In the first week I stepped into the BBC building in Glasgow’s Queen Margaret Drive I was told with disdain by one of the patrician figures there that radio would die out in about five years. It was 1962. The televising of sport was in its embryonic state but it was being pursued with a pioneering gusto which lent the impression that radio was in a state of terminal decrepitude, and would gradually be phased out, as gaslights were in the tenement closes of my childhood.
We were in the throes of a transition that made 16 millimetre black and white film seem like a magic carpet that would put us inside households and make Scottish football seem as familiar a part of the décor as that portrait of the greenish-faced Asian girl, dubbed the Mona Lisa of kitsch, which hung above fireplaces. Admittedly, the black and white pictures beamed in were sometimes of such quality that patrons sampling them might have worried that they were visually impaired.
They now evoke for me the era of the silent cinema, although more Mack Sennett than Eisenstein. The frequent breakdowns and the occasional absence of sound at important junctures created a new art form in television: the apology – of which Arthur Montford was the master, coolly applying plaster-cast to many fractured moments. Not so adept at this was Peter Thomson, the presenter of Sportsreel, who was left flummoxed and largely incoherent one night when presenting highlights of Rangers v Kilmarnock, a League Cup semi-final in October 1965 which the Ibrox side won 6-4 (George McLean and Tommy McLean both scoring hat-tricks for either side). Ten goals including two penalties: the stuff that dreams are made of for any programme trying to validate its presence against the hostility of a press that was suspicious of this new kid on the block. Alas, if you watched the programme later that night the result was a titanic 1-1 draw. In a first for television, eight goals had disappeared. Mistakes in processing the film, recurring camera jams at the ground, a commentary position so low-down in the south-east enclosure at Hampden that Jacques Cousteau would have had difficulty filming, and floodlighting so weak it could barely have provided enough candle-power for a romantic supper all contributed to turning a banquet into a snack.
I was blissfully unaware of the debris to be presented to the public for I was actually there, on the commentary platform, and being given no clues as to the ultimate debacle, for if you have ten goals to play with there isn’t much space left for scrutiny of your fellow workers in the camera crew. Before the game had started I had become aware of a young, unshaven and pale-faced assistant cameraman who seemed bizarrely distracted. He was quiet and pensive-looking – and little wonder, given the ambition stored in his head, which lay some way from the privations of trying to cover a football match on film and in poor light. In later years I was to catch up with him on a flight to the US where he was off to make a film in Hollywood. His name: Bill Forsyth, who, long after that night at Hampden, was to go on and write and direct the charming Gregory’s Girl about a football-mad young lady from East Kilbride. After the disasters of that evening, in an affectionate way I couldn’t resist saying to him: “You’ve come on a lot. At least we saw the damned ball in Gregory’s Girl.”
Meanwhile, by contrast, radio seemed a safe-haven: mature, predictable, but dying out as a means of covering football, according to the man who stated that to me, Archie Hendry. He was one of BBC Scotland’s archetypal continuity announcers, a ‘veray gentil parfait knight’ of a man, whose voice and presence typified the early Reithian values of immaculate pronunciation and impeccable dress. He had been seconded into sport to add polish to presentation in both radio and television. It was a misplaced polish. Occasionally he was given the task of introducing an Old Firm game on Sportsreel and with his velvety, hushed tones, made it sound like he was mouthing a benediction from the pulpit. Hype did not exist in the unemotional canon by which BBC announcers practised their trade. This lovely man was the first person I ever spoke to in BBC Sport on the day I arrived for my audition. He was waiting for me in Studio 5.
This is where it began for almost anybody I knew who would go on to broadcast in sport in Scotland. Studio 5 was not only the crucible for radio sports coverage but also a kind of auditioning sieve through which would pass many aspiring broadcasters. Or not, as the case may be. On the way in to be judged, I passed a man just leaving the studio, clutching what clearly was his scripted bid in hand, obviously having just been put through his paces. I was never to see him again. He obviously hadn’t made it, and I’ve often wondered what became of him. Did something like an unintentional spoonerism, or a slip of the tongue, or a nervous cough do for him? Or was he simply not up to it? It was one of those moments when you feel our destiny can sometimes be determined as if on a pinhead.
However, I could well understand a sense of dislocation any initiate would feel going into Studio 5 with its eerie, choking silence; a silence unlike anything I had ever experienced before and with a sense of menace accentuated by the fat brown microphone rising in front of me like a hooded cobra. I recall little of my report on Shettleston Juniors playing in a Scottish Junior Cup tie although I was trying to impress them with my love for the grass-roots of the game, unglamorous in a way, but in those days still a significant feeding ground for senior football. But I do recall I compared one of Shettleston’s midfielders, unfavourably, to Tommy Docherty, a local lad, like myself, whom I had seen make his debut for the ‘Town’ before he was snapped up by Celtic. I suppose it was an attempt at ‘colouring’ a report, with the attendant risk of waxing lyrical about someone who wasn’t actually playing in the game. At the end there was the awful silence again, which now seemed to suggest nothing but ingratitude.
A week later I received a call from Peter Thomson, Head of Sport, who said nothing other than he would like me to go to a game and report on it in the radio sports programme the following Saturday afternoon.
It almost didn’t happen. Nikita Khrushchev threatened to intervene. On that Saturday afternoon in 1962, Khrushchev’s merchant ships were in the Caribbean heading for Cuba with a cargo of nuclear missiles. I was heading for Douglas Park, Hamilton, on a red Lanarkshire bus. The Soviet leader and John F. Kennedy, in rising tension and with threatening words, were promoting an interest in the word Armageddon. That week American kids were being taught pointless lessons on how to hide under their desks at school if the Big One was unleashed. Pat Arrowsmith, the highly vocal CND opponent of nuclear weapons, had taken herself off to Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, in the south-west of Ireland, possibly in the belief that the little people would protect her from any fall-out.
My place of refuge seemed slightly more vulnerable. It was a press seat at the back of the Douglas Park stand, and to take my mind off impending doom Hamilton and Stenhousemuir were battling for two points. If ever a football match was trying hard to convince us that this normality would never perish from the face of the earth, it was then. In a way it mirrored the stalemate that was going on globally over our heads, because it seemed even an ICBM would not penetrate the Stenhousemuir defence. But I would like to think that word got through to the Kremlin that Accies badly needed a home win and in an immense humanitarian gesture Russia withdrew its missile ships to allow the home side to go on and record a narrow 1-0 victory.
The fact is though, I did not see the entire game. To be able to get back and make an appearance in Studio 5 in time, they had provided a taxi for me with about twenty minutes to go. This was the first of many touches of artifice in broadcasting I was to experience, about which the public would know nothing. Somebody had filed a report for those remaining minutes to fill me in. Thank God, nobody had scored a hat-trick in the later stages! And there they were, sitting around the square table, waiting for me; the surface scattered with papers, suggesting disorder, but the voices by contrast disciplined and confident, bristling with an urgency that belied the dullness of the surroundings, and all seeming to carry more weight than I could possibly muster. These were the voices of sports radio I had listened to for years with their resonances accentuated by being so close to me in this confined and sealed-off room. It was like coming across distant relatives you hadn’t previously met. Jameson Clark, the famous character actor, was the only face I recognised. I had just watched him in Disney’s Greyfriars Bobby and here I was nervously waiting my turn to tell of an Accies triumph as he belted out his report. And belt out he did. There never was any great subtlety about his approach to sports reporting, which despite a busy life in acting was actually one of his mainstays as a freelance. It was he who would eventually run into an irate Jock Stein in 1967 on his return from South America, after the farcical events in Montevideo and blasted poor Jameson in a live interview for some of the inaccurate comments made by BBC’s Kenneth Wolstenholme during that infamous game against Racing Club. But being a couthy Ayrshire man he survived that ordeal, although I recall him telling me that facing the big man in a tirade was like standing close to the opening of a blast-furnace at Ravenscraig – as indeed I would later discover for myself.
However, his report that day was jolly and breezy and it actually settled me because I felt I would be, at the very least, a contrast to him. Whether I was or not I can’t recall, but I do remember a kindly smile and a thumb going up across the table from me when I finished. I was taken aback, not by the gesture but by the person himself. For I was finding out, there and then, that the visualisation of the person behind a voice can lead you wildly astray. The thumbs up had come from Andy Cowan Martin.
He was a regular on the programme. A pillar of professional consistency. His sonorous voice carried an almost booming gravitas even when reading the Highland League results, with every vowel and consonant being massaged carefully, especially when he got to Inverness Clachnacuddin which he clearly enjoyed enunciating with the pleasure of a kid licking a lolly. I had always imagined him to be a tall, commanding figure with slightly greying hair who sported a cravat. In fact he was a tiny man with a spinal deformity who had to heave himself into his chair like a Toulouse Lautrec. His sadly misshapen body demonstrated to me the primacy of the voice – and by that I mean the sense of power you felt you could exert as soon as you opened your mouth in front of a microphone. All that he might have suffered physically and socially through his disability was nullified by his presence in Studio 5 where only the voice mattered, and within a programme at that time which commanded the airwaves with no opposition. This tiny man with the compelling voice seemed to impart that sense of empowerment that radio was now offering me and which would lead to an insatiable craving for more.
I was to learn that he was delightful company and a great raconteur, especially when we sat and sluiced down some of the drams he loved. It was in one of those sessions he told me that for a man whose tongue could conquer any report put in front of him, there was one which he would not touch even for extra payment, but would pass it on to someone beside him in the studio, who would then pass it on to someone else as if they were playing pass-the-parcel. This was the report that would come in from a golf tournament in the north. The trophy they were playing for was the Buchan Firkin Cup. Even stone-cold sober these two names posed a risk in front of a mike.
Accepting the wisdom of the time that radio would become less relevant in sports coverage, you could only hope that television was around the corner for those people who started off in that studio. After all Peter Thomson himself presented sport in both mediums. But as in the days of silent cinema, when many failed to adapt to the introduction of sound, few that I knew made the leap easily from radio to television. Some withered in front of our eyes. Thomson, the man who pushed my career on from that first day, sadly was one. With his rich, baritone voice, of magnetic quality, which swayed me into a broadcasting ambition in the first place, he was the office-boy who rose through the ranks to the top of the pile. But he was never at ease in front of a camera. He was a radio man. Reading an autocue seemed to offend his radio upbringing where again only his superb voice mattered.
But he was quick enough to lay down for me a kind of ethical perspective about radio commentating. “You are the game, you and you alone,” I recall him telling me. It was an introduction to a story he told about the English radio commentator Raymond Glendinning, whom he sat beside when they were commentating on Great Britain against the Rest of Europe VE celebration game at Hampden in 1947. Billy Steel, one of the greatest of Scottish inside forwards, scored a goal from 30 yards, reckoned to be one of the most spectacular seen at the ground. As the ball flew into the net Glendinning was waxing lyrical about the atmosphere at the famous stadium. He did not alter his flow of words, finished what he had to say, and only then decided to describe the goal… when the ball was being centred for the restart. He was the game. He could do anything he liked with it.
It was an observation of radio’s power to reset reality. Thomson was indicating that he placed great stress on objectivity and that he cared little for allowing purple passages to get in the way of stating the facts as they presented themselves. He used that extreme example as a kind of puritanical observation, influenced also by the fact that he clearly didn’t possess the kind of verbal dexterity of a Glendinning or indeed the great John Arlott, who commentated on both cricket and football at the time. They could rhapsodise and lift the listener into different realms of imagination. Without being completely in thrall to that kind of artifice, you could hardly ignore it as model of improvisation that was part of the art of radio broadcasting. However, after many years broadcasting from Studio 5, in between television commitments, I now appreciate why so many in the BBC at the time believed that radio’s command over a sports audience would wane significantly.
For the studio then was simply a cocoon. There was no real input from the outside world. That world seemed never to exist. Of course, we knew the audience was there all right, just as we know there are other stars are out there in the great beyond. But utterly remote. Occasionally Disgruntled from Dumfries, say, would write in a letter complaining that Threave Rovers hadn’t been mentioned in the past three months, or someone would remind us of the correct pronunciation of the name Menzies. It was mostly of that nature. There was an occasional accusation of bias but nothing on the scale it would swell to in television. And a direct phone call from some anguished person getting straight into the studio with comments was as improbable as ET trying to ring back home. So in essence there was no interplay with the public. This inevitably led to a feeling of stagnation compared to what was happening down the corridor in television, which despite its occasional crudities was stimulating a new audience.
The cure came dramatically. Radio simply let the public in on the act. That was the means of survival and prosperity. What commercial radio established through phone-ins and the championing of the ‘trannie’, and the use by Radio Clyde of one Jimmy Sanderson to act as the ‘Daniel come to judgement!’, created the template for others to follow. The public now had seats at the table. This democratisation of radio with its flexibility, easy access and immediacy, as well as hand-held gadgetry, Twitter and Facebook, makes a mockery of those predictions of doom when I started out. Radio flourishes in ways we could not have dreamed of then.
Of course Studio 5, where I first heard those forecasts, is now gone. Long before the BBC took off for Pacific Quay, the broadcasting ethos I was nurtured in had long disappeared as well, in keeping with the times. And rightly so. But I still cherish that old ethos, much like an apprentice who will never forget the first time he touched his new tools. I’ve carried them through World Cups and Olympic games with the same sense of diligence I picked up sitting around that table. I am deeply indebted to Studio 5, as I am to that man in the Kremlin who on that fateful first day decided the show must go on.