Friday 15 November 2019

Fifty winning years of getting it right

Rugby commentator Bill McLaren represented the BBC's voice of confidence, writes Declan Lynch

How did they get it so right? The men who ran television, and particularly BBC television during its golden age of the Seventies, just kept getting it right. As we now survey an executive class who are getting paid 20 times as much and who can hardly get anything right, we can but shake our heads in wonderment at the enormity of the achievements of their ancestors.

And with the passing of rugby commentator Bill McLaren, we can look again at this propensity for getting it right, and for getting it so right that no-one would think of changing it for the next 50 years -- McLaren first appeared on the BBC in 1953 and retired undefeated in 2002.

McLaren was one of several sports commentators whose accents were so idiosyncratic, their voices so singular, in these monotonous times there would possibly be grounds for claiming disability benefit.

For how could a man get work these days if he sounded so unlike other men? No doubt 100 bad reasons could be found for not giving the job to an undiluted Scot like McLaren, or a Murray Walker, whose voice was apparently louder than the Formula One engines roaring around the chicane at Brands Hatch, or a completely over-the-top Yorkshireman like Eddie Waring, who could make us care for an hour every Saturday afternoon about the doings of rugby league outfits such as Widnes and Hull Kingston Rovers.

Even the Englishmen such as Dan Maskell at Wimbledon, or Peter O'Sullevan at the races, or Henry Longhurst and then Peter Alliss at the British Open, or John Arlott at

Headquarters, might be regarded as being on the wrong side of posh, in today's media marketplace.

And, of course, Michael O'Hehir would be thrown into this mad mixture every year for the Grand National, whether the licence payers of Great Britain liked it or not. Amazingly, they liked it, though O'Hehir's voice was not just Irish, it was Irish in a way that no

Irishman had ever sounded before, or since.

No doubt the BBC in that era would also have found a way for Micheal O Muircheartaigh to make a few guest appearances, maybe doing the dogs at the White City, except his commentaries were mostly in Irish at that time -- with great reluctance, they would draw the line at that.

But as long as the commentator was speaking roughly the same language as the majority of the viewers, it was then up to the viewers to follow his outrageous meanderings. Which apparently they were happy to do, even if, as was the case with McLaren, his sport was one that didn't matter a damn to the vast majority of the people.

Four matches a year is about as much rugby as any normal person can take, and once McLaren had squeezed as much entertainment as a man could get from the Five Nations, most of the viewers would have nothing whatsoever to do with rugby until McLaren came around again next year.

But for those few wintry weeks on Grandstand he would make it sound glorious, helped by players with names like Alistair McHarg and Robert Paparemborde and Willie John McBride, and other such "burly citizens".

It was a broadcasting culture built on confidence, or maybe just a lack of fear -- no matter where they were from or what they sounded like, these guys were good, and the BBC knew they were good, and the unspoken message to the viewer went something like this: we are good at this, we will do our stuff, and you will like it. Just leave it to us.

The fabulous Grandstand theme music was a pure blast of that confidence, pumping up the adrenaline to such a degree that it took a hell of a nerve for anyone to follow it. But they were not afraid to set themselves up like that. Apparently they were not afraid of anything, even of Rugby League being served up every Saturday to the masses by some character who made George Formby sound like Sir Alec Douglas-Home. There would be no second-guessing the market, no effort to dumb it down, no desire to seek the opinions of the viewers by inviting them to press the red button and vote, or to text their views on the state of the game to Bill, or any of that pandering bullshit.

The former Scotland international Gavin Hastings recalled how he became a co-commentator with McLaren, who told him before the match that when he wanted to say anything, he should just give McLaren's coat a tug.

Hastings would be tugging on McLaren's coat for five minutes without Bill noticing, so utterly engrossed was he in the game. So if Bill couldn't interrupt his flow to let Gavin Hastings in, you can't see him having much time for an email from Roy in Weston-super-Mare.

It was a kind of showbusiness attitude, this sense that the commentator was completely absorbed in the performance. And that he was only as good as his last game -- that he was not a man on salary, but someone who had to keep proving that he could do it, again and again.

Today it is a business that is fearful of doing things that haven't been done before, fearful of anything that sounds even a bit strange.

In the time of Bill McLaren, doing things that had never been done before and sounding a bit strange was all they had.

Sunday Independent

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