Talking Sport: 90 Years of Sports Commentary

Listen to my contribution to a recent BBC World Service documentary celebrating the 90th anniversary of the BBC’s first live running commentary on football in January 1927.

Talking Sport: 90 Years of Sports Commentary


Presented by the Icelandic broadcaster Gudmundur Benediktsson the documentary draws on interviews and archive recordings from across the world including Britain, Australia, the US, Brazil and South Africa.

Peter Dimmock: Television pioneer and master of the deal

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The death of Peter Dimmock, age 94, should be marked as the passing of a remarkable television pioneer. Among many firsts in television, Dimmock was the man behind the remarkable images of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation and the man who negotiated, smooth talked and cajoled a host of sports administrators and promoters to allow the BBC in to their events and on to our screens.

I interviewed Peter at his home in Norfolk on three occasions between 2008 and 2009 as part of my research into the history of television sport. His generosity of time, his razor sharp memory and his humour shone through many hours of conversation, and helped reveal to me why over a period of three decades he blazed a trail in television outside broadcasting.

As the Head of Television Outside Broadcast’s, a role he later designated as ‘General Manager’, Dimmock oversaw the first live broadcast from an aeroplane, the first trans-continental television transmission, the first international satellite transmission, presented the first regular television sports magazine programme Sportsview, was the first on British television to use a ‘teleprompter’ (autocue) and the first to negotiate television coverage of the Grand National and many other sporting events on television.

At one time, in the late-1960’s, he was arguably among the most experienced and most powerful people in the BBC and British broadcasting more broadly. His own modesty, however, would not allow him to concede he held such a position, but his international reputation in brokering deals for the Olympic Games and the World Cup ultimately led him to be head hunted by American networks keen to capitalise on the Dimmock charm.

Dimmock went to school at Dulwich College in South London, following in the footsteps of other distinguished Old Alleynians including Sir Ernest Shackleton and P.G. Wodehouse. He subsequently studied in France before the outbreak of war. As a member of the Territorial Army he was called up for service in 1939 but in 1941 transferred to the Royal Air Force as a pilot for Army Co-operation Command.

In 1942 he became a flight-lieutenant flying instructor, and by the end of the War was a staff officer in the Air Ministry working for the Directorate of Flying Training. It was here, as a strident young firebrand officer, that he learned how to manage other young men, and foster his own style of charismatic leadership.

On demobilisation, Dimmock weighed up his options and took inspiration from his journalist mother. “I was in the Air Force”, he once told me, “and couldn’t decide whether or not to get a job or go to university. My mother had been a writer, she wrote for The Strand magazine and she was a very good writer. I must have ended up with some of her genes. I wanted to be a journalist so I joined the Press Association straight from the Air Ministry.” He became a junior racing correspondent for the Press Association sitting across the desk from Peter O’Sullevan, later the voice of horse racing on the BBC.

He didn’t stay long in the PA, and soon joined the BBC to work in the recently relaunched Television Service. He revealed how his RAF background helped him get a foot in the door: “Of the four of us called to the final interview, two of us had been in the Air Force, the other two hadn’t. Of the three people doing the interviews two had been in the Air Force, so guess who got the jobs? I and Keith Rogers who was the other chap. He and I got the jobs.”

At this time, the BBC remained staunchly focused on radio broadcasting, with television something of a novelty sideshow. The BBC’s attitude to sport was framed by its public service tradition, which Reith famously believed would educate, inform and entertain its audiences in equal measure. The role of the BBC was to act as ‘social cement’, producing a common culture shared by all. In an interview for the BBC’s oral history project from the 1980’s, Dimmock revealed what it was like in the pioneering years of television just after the war.

Dimmock interview
Dimmock revealed why sport and outside broadcasts became so important to the BBC: “With OB, dash it, they depended on us enormously for the overall audience figures. Sportsview, I suppose when you think about it now and it may sound ridiculous, but we had a regular audience of about 11 million. Which in those days was huge. All our events, our royal events and things in those days, they all got enormous audiences.”

Dimmock spearheaded the BBC’s television coverage of the Coronation in 1953, an event that boosted television ownership across the UK. The major coup was getting the BBC’s cameras in to Westminster Abbey. As he recalled, the establishment view was against such coverage, although the young monarch was not as resistant as many have since reported: “A Channel 4 programme had claimed Prince Philip wasn’t keen on TV. Not the case. Both he and the Queen from the outset said they would agree to whatever the Cabinet decided. The real problem was Churchill. He said to me across the table, ‘Peter, why should the public see more than I when my own view is not that great.’ Churchill’s was very much the establishment view. It was all about privilege. My greatest ally was George Campey of the Evening Standard. I kept feeding him all manner of things, which I probably shouldn’t have done. But he was very important in getting cameras in to the Abbey.” The sixtieth anniversary of the coverage was celebrated in this short BBC news item on ‘How the Coronation Transformed TV’ which includes an interview with Dimmock in 2013.

The popularity of television convinced the then Conservative Government that the BBC required competition from commercial television to help the medium grow to all parts of the UK. In response to the threat the BBC launched Sportsview in 1954, a topical studio-based sports programme fronted by Dimmock and edited by the programmes originator Paul Fox.

The programme landed a coup on its second outing when Fox received a tip off from Norris McWhirter, later of Guinness World Records fame, that Roger Bannister was attempting to break the 4-minute mile. Although the programme could not show the filmed race that evening, they whisked Bannister to the studio straight from Iffey Road in Oxford to be interviewed by Dimmock at Lime Grove in London. It popularised the programme which Dimmock presented for a decade and confirmed the BBC’s place at the centre of British sporting achievement.

Dimmock also fronted the first episode of a Grandstand in 1958 as a safe pair of hands, before giving way to the new face of sport David Coleman. Here, in an interview with Steve Rider in celebration of the programme’s fortieth anniversary, Dimmock recalls how the programme began.

Through the late-1950’s and into the 1960’s Dimmock’s role as negotiator became vital to keeping the BBC ahead of its commercial rival. Following the launch of Eurovision in 1954 Dimmock became the head of sports negotiations on behalf of the European Broadcasting Union, frequently travelling the globe to meet and smooth talk international administrators of sport. Again, his modesty in opening the way for global television coverage of sport shone through in his praise for the institution he worked for: “When I travelled all round the world, it was so wonderful. It was the fact that I was from the BBC that they gave me a great deal of respect, and help, and courtesy. Which was entirely because I was BBC, nothing to do with me.”

There were tricky moments, such as the years of negotiating with the Topham family for coverage of the Grand National. Or the time when due to illness he could not fly to Paris to sign the television deal for the 1970 Mexico World Cup and was temporarily usurped by ITV who signed an exclusive deal, only for this to be reneged by the EBU\. On a more inauspicious occasion, Dimmock passed a local newsagents in London to see headlines that the BBC had been sued by boxing promoter Jack Solomons for breach of contract. Angry and confused Dimmock called the promoter to complain only to learn it was all a promotional ruse to boost tickets sales for a major championship fight.

ITV repeatedly courted Dimmock offering him a much larger salary. “I very nearly went”, he revealed, “but they would not give me in my contract the right to call in regional outside broadcast units.” Granada in the north wouldn’t agree, so he stayed with the BBC.

After moving on from Outside Broadcasts in the early seventies Dimmock spent a couple of years establishing the international sales of BBC programmes for the new BBC Enterprises. Again, Dimmock was ahead of his time establishing a new commercial revenue stream for the BBC now so crucial to its top line of income. He was so good at his job that he soon had major American networks headhunting him for his negotiating skills. Dimmock employed a New York lawyer who let the bidding war commence. Dimmock sat back and awaited a lucrative deal with ABC to became one of the highest paid British executives in television.

The legacy of Peter Dimmock reaches far in television outside broadcasting. Under Dimmock’s management, and with the support of innovative editors and producers such as Paul Fox and Bryan Cowgill, the BBC set the standard for the coverage of sport in Britain in the middle-to-late twentieth century. But more than that, he helped shape the way the BBC addressed a national audience through televised sporting events. It was often paternalistic, but the emphasis on promoting the positive values of sport to a broad audience, sharing key moments of victory and defeat, and opening up a wider international perspective on sport from across the world, were Dimmock’s major feats. They are values that remain at the heart of public service broadcasting, and represent one of the few remaining occasions where significantly large numbers of people share in the communal ritual of watching sport on the box.

Richard Haynes is author of BBC Sport in Black and White to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.

Remembering Richie Benaud, the voice of cricket

My article originally published in The Conversation, 10th April 2015.

Richie Benaud - File photo

The passing of Richie Benaud, the former Australian cricket captain and long-time television commentator in Britain and his native Australia, recalls an era in broadcasting when a voice became synonymous with a sport. For many, like me, who grew up watching cricket on BBC television, Benaud’s crisp Aussie accent delivered incisive and often wry analysis of the game of cricket.

Benaud grew up in New South Wales during the great depression of the early 1930’s. Cricket was a natural distraction for many young Australians and Don Bradman was the most captivating player of the age. Taught how to bowl as a youngster by his father Lou, Benaud made his debut in the Sheffield Shield in 1949 and received his first “Baggy Green” cap for Australia against the West Indies in January 1952.

Benaud’s record as an all-round cricketer would have been enough to ensure his status as one of Australia’s all-time greats and as captain he revitalised Australian cricket in the early-1960s. But he was as courageous in life as he was on the field, and in 1959 took the previously unprecedented step of signing up for a broadcasting training course at the BBC while still at the peak of his powers as a professional sportsman.

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All-rounder Benaud took 945 wickets in 259 first-class matches and made 11,719 runs. PA/PA Wire

When the BBC’s head of sport, Bryan Cowgill, offered him a role in the commentary box in 1964 he became, arguably, the first of a generation of commentators to successfully make the leap from performing in front of the camera to the principal communicator behind one. Others, such as English test cricketer Denis Compton, had taken on the role as summariser, but Benaud was the main voice people heard in their living rooms.

In interviews and his autobiographies, Benaud always paid homage to some of the pioneering television commentators of the 1950’s including Henry Longhurst (golf), Dan Maskell (tennis) and Peter O’Sullivan (horse racing). Both Longhurst and Maskell had the unerring skill to know when to be silent, and O’Sullivan was imperious in his preparation and knowledge of the event he was covering.

Perfect timing

Benaud combined both skills with alacrity. Unlike radio, where silence in the commentary box is a major faux pas, in television sport knowing when to shut up and let the picture tell the story remains the most valued attribute of the commentator on top of their game. Having played at the highest level, Benaud’s understanding of the rhythms of cricket, particularly in its longer test format, gave him invaluable instinct for knowing when to speak and to avoid saying the obvious.

His style of commentary seemed in keeping with the flow of the game itself, so long silences would be followed by what Peter Wilby of The Observer once called a “referential whisper” annotating the broader narrative of what was happening on screen.

My own abiding memories of Benaud’s commentaries were that he always sounded relaxed, like imparting pearls of wisdom to a close friend. There was a sense that he knew what the viewer expected to hear or know about a particular situation.

Such down-to-earth communication skills masked a more complex production process of modern televised sport. Over Benaud’s lifespan as a commentator this involved a multitude of innovations in the use of cameras (including those inserted in the stumps), action slow-motion replays, statistical overlays, hawk-eye and numerous other forms of technological wizardry. Benaud managed to keep abreast of them all and he was, on the whole, a great advocate of innovation in cricket and its coverage to maintain the public’s interest in the sport.

The news of Benaud’s death has generated an amazing response from around the world, with the Australian prime minister Tony Abbott calling him an “Australian icon” and promising a state funeral. Within the sport, Benaud imparted his knowledge with amazing charity, but in an understated way. This is probably why many cricketers, such as Shane Warne, have celebrated him as being an “absolute gentleman”.

While not strictly a pioneer of television sport, Benaud certainly became one of broadcasting’s most cherished and respected figures. His name will forever be synonymous with televised cricket for many millions of people in Australia and Britain.

Professor Richard Haynes

While not strictly a pioneer of television sport, Benaud certainly became one of broadcasting’s most cherished and respected figures. His name will forever be synonymous with televised cricket for many millions of people in Australia and Britain.

Two more videos from our Hosts and Champions exhibition

Our Exhibition Assistant Jocelyn Grant has produced two further videos in connection with the Hosts and Champions Exhibition currently on display at Trinity Church in Irvine.

Commonwealth Tartans 

This video provides a brief snapshot of the various tartan uniforms worn by Team Scotland over the years. Some of the official uniforms may seem rather ‘loud’ but they were designed to make an impact in a large sports arena during the opening ceremony, and I think it is fair to say they certainly achieved their objective.

Suzanne Fernando – Queens Baton Bearer from Irvine

This video is a lovely interview one of Irvine’s local Baton Bearers, Suzanne Fernando, who provides some background to her own experiences, why she and her daughter were chosen to carry the Queens Baton and how the relay provided a special moment for their family.

Video Tours of Hosts and Champions at Trinity Church, Irvine

Our exhibition assistant Jocelyn Grant has produced two fabulous videos showcasing the construction and opening of Hosts and Champions at Trinity Church in Irvine. If you have ever wondered how an exhibition comes together, then her time-lapse video provides you with some clues.

The second video illustrates the various team uniforms on display, which provides a snapshot of how Team Scotland’s kit has changed over the years.

Jocelyn has written a number of blog posts on our Archive Blog and has also contributed to the Legacy 2014 blog about her experience on the project.