Murray Walker (Photo by Darren Heath/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Murray Walker and the end of Golden Age sports commentators

Murray Walker was the last of the great sports commentators who brought us unforgettable sporting moments and catchphrases which delighted a generation

The recent deaths of Murray Walker and Peter Alliss mark the end of a golden age of sports commentators. In the last ten years we have seen the deaths of a remarkable generation including Bill McLaren, Harry Carpenter, David Coleman, Peter O’Sullevan, Richie Benaud, Walker and Alliss and the retirement of Barry Davies and Henry Blofeld.

Their voices were so familiar and their catchphrases delighted a generation. Between them they created audiences for sports which had a brief and strange heyday on British TV during the Sixties and Seventies including show jumping, Saturday afternoon wrestling, ice skating and ski-jumping. A younger generation brought up on Sky and BT Sport would find the huge TV audiences for some of these sports completely baffling.

It wasn’t just the size of the audiences. It was also the huge popularity of these commentators. Who could forget the affection at John Arlott’s last test match, the Centenary Test between England and Australia at Lord’s? He concluded with, “Nine runs off the over – 28 Boycott, 15 Gower, 69 for 2 – and after Trevor Bailey it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins.” Or Henry Blofeld’s farewell lap of honour, also at Lord’s, as fans stood and applauded? When Brian Johnston died, a memorial service was held in a packed Westminster Abbey on 16 May 1994 with over 2,000 people present.

Others slipped away quietly. After many years of covering Wimbledon, Barry Davies’s last tennis commentary for the BBC was on 15 July 2018 when he covered the Mixed Doubles Final between Jamie Murray and Victoria Azarenka who were beaten by Alexander Peya and Nicole Melichar. Most people can remember Kenneth Wolstenholme’s immortal words from the 1966 World Cup Final, “They think it’s all over. It is now!” but who can remember his last commentary for Match of the Day or Tyne Tees TV?

Through all these years the commentators brought us unforgettable sporting moments

What explains their peculiar hold on the popular British imagination for so many years? How did they become household names? First there was the longevity of their careers. John Arlott was a commentator on the BBC from 1946-80. He covered every single home test match. Brian Johnston also began as a cricket commentator in 1946, at the England v India test match at Lord’s, and continued for almost half a century. Barry Davies covered hockey for the BBC for forty-one years, Dan Maskell covered Wimbledon on television for forty years and Kent Walton covered wrestling for ITV, first on Wednesday nights for ten years then for The World of Sport on Saturday afternoons from 1965-88. Peter O’Sullevan retired soon after his fiftieth and last Grand National. Murray Walker outdid them all. His first public broadcast on the BBC was in 1948. His last Grand Prix in 2001, fifty-three years later.

It wasn’t just the number of years; it was the particular period they represented, the great age of sport broadcasting. New sports programmes appeared: Test Match Special (1957), Grandstand (1958), Match of the Day (1964) and ITV’s World of Sport (1965) and Sportsnight (1968). Of these only the first two have survived from the Fifties and Sixties. The BBC and ITV seemed to have the radio and TV rights to everything, from major sports like football and cricket to show jumping and wrestling. There was so much time to fill, especially on Saturday afternoons, so producers had to dig deep before at last it was time for the teleprinter.

And there was new technology. It’s no coincidence that this heyday coincided with the arrival of colour TV in the Summer of 1967, just in time for Wimbledon and satellites brought the 1968 Mexico Olympics (David Hemery, Bob Beamon and “the Fosbury Flop”), the 1970 World Cup from Mexico (“Pele!”) and the first Ali-Frazier fight from Madison Square Garden in 1971 (before promoters like Don King moved it to Las Vegas).

Through all these years the commentators brought us unforgettable sporting moments. David Coleman’s first television appearance was on Sportsview, on the day that Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile and he was there when the greatest ever Brazilian side won the 1970 World Cup. He covered eleven Summer Olympic Games from 1960 to 2000 and six World Cups from 1962 to 1982. Richie Benaud was there when Botham and Willis won the Headingley Test in 1981 and saw Shane Warne’s “Ball of the Century”. Harry Carpenter brought us “the Rumble in the Jungle” and “the Thriller in Manila” in 1975, the third and final bout between Ali and Frazier.

These were great moments of British post-war life

Peter O’Sullevan commentated on the three-times winner Red Rum in 1973, 1974 and 1977 and twenty years later on the 1993 Grand National, which was declared void after 30 of the 39 runners failed to realise there had been a false start, and seven went on to complete the course. As the runners approached the second-last fence in the so-called “race that never was”, O’Sullevan declared it, “the greatest disaster in the history of the Grand National”. Kenneth Wolstenholme commentated on the 1960 European Cup Final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park, widely regarded as one of the greatest football matches ever played, the 1966 World Cup Final, Busby’s Manchester United finally winning the European Cup in 1968, with Best and Charlton (but now Law) and in 1971 his last FA Cup Final was when Arsenal won the Double.

These were great moments of British post-war life. But these commentators were just as good immortalising pantomime villains like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, or covering moments of tragedy like the murder of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics or historic moments such as when Tommy Smith and John Carlos made the Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics.

Perhaps, above all, there was also the range of voices, backgrounds and personal style. Eddie Waring from Dewsbury, Bill McLaren from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, Peter O’Sullevan from County Down and Kent Walton’s mid-Atlantic twang, Brendan Foster and Steve Cram from the North-East. Then there were the posh English voices of “Johnners” (Eton and a gentleman’s Third at New College), “Blowers” (Eton and King’s, Cambridge, where he failed his Finals “by an innings”) and Dan Maskell (“Oooh, I say”). These spoke in the tones of a long-vanished England. Dan Maskell, Brian Johnston and John Arlott were born before the First World War; Kenneth Wolstenholme, Murray Walker and Harry Carpenter in the 1920s. As a schoolboy Arlott saw Hobbs win the Ashes at the Oval in 1926, Maskell was coach of the winning British Davis Cup team of 1933 and Brian Johnston landed at Normandy in 1944. Murray Walker was an advertising executive, Kent Walton produced porn movies and Bill McLaren served at Monte Cassino.

They all had their unmistakable catch phrases. In the 1970s Dan Maskell still spoke fondly of “the great Drobny”, who had last won Wimbledon in 1954. There was Blofeld’s “My dear old thing”, Eddie Waring’s “It’s an ooop and under” and “He’s goin’ for an early bath”. Harry Carpenter often conducted post-match interviews with Bruno, whose catchphrase was “know what I mean, ‘Arry?” Motty never managed a catchphrase but he did have his famous sheepskin jacket.

And there were great turns of phrase. When Manchester United won the 1977 FA Cup and their captain Martin Buchan went to receive the trophy, John Motson said, “How fitting that a man called Buchan should be the first to climb the 39 steps”. On England’s 1948–9 tour to South Africa, the England captain George Mann was bowled by his namesake Tufty Mann. Arlott memorably described it as “a case of Mann’s inhumanity to Mann”. Harry Carpenter said of Ken Norton, “he has muscles in places where most boxers don’t have places.”

Unlike today’s corporate grey men (and women), they were true eccentrics, brought to life by impressionists like Mike Yarwood and TV critics like Clive James. James could write about Brecht or Isaiah Berlin, but he was perhaps at his best immortalising Harry Carpenter (“Wmbldn”) and Frank Bough, Alan Weeks and David Vine. Better than anyone James caught that moment: the huge popularity of sport on TV in the 1970s and the banality of so much of the coverage.

Murray Walker’s style was once famously described as shouting like a man with his trousers on fire

Some of the commentators were natural comedians. Brian Johnston created a comic world all of his own: “the bearded wonder”, all those cakes, “the bowler’s Holding, the batsman’s Willey”. Blowers was always fascinated by construction cranes, buses or spectators in fancy dress on a test match Saturday as well as his favourite, pigeons and David Coleman is in the OED with “Colemanballs”, all those slips which delighted readers of Private Eye (“We estimate, and this isn’t an estimation, that Greta Waltz is 80 seconds behind,” “He is accelerating all the time. The last lap was run in 64 seconds and the one before in 62.”)

Arlott was more of a poet. He once described a shot by the great West Indian batsman Clive Lloyd as “the stroke of a man knocking a thistle top off with a walking stick.” Murray Walker’s style was once famously described as shouting like a man with his trousers on fire. But there were very moving moments too like when Damon Hill won the F1 championship and Walker had a lump in his throat, remembering Hill’s late father, Graham, and what this would have meant to him.

Slowly but surely this great era came to an end. Sports rights went to cable and satellite TV. The eccentrics and characters left and a duller generation took over. No more catchphrases, no more impersonations. Will crowds at Lord’s give Simon Mann or Charles Dagnall a standing ovation or will TV execs name a comedy show after a phrase by Guy Mowbray (and he’s my favourite of the current crop) as they did with “They Think It’s All Over”. Murray Walker and Peter Alliss are the end of an extraordinary generation. The affection of the tributes was unmistakable. We will never see their like again.

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