Sunday, 6 September 2015

Radio Lives - John Arlott

He was the voice of cricket. In that post-war period when the BBC had a monopoly on sports coverage it was John Arlott's commentary that welcomed in the summer.  When in 1957 radio's Test Match Special began - "don't miss a ball, we broadcast them all" - Arlott and fellow commentator Rex Alston were there to bring the action. John would cover all the domestic Test games until his retirement some twenty-three years later. His last cricket commentary was exactly thirty-five years ago today.   

John Arlott was born and raised in Basingstoke, Hampshire, as evident by that famous Hampshire burr. He had a passion for reading and devoured any material he could lay his hands on: Jules Verne, Dickens, Scott, The Strand. A Double Scholarship to Basingstoke Grammar saw him enjoy mixed fortunes academically and on the sports field- he enjoyed playing both football and cricket. Even during his school years his future career seemed to be mapped out. He took part in school debates and on one occasion spoke about 'the development of cricket from its original games' and gave 'interesting accounts of old cricket matches'. He'd also fill an exercise book with analysis of the scores for Glamorgan, a team he'd chosen as the Cinderella club in the County Championship and underdogs in all their matches.     

John's enquiring mind was not viewed sympathetically by his teachers who saw him 'beyond the pale' and, by his own admission, he was "a bit of a rebel".  His radical views would later see him challenging the political orthodoxies of both the right and the left in his regular appearances on Any Questions?     

His first paid job was in the Town Planning Office at Basingstoke Borough Council and then shortly afterwards as a diet clerk at the Park Prewett Mental Hospital. The attraction of the job was more that the hospital fielded a good cricket side rather than the delights of assessing and ordering provisions.

It was a similar consideration that informed his next career move to join the constabulary in Southampton - a place not too far away from a first class game and where there was a good side within the force. 

There's one amusing incident that Arlott, PC94, became involved in that perhaps presages the famous 1975 'freaker' commentary. Apparently a notorious Southampton flasher would ride his bike past rows of house drawing attention to himself  whilst rattling a walking stick across the fences or iron railings and at the same time shining a torch on 'himself'. One winter's evening Arlott and a fellow copper gave chase to him on their bikes, the pursuit came to an ungainly halt when the bikes and their riders parted company after hitting a tram that had screeched to a stop. Afterwards when John went round to see the youth's mother she remarked: "There's many a woman down the street who would give her right arm for what Billy's got".        

His work in the police force helped John develop his skills of observation, skills that would later infuse his commentary and his sports writing, It was also at this time that he developed his love a poetry, both reading it and writing it; his own verse enabling him to voice some of the horrors he witnessed in the war-torn city.

Illustration by Peter Brookes

In 1942 John published his first book, an anthology of topographical verse titled Landmarks. It also included some of his own work such as Cricket at Worcester, 1938. 'Dozing in the deck-chair's gentle curve/ Through half-closed eyes I watched the cricket/Knowing the sporting press would say/ Perks bowled well on a perfect wicket.'  He continued to contribute verse to periodicals and in 1944 an anthology of his own poetry was published by Jonathan Cape, Of Period and Place.     

The poet policeman became the broadcasting policeman in 1944 when BBC producer, and former literary editor, Geoffrey Grigson heard of Arlott via John Betjeman. His first talk, on cricket naturally enough, aired under the title An Enthusiast on his Enthusiasm on the Home Service on 23 October 1944. This was sufficiently well received, and for the next couple of years - with the kind understanding of his police superiors - the BBC offered him further talks plus poetry readings and acting performances on both the domestic and overseas services.  In an internal memo Grigson noted: "Arlott's a slowish speaker with a fairly rich Hampshire voice. He takes production very well, and can be bullied with discretion into style and vigour."   

By now John had been attached to the Police Training School, initially in Southampton and then seconded to London, handy for all those broadcasts. He has chosen to represent the police in the broadcast of a Tribute to the King on VE Day. Shortly after he handed in his resignation to join the staff of the BBC as Assistant (English Programmes) Eastern Services at the Overseas Services HQ on Oxford Street.

For the next four and a half years John's production work at the BBC mostly consisted of Book of Verse, a series about poetry featuring poets and writers such as Cecil Day-Lewis, P.H. Newby, Laurence Whistler, Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas. John made about forty programmes with Dylan Thomas, about whom he observed: "He was an essentially simple person. He liked cricket, Rugby football and beer, jokes, idleness and other men's poetry."

Book of Verse was not only heard on the Eastern Services but enjoyed repeats on the Pacific and North American services and, for a while, was heard in the UK on the Light Programme. The readers included Valentine Dyall, David Jacobs, Robin Holmes, Laidman Brown, Carleton Hobbs and Marjorie Westbury.

John' move into cricket commentary came about, as these things often do, in a casual manner. In 1946 the Director of Eastern Services, Donald Stephenson, wanted to cover some of the matches of the Indian Test tour and asked John if he'd ever done a cricket broadcast.  He replied in the affirmative, referring a talk he'd given on the Home Service called The Hampshire Giants, even though he'd not done any actual commentating.  Arlott passed with flying colours. He soon developed a style of observation suffused with the poetic, allowing him to describe the players and the action in his own inimitable style. Years later, for instance , he would describe a bowler's crab-like delivery was "like Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress" and an umpire signalling a bye "with the air of a weary stork". He described his own technique thus: "I talk about what I see. A lot of commentators tend to talk about what they are thinking rather than what they are watching."

As well as providing brief pieces of cricket commentary - this was before the days of ball-by-ball coverage - for Overseas listeners, he also broadcast to home listeners on the Light Programme; his first commentary billing in the Radio Times for the match between Glamorgan and India is on 3 August 1946.  

By now John was combining cricket commentary, and from 1947, football commentary, presenting and producing for the Overseas Service, writing books about cricket and a sports column for the Evening News. He gave up his poetry programmes in 1951 to briefly join the Corporation's Staff Training Unit and in March 1953 left the staff to go freelance.

Those football commentaries are often overlooked. When Sports Report first aired in January 1948, John Arlott was there to report: "The game between Portsmouth and Huddersfield was a magnificent one to watch because both forward lines kept up on the attack and the wing-halves of each side gave them all the support they could possibly want, bringing the ball to them along the ground..." He continued to cover football until the late 50s but his style didn't necessarily suit the game. "His delivery was flat and monotonous. He seemed to concentrate very much on the players rather than the teams for which they were playing, so that if one joined the programme late, it would be difficult to distinguish which way the ball was going."  

TMS 23 June 1962
Much is made of Arlott's cricket commentary style, even though a lot of the available archive material doesn't adequately represent it. Often the longueurs of the game provide as much delight as the moments of action and high drama. It's difficult to describe so I'll leave it to Norman Herd who wrote this précis in the weekly magazine Spotlight:
His sentences are put together with a delightful smoothness and a spontaneous obedience to grammatical laws. He sees in pictures. He sees every player freshly and introduces him afresh at every appearance, no matter how much he may have done so previously... His imagery is remarkably consistent. Watkins, he tells us, is squatting 'rabbit-like' on his heels. Later on, Watkins 'scurries' across. Compton is once again walking and 'doctoring' this almost 'incurable' wicket.

This is John providing the commentary, alongside Ralph Richardson, in this somewhat over-romanticised look at the game for a British Council film released in 1950:

John's broadcasts weren't entirely devoted to sport and when Any Questions? started on the West of England Home Service on 12 October 1948 he was on the panel alongside novelist Naomi Royde-Smith, journalist for The Economist Honor Croome and Chief Education Officer for Dorset (later he'd chair My Word) Jack Longland. Arlott was an out-spoken, passionate and witty contributor to the programme though he nearly created a diplomatic incident when, in 1950, he opined that "the existing government in South Africa is predominantly a Nazi one".  He was dropped for a while but continued to appear fairly regularly until the early 1970s. 

Here are some audio memories of John Arlott as recalled on Radio 5 Live's Voices of Summer that first aired on 30 May 2013. With Mark Pougatch are Jonathan Agnew , Vic Marks, Bob Harris and David Rayvern-Allen.

Guilty Party broadcast on the Light Programme 21 August 1962.
This particular edition, along with a few others, can be heard on at least
one Old Time Radio website.
As well as numerous books and essays on cricket, and other sports, John wrote about his beloved Hampshire countryside and about wine - he had a well-stocked cellar at his final home on Alderney. He wrote for many national papers including the News Chronicle, the Observer, the Guardian, the Times and the Daily Mail. He also, naturally, wrote for Wisden.   All this was in addition to his radio and TV commentary work -he'd started to cover TV matches from the mid-50s. Such was his fame beyond the world of cricket that he had plenty of other job offers too from advertising St Bruno tobacco and cheddar cheese to appearing on panel games such as Guilty Party. This programme - on the Home Service and then the Light Programme between 1954 and 1962 - featured John on the panel trying to guess to outcome of an acted out crime and then identify 'the guilty party'. One can only assume his police training came in useful for this role. The format was revived in the 1990s as Foul Play.  

By 1979 John had made up his mind that the following season would be his last. Not only was he tired of meeting all his broadcasting and writing deadlines but his bronchitis was causing him trouble. "My wheezy chest, which does sometimes sound like a pair of bagpipes full of dust." In this interview with fellow commentator Brian Johnston he recalls his career. This was first heard on the Radio 4 special 100 Years of Australia-34 Years of Arlott

His final Test Match appearance was on 2 September 1980 for the Centenary Test against Australia. There was no on-air farewell, no acknowledgment that 34 years of Test Match commentary was at an end. Perhaps he feared he would have choke on his words.   

Radio Times billing for John's final
commentary match 
A number of references to Arlott's final Test Match commentary make the assumption that it was his last ever radio commentary. It wasn't. That followed some four days later when Radio 3 medium wave covered the Gillette Cup Final of Surrey vs Middlesex at Lords. I was reminded of this last year when Charlie Cooke contacted me to kindly offer me his recording of part of that commentary. With him in the commentary box is Fred Trueman and 'The Bearded Wonder' Bill Frindall. You'll also hear Brian Johnston, Trevor Bailey and Radio 3 announcer John Holmstrom. Here's John in action. Listen out for a comment about chanting from the Tavern "born on the wings of ale".

The recording doesn't include John's sign-off but this was related by Henry Blofeld in his Times obituary for John: 
"It was a rare and unforgettable privilege to have had the luck to share a microphone with Arlott in the last seven years of his commentating career. On a Saturday evening in early September 1980, towards the end of the Gillette Cup final, Arlott said simply, 'And after a word from Trevor Bailey, it will be Henry Blofeld.' 
He got up from his seat and pushed back his chair; he stood aside while I sat down and then moved quietly to the back of the commentary-box, where he opened the door and walked slowly out of cricket commentary for ever. As likely as not he went in search of a glass of his beloved claret."

In fact even that match wasn't John's final radio commentary. Not if you count his appearance on Noel Edmond's Radio 1 show on 7 September covering the game featuring Princess Margaret's XI versus President Carter's XI.

John lived out his retirement on Alderney, still writing on cricket, and wine, and making occasional radio and TV broadcasts. But his health was failing and on 14 December 1991 he passed away. The voice of cricket fell silent.  

John Arlott

This post only touches on John Arlott''s life and career. There are a number of books by and about John but the above quotes come from Arlott: The Authorised Biography by David Rayvern Allen (Harper Collins, 1994).
With thanks to Charlie Cooke.


Robin Carmody said...

Yes, it's always seemed odd to me to imagine him commentating on football, considering the pace of that game even then, and perhaps also symbolic (see also Bryon Butler) that he was considered acceptable when commentators with the accents of football's heartlands wouldn't have been (although the present reverse situation hasn't made things any better, at least not from my perspective).

He did actually continue as a football commentator a bit longer than you say, though - the last actual commentary I can find on Genome was in March 1963, and I think he stayed on for a while after that as a radio reporter (and definitely as a newspaper reporter). He didn't do all that many overseas cricket tours, and famously (as you hint) was refused entry to South Africa when England toured there - I'd guess in the early 1950s - because he refused to identify himself as part of a race other than "human".

Robin Carmody said...

Ah yes, on Genome for 18th December 1948: "John Arlott talks about our team in South Africa". I wonder if that's when he wasn't allowed in.

Jessopus said...

Tour to Sth Africa - I thought he did cover that tour, but that the border/customs staff were taken aback when he wrote "human" in answer to what race !
Anyway, I have many happy memories of night-time listening here in Australia to cricket coverage including Arlott's words. Not only Ashes either - think it was 9740 on shortwave where we could for many years hear the Test commentaries from England. One of my favourites is Saturday (?) of the 1978 Lord's Test vs New Zealand. One of the slowest days in Test history, in England anyway. Botham tied down for a while by Stephen Boock, then released the pressure momentarily by thumping a four. Not verbatim but I can still hear Arlott with raised tone at the end say something like "Boock runs in and bowls to Botham….(crack of bat on ball through effects microphone) ..hmmph…I wondered how long he could stand it !!"

Peter Hoare said...

During that last Gillette Cup final commentary Arlott described the tall, bald South African fast bowler Vintcent van der Bijl as "coming into bowl like a younger version of Lord Longford, only not as benevolent". He retired at the top of his game.

He gave up football reporting out of disillusion with the game in general and hooliganism in particular. Two hooligans attacked him on a train but came off worse as they had not anticipated that his briefcase would have a bottle of claret in it, or that Arlott, as a former policeman, could wield it like a truncheon.

When Arlott retired the player and broadcaster Peter Walker said that listening to and reading Arlott had given him as much pleasure as watching any individual player. He spoke for me.

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