When Peter Alliss died the other day at the age of 89, it was said that his death marked the end of a golden era in sports broadcasting. The sad truth is that that era ended some years ago.
If I had to put a date on it, I would say 1998 (even if some of the practitioners lingered on after that date) because that was the year when the BBC ended Cliff Morgan’s hugely popular Saturday morning sports programme. Some young producers decided that Cliff’s love of the romance and nostalgia of sport was out of date and that to the young generation sport was about money, celebrity and statistics. From then on presenters had to fit a new, less romantic, mould.
Allis was known as “the voice of golf,” just as Dan Maskell was known as “the voice of tennis,” Bill McLaren as “the voice of rugby,” John Arlott as “the voice of cricket” and Sir Peter O’Sullivan as “the voice of racing.”
One might also describe Murray Walker (still with us at the age of 97) as “the voice of motor sport,” David Coleman as “the voice of athletics” and Harry Carpenter as “the voice of boxing.”
Other names that deserve to be mentioned in that golden context are football commentators Desmond Lynam and Dickie Davies, both of them still around at the ages of 78 and 87, and Max Robertson, known as “the fastest voice on radio” when he covered tennis.
I got to know Max quite well in his later years. He had a colourful life, born in India, prospected for gold in New Guinea, married for 35 years to Elizabeth Beresford, creator of “the Wombles of Wimbledon,” a published poet, the first presenter of TV’s Panorama and Going for a Song – and the distinction he never stopped talking about: that he once stumped a batsman off the bowling of Ray Lindwall (admittedly, when the great Australian fast bowler had slowed down a bit after retirement). He took me to Wimbledon and I took him to Lord’s.
I also knew O’Sullivan, an old-fashioned gentleman with the most punctilious of manners. I still have a beautifully written postcard from him thanking me for a lunch. He once tipped me a Derby winner as a thank-you for inviting him as my guest to a sporting dinner.
I interviewed Allis on television and couldn’t stop him talking – not that I wanted to, since his conversation was always entertaining. He was evidently given his first broadcasting assignment when a BBC producer overheard him talking on a bus. I also had the pleasure of meeting Benaud, Lynam and Davies and got to know Morgan quite well, sharing a platform with him once at the annual meeting of the Headmasters’ Conference. When we got bored with the other speeches, we slipped out for a drink, feeling like naughty schoolboys.
The one I would most like to have met was McLaren. His gift for words was amazing. A friend in TV sport who knew him when he first joined the BBC said it never occurred to him to ask for his expenses to be paid, even though they included rail travel from Scotland, a hotel in London and various meals. He was so in love with the job that he had never bothered to ask.
These broadcasting greats lived to a good age, three of them – Robertson, O’Sullivan and Walker into their 90s. Some, such as Benaud. Morgan and Alliss, had played their sports to an international level - McLaren would have joined them if he hadn’t fallen victim to TB when he was about to get his first cap for Scotland. Maskell won the British professional tennis championship 15 times and coached the winning British Davis Cup team in 1933. He also coached members of the Royal Family.
What they all had in common were wonderful voices and a passion for the sports they described. Above all, they could communicate that passion to fans, who loved and respected them for it.
Japanese No drama
When my wife and I had a weekend in Palma recently to celebrate her birthday, a friend strongly recommended the Izakaya Japanese restaurant in Sant Catalina for the quality of its food. So we booked a table online. When we got there, however, at the designated time of 8.30pm, they claimed to know nothing about our booking and the place was packed. We were ignored until my wife finally convinced them that we had booked by showing them the confirmation on her mobile.
After another delay, a man who may have been the manager appeared and pointed to a table for two right by the door, which other diners had wisely refused. We refused it too – it was so close to the door that one would have been disturbed and chilled – it was the night of the big storm - every time it opened. He said it was the only table available – in other words, take it or leave it, and his manner suggested that he didn’t really care either way.
We pointed out that were two empty tables. “But they are for four people,” he said. We pointed out that he had an obligation to seat us, since they had accepted our booking at a specific time. But no: they would rather wait for an unbooked party of four, who might not even turn up, than accommodate a couple who had booked. I even told them it was for my wife’s birthday.
So we were effectively kicked out into the street, shortly before the rain came down in sheets to drown us. With great difficulty, we found somewhere else to eat, but we were so cross that this special e evening had been spoilt.
We sent them a message afterwards, but got no reply. I’m sure the food is as good as people say it is and we would have enjoyed the opportunity to try it. What we do know – and I pass it on here as a warning to others - is that their customer relations are lousy.
Eddie’s muscle fixation
Last week I mentioned that I was missing two England rugby internationals for the first time in about 40 years because I don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime. To judge by the press reports, I didn’t miss much in either the match against Wales or the final of the Nations Cup against a youthful and massively depleted French team.
England won both by attritional means and – in the case of the French game, by several strokes of luck, assisted by a friendly referee. They used their frequent possession to kick the ball.
Eddie Jones seems to have been so fixated by the way his men were flattened by South Africa in the final of the Rugby World Cup that his strategy seems to be to beat up the opposition with muscle rather than outwit them by style or pace. This doesn’t augur well for the Six Nations early next year.