Friday 20 October 2017

Long live Peter Alliss, the BBC's anti-hype dinosaur

Day one of The Open on Thursday: Graeme McDowell's tee-shot at the 17th has missed the fairway and ended up out at the rope line.

His caddie produces the yardage book and they spend ages considering their options. Or at least Peter Alliss thinks it's ages.

"This is what takes all the time now. All this faffing around just to move a ball a couple of yards," he scolds on commentary. McDowell and his caddie consult the yardage book again. "Then you gotta look at the oracle, then you gotta get the compass out, then you gotta see what the stars say, then you've got to ring your auntie Nellie and tell her you're in a spot of bother and can she send a few quid. And at the end of the day it's five hours. Quite extraordinary."

Ah, the voice of golf on the BBC: still those unmistakeably fruity tones; and still incorrigibly supercilious at 81 years of age. He went out of fashion a long time ago, did Alliss, overtaken by the tides of social change, looked down upon by the liberals, lefties, lesbians, luvvies and metrosexuals of the modern age. And that was just the men.

He became the Prince Philip of sports broadcasting, beleaguered by the hordes of the politically correct who waited to pounce upon his latest crime against feminism, multiculturalism and perhaps vegetarianism too. He acquired that media designation from which there is virtually no escape: "gaffe-prone". He became a caricature, a Colonel Blimp figure stranded in a media world that is now more Celebrity Big Brother than Songs of Praise.

There is surely a degree of inverted snobbery in all of this, a class war antagonism that starts with his accent and finishes with what they suspect is his golf club approach to society. Members only -- know your place; the rules of the game -- law and order; the Royal and Ancient Golf Club -- the Conservative Party; golf etiquette -- good manners.

The accent is pure plum alright. Alliss always sounds like he's just moved onto the brandy and port after a particularly rich dinner at his gentlemen's club.

He did his national service during the second world war. In 2002, he was offered an OBE -- but turned it down. "You've got to remember the generation I came from," he said in an interview with the Daily Mail last May. "Things like OBEs were given out to people who did something remarkable, they weren't given to sportsmen. Those who were given OBEs who didn't serve in the war were thought of as getting it for 'Other Buggers' Efforts'. I didn't feel worthy of it. Now, of course, they give out OBEs and knighthoods to sporting people like sweets."

The same newspaper last week described him as "the BBC's dinosaur". But this is an establishment man who turned down the quintessential establishment bauble. And it's this mindset that, improbably enough, makes him more relevant as a sports broadcaster than ever.

He has a maverick streak; he has sport in perspective. Virtually every pundit and commentator is a propagandist these days. They are all selling their game to the public, because this is what their paymasters demand, and because this is the current trend. They are ad men dressed up as broadcasters. Their style of communication is hyperbole and emotion.

Allis is the anti-hype man. He doesn't do emotion, he barely does enthusiasm. He loves the game of golf, obviously, but he conveys it in the old stiff-upper-lip way; wit and irony and a dash of nostalgia are his story-telling tools. He insists on the right to remain sceptical.

On Friday, he was distinctly underwhelmed by the morning's play at Royal Lytham & St Annes. "Not finding the greens too often, these lads," he remarked drily, as another player ended up in a bunker. "I hope you don't think I'm being too hard, but we're continually told how the game's improved and everyone's wonderful. But it's a bit wearisome when they don't -- I would like to see them hit the greens at least."

On Thursday evening, he still had a bee in his bonnet about the slow play. Keegan Bradley, the American, was on the 13th tee and holding a committee meeting with his caddie. "See, you're supposed to take 40 seconds. He's been two and a half minutes with that." Bradley finally drives the ball.

"Was it worth it?" The ball disappears into thick rough. "No." Pause. "The whole of Lancashire (to his) right." And Bradley lands it left. "We mustn't be too flippant," adds Allis, in an exquisitely arch tone. Pause again. "It's very catching, though."

He is a florid old duffer all the same. So it was very amusing to hear him receiving a verbal pinprick from -- of all things -- a woman. He'd remarked that Robert Rock was the only golfer he knew who didn't wear a hat. "Well," interjected Maureen Madill, the on-course reporter, "maybe if you'd hair like his, Peter, you wouldn't wear a hat either." The silence from the great man was deafening. It was as if Germaine Greer had walked into the men's bathroom while he was standing at the urinal, with his zip down.

This is Alliss's 52nd consecutive Open as a BBC commentator. "Welcome back, Wayne Grady," he said as he handed over the evening shift on Thursday. "Thank you, Peter Alliss," replied Grady.

And thank you indeed, kind sir.

thecouch@independent.ie

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