Nicky, but I don't think that will work here in London," said Aiken.
"Why not?" asked Home.
"English apes are too conservative."
Well, maybe not all primates will get hooked on American Football in staid old Britain after all. But homo sapiens is on his way.