Read Can Anyone Hear Me? Online

Authors: Peter Baxter

Tags: #cricket, #test match special, #bbc, #sport

Can Anyone Hear Me?

First published in the UK in 2012 by

Corinthian Books, an imprint of

Icon Books Ltd, Omnibus Business Centre,

39–41 North Road, London N7 9DP

email:
[email protected]

www.iconbooks.co.uk

This electronic edition published in 2012

by Icon Books Ltd

ISBN: 978-1-90685-049-4 (ePub format)

ISBN: 978-1-90685-050-0 (Adobe ebook format)

Text copyright © 2012 Peter Baxter

The author has asserted his moral rights.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.

Typeset by Marie Doherty

For Claire and Jamie –

With apologies from such an absentee father

Introduction

On Christmas Day 1972 England won a Test match in Delhi. I was staying with my in-laws and trying to find out what had happened in the match. It was not always easy to do so in the days before the internet and rolling news networks.

There was no
Test Match Special
on that series. In fact, since the retirement from the BBC staff in September that year of Brian Johnston, there was no BBC cricket correspondent at all at the time. The reports on the tour were done – on a rather hit-or-miss basis – by Crawford White of the
Daily Express
, when he could find a phone. Communications from India were not that good in those days.

I had then been at the BBC for seven years and in my frustration I vowed – I suppose rather arrogantly – that if I were ever to become the cricket producer I would make sure that this situation never arose again. I certainly didn't imagine that in three months time I would, indeed, be asked to be cricket producer.

My predecessor, Michael Tuke-Hastings – who had been doing the job since before the concept of continuous commentary on a combination of radio networks under the title
Test Match Special
– had grown bored with cricket. So, in early 1973, the head of Radio Outside Broadcasts, Robert Hudson, took the bold step of inviting this 26-year-old to take over.

A producer's job can encompass many things. In television, with more elements (and more people) involved in broadcasting a programme, the duties are, of necessity, more cut and dried. In radio, and particularly in the world of outside broadcasts, anything it takes to get that programme on the air is your responsibility.

A great deal of this is inevitably more administrative than creative. You are the BBC point-of-contact with the relevant sporting body and the ground authority. When I started, negotiating the broadcasting rights was part of the job. These days the rights have become such a huge business that the producer will be only marginally involved.

Commentators have to be selected and briefed, commentary boxes have to be checked, renovated or sometimes built, and all the technical arrangements must be made with the engineering side. Billings have to be written, the fine details of planning and presentation have to be worked out with the host network, and listener correspondence has to be dealt with. In my first couple of seasons in the job, I was very much a one-man band, laboriously typing out all the commentators' contracts myself.

Apart from the Test matches and international cricket, there is the coverage of the county game to be dealt with too. Matches have to be selected. In the seventies we would probably have had commentators at three championship games on a Saturday afternoon so engineers, scorers and broadcast lines had to be arranged for each of those. At least technical arrangements have become much simpler in that area, with the advent of the more flexible dial-up ISDN lines.

At a Test match itself I used to say that the job simply requires getting on and off the air on time and making sure the needle on the meter registering the outgoing sound keeps ticking in between. There is a little more to it than that. Commentary rotas have to be drawn up, which sometimes involves negotiation with those who have other duties to fulfil. Intervals have to be filled with interesting and appropriate subject matter. Frequently decisions have to be made about what to do in the event of bad weather. Sometimes a quiet word may need to be had with a commentator about his reluctance to give the score or recap often enough. When it is all ticking over nicely, you might be able to find a spot to settle at the back of the box to deal with the administrative details of the next Test match.

Just after I was appointed cricket producer, there were considerable changes to the way sport was covered on BBC Radio. The amalgamation of Sports News with the Outside Broadcasts department transformed several job descriptions. Presenters who might have relied on other people's scripts were now expected to write their own. In other cases the use of a script at all was a new approach – the old-school outside broadcasters scorned reading a report. Much more emphasis was placed on interviews and frequently it was reckoned to be part of a producer's duty to do these himself. Everyone was expected to be capable of doing any part of the job.

By the next winter after my appointment, the BBC also had its second cricket correspondent – Christopher Martin-Jenkins – and at the start of 1974 he went off to the West Indies to cover England's tour there. We took little commentary from that, though when it became apparent that Mike Denness's team were going to win in Trinidad to square the series, I did persuade Radio 2, the vehicle for sports broadcasting in those days, to carry the local commentary that included CMJ.

Up to that time the only guaranteed commentaries from overseas tours were from Australia, usually just for the last session of play and accompanied by all the whistles, bangs and general mush of the old Commonwealth Pacific cable (COMPAC). Many people of my generation remember listening under the bedclothes to just such an imperfect broadcast in the early morning, or shivering by an old-fashioned radio, waiting for the valves to warm up.

Until Sky took up the mantle in the nineties, television coverage from overseas was a rarity. BBC television did broadcast the 1987 World Cup in India and Pakistan, and mounted highlights programmes from Australia, though they were often broadcast so late at night that the next day's play would already be underway. The editing by Channel Nine for an Australian audience was frequently none too sympathetic to an English point of view, either.

Meanwhile, with a new young cricket correspondent and increased radio sports coverage, I was making a priority of improving our reporting from England's overseas tours. When we did take commentary, it was by arrangement with our opposite numbers in each country, who would include our man in their team on a reciprocal basis.

That mould was broken in India. New Zealand went there in late 1976 and with them went the New Zealand commentator, Alan Richards. Included in the All India Radio commentary team, he commented on some of the more outrageous umpiring decisions that went against his countrymen. An edict went out from All India Radio that never again would they include a visiting overseas commentator in their team.

England arrived in India hot on New Zealand's heels accompanied by Christopher Martin-Jenkins, for his first tour of the sub-continent. Tony Greig's team won in Delhi and then in Calcutta and when it became apparent that they might seal the series in Madras, my suggestion of carrying commentary was approved.

With the All India Radio ban on visiting commentators, CMJ had to raise a commentary team in very quick order, fortunately finding Henry Blofeld, who was there for the
Guardian
and Robin Marlar of the
Sunday Times
. And so
Test Match Special
came live from India for the first time.

That seemed to spark an increase in the amount of commentary we took from overseas – still usually on the basis of joining the local broadcaster.

Don Mosey and Henry Blofeld mounted a
Test Match Special
from Pakistan in 1977. That was another place in which Alan Richards' presence had fostered reservations about shared commentary. On that occasion, Radio New Zealand had been carrying the local output and Alan had done the second 20-minute description of the opening day of the first Test. He finished, as he had been instructed by his hosts, by handing on to the next commentator, who thanked him in English and then launched into 20 minutes of commentary in Urdu. Back in Wellington all became pandemonium as they wondered what on earth had happened to their broadcast.

It was more BBC politics than practicality which drove the decision to send a producer on an England cricket tour for the first time in 1981. In fact, my brief then was more to do the news reporting, ‘Oh, and you can also produce
Test Match Special
.' Up to that point my touring involvement had been all the logistical support – booking lines and any commentators that might be needed and liaising with my opposite numbers in the various countries, many of whom became friends long before I met them. Then there were the overnight or early morning vigils in studios in Broadcasting House, anxiously waiting for lines to appear and filling in when they didn't. Going on a full tour myself would be a very different story.

The working relationship of a producer and his correspondent is probably never closer than on tour, even when the producer is thousands of miles away in a London studio. In the last fifteen years of my BBC career the cricket correspondent I travelled the world with was Jonathan Agnew, who always took to the touring life and could usually be relied on to uncover the quirky side of things. Before him it was Christopher Martin-Jenkins, whose career as BBC correspondent had started pretty much in parallel with mine as producer.

Christopher had revolutionised cricket reporting with concise, thoughtful summing up – a fact which might amuse his more recent colleagues who were more used to a cavalier relationship with the clock. At the time of writing, he is fighting a battle against a serious illness, in the course of which, the absence from the
Test Match Special
box of his companionship, the detailed, easy commentary style and, yes, the idiosyncrasies, has been felt by all.

When I first went on tour – to India – I decided to keep a daily diary of my experiences. That became a habit over the next quarter of a century as I visited all the Test-playing countries and battled to get
Test Match Special
on the air from them. In this book I have used selected extracts from these rather battered notebooks, which still bear the scars of their travels, to give a taste of life on an overseas tour.

Freed from most of the office work, I was able to concentrate more on the cricket. Production really did become a matter of getting the programme on the air by hook or by crook. In 25 years, I only had the luxury of an engineer travelling with us on two occasions, so my rudimentary technical abilities were hastily learned and often severely tested. As if that wasn't enough, any of the other radio disciplines might be required at any time. Reporting and interviewing were expected. When there were not enough ball-by-ball commentators available, that had to be done. Sometimes a scorer might fall by the wayside, so I might have to take up the pencil myself. And in many places the role of diplomat and negotiator was required.

Looking through these diaries years afterwards, I find incidents which I had misplaced in my memory and some which I had totally forgotten – though there are others which are all too painfully clear in their detail! I can see how my major preoccupation was always with sorting out the tortuous problems of communication.

It is difficult nowadays to remember life before mobile phones. We take it for granted that we can get in touch with anyone, whenever we need to. That was far from the case in 1981. Recent technical advances have improved not only the ability to get through, but also the sound quality when we do. In those days we put up with extraordinarily scratchy broadcasting lines, which would probably not be allowed on the air now.

Thus the rather anguished title of this book –
Can Anyone Hear Me?

Peter Baxter, 2012

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