They think it’s all over

The death of ‘the voice of rugby’ Bill McLaren has prompted too much nostalgia for an era that never was.

Patrick West
Columnist

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By their very nature, obituaries are retrospective, being narratives not only of the lives of the recently deceased, but of the times in which they lived.

For this reason, their tone can actually often be upbeat. Read any obituary today of a key player in ‘the Troubles’, or a leading politician from the 1970s, and you will appreciate just how wretched a place Northern Ireland was not so long ago, or what a basket-case Britain was in the Heath-Wilson-Callaghan years. Conversely, and this is normally the case, obituaries can be opportunities to luxuriate in nostalgia. This is especially true when someone connected to sport vacates this world.

The passing this week of the rugby TV commentator Bill McLaren provided the cue for the lyrical rhapsodies that sporting deaths customarily evoke. ‘It was said that Bill McLaren, who has died aged 86, was the voice of rugby. Of course, it was never said quite like he would have said it himself, in his honeyed, Borders burr, tinged with the impishness that suggested that none of this was to be taken too seriously’, recorded the Guardian. ‘In truth, he was much more than rugby’s voice, more its full-blown orchestra, devoted to the works of the Romantic movement, and only the Romantic.’

Elsewhere, a leader in The Times (London) concluded: ‘Audiences tuned in to televised rugby union matches as much to listen to Bill McLaren’s commentaries as they did to watch the game itself. It was not just that, like any good critic, he alerted you to hidden plots and sub-texts. It was that, through the poetry of his commentary, he rendered a muddy, brutish game, played by men the size of small trucks, a thing of beauty and grace.’ The Daily Telegraph lamented likewise: ‘In an era when sport has become professionalised at almost every level, Bill McLaren’s name is a happy reminder of the amateur heyday of rugby union, with which he will be forever associated.’

‘Jumpers For Goalposts’ might as well be McLaren’s epitaph (were he a soccer commentator) and the recurrent theme in many articles is that his television sports commentary was a barometer of a different, better and more Corinthian epoch. But is it fair to judge a time and a culture by the character of its television sports commentators?

There has certainly been a temptation to do so in terms of culture. Everyone thought it highly amusing in the 1980s when clips were shown of football games from South America, in which the helmsman reacted to goals not with a poetic flourish or pleasing simile, but with a deep breath followed by ‘GOOOOOOOAAAAAL!’. John Motson has said he disapproved of this style, and in Britain we all agreed this kind of technique was symptomatic of an excitable and childish Latin temperament. We sanguine Brits would never go in for this kind of thing, because, if we did, we’d probably start having endless revolutions and moustacheoid dictators called ‘El Presidente’.

Then there were North American sports commentators, who came in pairs, and were always called Brad and Todd. Their forced smiles and false bonhomie was deemed to mirror the essential vacuousness and insincerity of a culture that was unduly influenced by showbiz, one in which a glitzy surface betrayed a lack of depth and substance. This kind of perception persists, as can be witnessed in the section ‘Boston Goals’ from BSkyB’s Soccer AM show, which features two fictitious, unctuous American sports commentators failing to grasp the basics of football. The underlying assumption in the sketch is that Americans are shallow, shouty and stupid.

But aren’t our commentators just as bad now? Hasn’t Jonathan Pierce raised the decibel levels at the expense of measured insight? Is not Andy Gray just as guilty of hyperbole and overstatement? Well, yes. And this is precisely why Bill McLaren has been mourned in the way he has, as his style is deemed to epitomise a more genteel Britain now vanished.

British sports commentary arguably did get louder and more sensational in the 1990s. This partly owes to BSkyB, which bought the rights to live coverage of top flight English football in 1992. Not only did it borrow the Bloomberg-style multiple screen with basement scroll-bar format and apply it to Sky Sports News, it also adopted the US-style dual commentator approach – in which someone sensible like Richard Keys played the straight man, complemented by Andy Gray, who intervened during action-replays to roar exaggeratedly about ‘that spectacular/diabolical effort’. The perception that TV sports commentary was getting all a bit silly was illustrated by a sketch in the 1994 satire The Day Today, featuring a fictional news programme’s sports commentator, a young Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan), reacting noisily to goals with bizarre and nonsensical analogies.

Yet it is important to keep in mind that as a sports pundit Alan Partridge was clearly inspired by David Coleman, the real-life commentator with a similar penchant for v-neck jumpers and verbal confusion. Coleman began working at the BBC in 1954 and is a contemporary of Stuart Hall, who remains a football pundit on BBC Radio Five Live, where his loquacious rhetoric and penchant for tortured similes remains undiminished. Everyone remembers Kenneth Wolstenholme’s closing commentary in the 1966 World Cup final, but no one remembers the words of his rival on ITV, Hugh Johns – ‘Here’s Hurst. He might make it three. He has! He has! So that’s it. That is it!’ – because they weren’t as punchy or emphatic.

This seems to suggest times haven’t changed much. McLaren was written about as if he was TV sports’ answer to John Betjeman. There’s no doubting the appeal of McLaren’s mellifluous timbre or his evident warmth and charm, but he was responsible for helping to promote the modern malaise of inane analogies – ‘the Scottish centres, bobbing up and down like demented prairie dogs’ – and perpetuating such awful cliches as ‘they’ll be dancing in the streets of [insert town/capital city here] tonight’, a saying that has proved so treacherous for English commentators who don’t realise that a lot of Scottish football teams are not named after the towns they play in. If McLaren was a poet, he wasn’t a very good one.

The nostalgia stemming from McLaren’s departure is misplaced in further respects. Rugby has always been a dirty game with its fair share of cheats, and the myth of a ‘sport for thugs played by gentleman’ is largely the creation of class snobbery snidely directed at those who play and watch soccer. You cannot blame professionalism for the recent spate of controversies in rugby union, nor the fact that before it went professional in 1995 the sport was dying a slow death. Played by amateurs and certainly run on an amateurish basis, it was haemorrhaging all its finest talent to rugby league.

And the civil, cultured world of sport that McLaren is adjudged to have epitomised has not departed us. I caught some radio coverage recently of a test cricket game, and the commentators were still leisurely rambling on about the weather, what they were eating, buses going by, pigeons on the pitch. You would have heard a similar dialogue 30 years ago.

Nostalgia is understandable when talking of recently deceased TV sports personalities. Sport is essentially a childish activity, and when you think of rugby or football, it is bound to conjure up memories of the first game you went to with your dad, or playing for your school team, or, indeed, when you used jumpers for goalposts in the park. But sometimes a death does not signify the ‘end of an era’ at all; just, sadly, the end of a lifetime.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

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