Monday, July 30, 2007

Talking the Talk

Now here's a confession. I prefer James 'stop the cock' Allen to Murray Walker. Not that I'm a big fan - I find his strange orgasmic outbursts at the merest hint of a British winner as teeth-grindingly awful as the next man. The thing is, I always found dear old Murray colossally irritating.

It wasn't the Murrayisms. At least, it wasn't just the Murrayisms. No, more than anything else, it was his breathless overexcitability. Like listening to a particularly hyperactive spaniel that had somehow picked up a basic command of the English language, I always found it a rather wearing distraction when watching a Grand Prix. It didn't help, either, that I was never convinced that Murray ever had a particularly deep understanding of the sport. He always relied very heavily on his expert co-commentators, James Hunt and Martin Brundle. In the lean years when he was paired with the tedious Dr Jonathan Palmer, the results were almost excruciatingly bad. Anyone who has read his bland biography would surely be forced to come the same conclusion

I'm afraid I also blame Murray Walker for James Allen. You see, the problem is that Murray has popularised the idea that motorsports commentary has to be done in a mood of breathless hysteria. It wasn't always this way, as anyone who ever heard Murray's predecessor, Raymond Baxter, would know. It was all very well for Murray - he was a showman, and there was a certain sincerity to his screams of "Just. Look. At. That. Sen...Sational" but sadly it now seems to be something which James Allen feels he has to imitate. And it just isn't him. It sounds forced, and frankly embarrassing. Its unfortunate, and rather odd, because this delusion has not afflicted other sports commentary. Listen to a cricket match on the radio, or watch a tennis final or, if you are a real masochist, watch a major golf tournament. In these sports, the commentators do not treat you like children who need to be told when something exciting is happening. You are left to figure it out for yourself (though as nothing exciting ever does happen in golf, some might say that they have it easier).

To be fair, though, doing commentary well is, I suspect, harder than writing well. The writer has the luxury of time for contemplation, can delete an incoherent sentence before committing to print, can check the facts before hitting the keyboard (although these are options which I all too often fail to take advantage of). The commentator has to get it right first time. And, of course, he's not going to. Nigel Roebuck, whom I really rather like as a writer (at least so long as he keeps off the subject of British politics), tried race commentary once, and concluded that he simply wasn't cut out for it. I wouldn't be surprised if Mark Hughes (the non-speaking part in the current ITV line-up) is content to stay out of the limelight for much the same reason. The ability to write does not translate into the ability to commentate.

The odd thing is, two of my favourite commentators started out as journalists. The first, Martin Haven, spent much of the early 1990s writing about sports car racing for Autosport. He's now to be found on Eurosport, presenting their WTCC and GP2 coverage. He's not everybody's cup of tea, and he is probably as prone to Murrayisms as the man himself, but his laid back, friendly and genuinely informed and enthusiastic commentaries are a part of what makes GP2 racing such compelling viewing (it helps that, unlike Mr Walker, he has always made something of a running joke of his tendency for unforced commentary errors. )

The other is Jeremy Shaw, another ex-Autosport man who has been following the sport since before I was born (if his references to cold autumn days spent watching Formula Ford at Brands Hatch in the 1970s are anything to go by). He is now to be found presenting the international feed for the Champ Car World Series (the natives, I understand have to tolerate the awful Wally Dallenbach Jr). His enthusiasm is every bit as evident as Murray Walker's (I'll say a lot against Murray, but I've never doubted his fundamental love of the sport) but his presentational style is that bit more moderated, and consequently so much more pleasant, at least to my ears, for it.

Every good commentator, though, requires his expert. Formula 1 has got lucky twice in this respect. First came the quick witted louche ex-public schoolboy James Hunt, whose patrician disdain for so many of the makeweights that were to be found towards the back of the F1 grid in the 1980s and early 1990s was always a delight to behold (for example - "The trouble with Jarier is that he's an idiot. Always has been, always will be") Equally, he had an entertaining way of putting Murray right - for example:

Walker "Look. There's a body on the track!"
Hunt "Actually, Murray, I think you'll find its a piece of bodywork"

When Hunt died at the ridiculously young age of 45, we had to suffer for a while with Jonathan Palmer - a man who may have done a great job with Motorsport Vision and with Formula Palmer Audi, but who was frankly never a commentator. Fortunately, help was at hand when Martin Brundle's career came to an end and he took up the seat alongside Murray in the commentary booth. In many ways, it is hard to imagine a man less like James Hunt - serious where Hunt always gave an impression of casual indifference, overtly intelligent and analytical in a way that Hunt never was - but what they both have in common is that they are (or were) both excellent 'expert' co-commentators (though neither is (or was) quite in the John McEnroe league).

A parting thought though. Whatever I might think of Murray Walker, it could have been so much worse. If you doubt me for a moment, try watching the DTM some time this season. And acquaint yourself with the horror show that is Carlton Kirby...

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

I agree that Martin Haven is excellent. My favourite though is Neil Crompton, the "expert" side of the commentary team for the Australian V8 Supercars broadcasts. He's a veritable Rain Man for facts and has a great commentary style of his won.

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

I have to say I like Murray Walker and his obvious enthusiasm (to the point where I taped his recent Radio Five Nurburgring commentary despite watching the race live on ITV with the sound on), but he really does need his Brundle to help out (I admit to being too young to have watched James Hunt commentate).

One commentator of another series who comes to mind as good is whoever did the commentary for IndyCar's international feed. He knew what he was talking about and sounded like he was enjoying himself. Unfortunately I never caught his name, and as it was 5am on a Wednesday morning I didn't think to look it up on the internet either...

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

The strange thing about Murray is that, while he was commentating, he was universally ridiculed and disliked. But then he decided to retire and (presumably because of his length of service - I will never understand how these things happen) immediately became elevated to the status of British icon.

Personally, I don't go in for icons; the man was an idiot and remains one.

In my experience, writers do so because they have something to say but aren't great speakers. Writing takes more effort and time than speaking so it seems to me that there really isn't any point in writing unless you aren't particularly good at voicing your thoughts.

I suspect, also, that those "writers" you see on TV who are smooth as silk and brilliant speakers are really crap writers. It's a generalisation, I know, but there may be some truth in it.

3:45 AM  
Blogger patrick said...

Clive - I'm biased, as a reasonable writer and a monosyllabic, hopelessly uncommunicative talker, but I'm inclined to agree.

Jeremy Shaw was a reasonably decent print journalist, as well as a good commentator though. I don't recall much about Haven as a writer - fairly workmanlike, i think.

Alianora - I've never watched Indycar racing much - simply not a fan, but I'll keep an eye out for it.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

I only caught the one Indycar race I did because I'd figured out that I needed to be on the 5:56am train to arrive at a robe hire place on time. It was a reasonable race, but I don't see me regularly getting up at 5am specifically to watch it.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Josh Joseph said...

Honestly - if any of you guys had to sit through the commentary we get in north america through Speed TV you'd stop whining about James Allen. He knows his stuff, and you should be glad about it. Frankly Mr Brundle winds me up - he's so arrogant, and he thinks he knows it all, yet he doesnlt always pick up on everything you want him to - in fact, more often than not I find that it's actually james who brings the peerinent facts to his attention. Plus he's just such a grumpy old sod as you mentioned, he really has none of the sense of humour that james hunt had - but to be frank, he never was much of a driver at all. And as for Mark Blundell, he's just an idiot. I'm more informed than he is - he never gives any sort of interesting insight whatsoever. I haven;t had a chance to listen to Damon's commentary yet - but Jenson Button's last year was fascinating - now there was insight and intelligence and information. Martin Brundle gives a very good impression of someone who knows what's going on - but he's never been half as sharp and inciisive as Jenson was that one and only time.

But seriously - if you ever get a chance, cat hthe speed tv coverage - you won;t believe how disgraceful it is!

3:51 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

I have to disagree with Josh - I think SpeedTV's coverage is excellent, especially when you consider that F1 is so unknown in the States. Peter Windsor does irritate me a little with his smarmy ways but he does know the odd thing or two and the rest are pretty knowledgeable.

SpeedTV also has excellent F1 articles on its website and is doing a very good job of educating a public that would prefer not to know. The channel must have something to do with the fact that those American F1 fans that I've met know their stuff and are enthusiastic about the sport.

4:50 AM  
Blogger Alastair said...

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1:22 PM  
Blogger Alastair said...

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1:24 PM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

Due to your words one can understand there is a philosophy in sports

6:57 AM  

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