Monday 23 October 2017

Master's voice rose highest in era of high standards

Tommy Conlon

D avid Coleman was looking at the clock in the television studio in Munich, counting down the final minute before his live broadcast began.

The voice of a colleague came through on his earpiece. "David, you may well be taken off the air. The security people have been on. We understand the terrorists are listening to you in the Israeli block."

It was September 5, 1972. In the small hours of the morning eight Palestinian terrorists had broken into apartments in the Olympic village that housed Israeli athletes, officials and coaches. Two Israelis were killed in the ensuing struggle; nine more were taken hostage. The terrorists deposited one body outside the front door. They demanded the release of over 200 prisoners in Israeli jails for the return of the hostages. Lengthy, tortuous negotiations began with German police chiefs.

Coleman, the BBC's senior sports broadcaster, was tasked with handling the story as cameras were trained on the apartment block. It was a tense, slow vigil that would last all day. Very little happened that could be seen or reported. It was, according to many of his contemporaries, Coleman's finest hour.

The events were recalled in a BBC documentary last week to mark the 85th birthday of one of British broadcasting's giants. He didn't contribute to the programme himself. But it did include extracts from an interview he gave in 1996 about that fateful day in 1972. "And I remember," he said, "as studio clocks do, the finger shivering second by second as it ticked round. And it seemed almost, you know, in tune with the moment as we waited for the attack. It didn't happen."

It didn't happen in the Olympic village but it came that night at a local airbase. The terrorists and their hostages were transported in two helicopters to an awaiting plane that was supposed to take them to an Arab country.

German snipers opened fire. One terrorist blew up one helicopter killing the four hostages inside; another raked the other five hostages with machine gun fire in the second helicopter. Seventeen people in total lost their lives.

The IOC president Avery Brundage insisted that the games should go ahead. A memorial service was held in the Olympic stadium the next day. The documentary showed BBC footage from the service: lowered flags, a numbed crowd and the sound of funereal classical music, with Coleman doing the voiceover. "The Olympic Games stand still; the flags in the stadium at half mast; the citizens of Munich, the thousands of competitors and officials, bewildered and appalled."

Never did that famous voice, with its deep timbre and military command, sound so laden with moral force. And it contained too, in its tone, that trademark emotional waver, a sort of gurgle in the throat which he faithfully deployed at every moment of triumph for a British athlete in some foreign field.

Personally I usually found that tone a little too strident for my tastes, freighted with a bit too much of the old Rule Britannia. It was the sound of an Englishman who would have taken a dim view of the swinging sixties.

But he was a master of his profession: in the opinion of many, the best among that post-war generation of outstanding sports broadcasters that included Peter O'Sullevan, Dan Maskell, Bill McLaren, Harry Carpenter, Richie Benaud and John Arlott. As a presenter and commentator he worked on the early Grandstand, Match of the Day and Sportsnight programmes. He commentated at the 1970 and 1974 World Cups. He was the BBC's main commentator at 11 Olympic Games, beginning in Rome in 1960 and finishing in Sydney in 2000.

And he didn't, to quote that old chestnut, suffer fools gladly. In other words, he was a thundering tyrant to work for. "I did get rather terrified of him because he was a very exacting person," said one contributor, an archetypal mild-mannered statistician.

The documentary dug up an ancient audio clip of Coleman ranting during a camera rehearsal for the 1970 World Cup. "Keep your camera still now, bloody chattering all the way through it. And get your bloody finger out! AND LEAVE YOUR CAMERA IN THE SAME POSITION. You've got one bloody zoom on there, you

can cover it. I've never seen such a bloody carnival in my life!"

These weren't the days, explained John Motson, when you could go running to the human resources department if someone in authority was on the warpath. The BBC was a rough environment; every workplace was. And Coleman had a volcanic temper. But he also had formidable standards. "The rants," said his son David, "were for a reason. He wanted what he was (presenting) to be correct. And if it wasn't correct he wouldn't do it. It's as simple as that. Do it properly or don't do it at all."

He was also, said another contributor, a generous colleague. "He was very giving. He wasn't a selfish man at all."

Coleman is one of those old-school professionals who tower over the broadcasting generation that came after. Blank of face, bland by nature, the latter day automatons pretend that his like never existed. Unable to live up to the standard, they ignore it instead.

When he retired 11 years ago, his colleagues wanted to give him a big send-off. He declined the offer. The BBC issued a mealy-mouthed press release and with that, the great man was gone.

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