THE MAN WHO SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS
By Philip Watson
(GQ, September 1997)
Inside the commentary box at the San Marino Grand Prix, Murray Walker is getting ready for battle. In a space little bigger than the prefab toilet cubicle it resembles, the Voice of Formula One is stretching, bending and limbering up. He rocks back and forth like a weight-lifter psyching himself up for an extra five kilos. He shakes out the tension from his shoulders and arms like a 100-metre sprinter about to step into the blocks. He hits his legs and punches the air as if he is a championship boxer on his way to the ring.
A few minutes later Walker is jabbing and poking at his television monitors as if they mean to do him grievous bodily harm. Commentating standing up – he never, ever, sits – he launches into the action by rhythmically counting the sequence of start lights with a clenched fist, banging it down on an invisible desk. And then, electric with excitement, wide-eyed ecstasy written all over his face, he explodes into the race.
“And it’s go, go, go! Villeneuve gets a great start! Schumacher pushes ahead of Frentzen – he’s up into second place! Frentzen is tucked up behind Schumacher’s red Ferrari trying to get past him desperately! It’s Villeneuve, Schumacher senior, Frentzen, Schumacher Ralf, Johnny Herbert…”
As Martin Brundle, his co-commentator, picks up the action later in the lap, Walker takes time to check the circuit map he’s taped neatly to the bottom of the screen. A few laps later, as we ride with the on-board camera on Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Williams, Murray guides us round the Imola race track. Crouching down to take the Variante Alta chicane in third at 70mph, he leans left, then right, then left again, and accelerates down the long fast straight to Rivazza, his right foot pressing hard against the concrete floor.
“Fourth gear, fifth, up into sixth; we’re doing over 170 miles an hour here. Oh, and he’s inching, inching, inching up on Michael Schumacher! And he’s going for it! He’s really pushing hard!” Murray Walker is attacking his microphone, bellowing at the screen, lunging at it; it is as if he is possessed by force greater than himself.
By the time we get to the final lap of the race Walker is in full swing. He is dancing now, swaying his (replaced) hips from side-to-side. “What! An! Absolutely! Barn! Storming! Finish!” he shouts, the words spurting from his mouth with such force that afterwards he has to wipe his mike with a handkerchief. “Look how close Schumacher and Frentzen are! Schumacher is eating up the distance between the two cars! But Frentzen is almost home! Frentzen goes left! Frentzen goes right! And Frentzen wins his first Grand Prix for Williams at Imola!”
Even though it has been raining and overcast outside, by now the commentary box is hot, fuggy and smells of boys. As well as Murray, Martin Brundle and myself, ITV production assistant Kevin Brown has been in the dark, cramped space. With the door flung open, Brundle heads happily into the afternoon for some serious post-race hospitality, while Brown starts to clear away the equipment. Murray sits scribbling into his notebook. He is furiously jotting down race figures and statistics before they disappear from his monitors.
Only when he is satisfied that he has got everything down does he begin to relax and pack up his many notes, reminders and fact sheets. He glances up at me as I return to the box a few minutes later with a glass of champagne. It may be exhausting, but Murray Walker has the big broad smile of someone who’s just communed with the thing he loves.
* * * * *
“So, how does it compare to sex?”
“I don’t know. You can’t compare the two, can you?”
“Well, you could. You’re clearly in a heightened state of excitement, there’s lots of thrust and noise and sweat, and you feel incredible passion.”
“I suppose so. [Pause] But no sex I’ve ever had has lasted an hour-and-a-half.”
That’s just as maybe, and no-one is about to suggest that Murray Walker OBE, at the tender age of nearly 74, should start living life a little, but he makes the point well. Many television professionals believe that the job he does, and has done now for almost 50 years, is the toughest in sports commentating: it requires a level of stamina, energy, mental agility and technical knowledge that would put demands upon a man half his age.
“It’s very, very hard,” says Martin Brundle. “Often, like at this track, you can’t see anything out of the window, there’s three or four monitors in front of you, different TV feeds, and all the computer read-outs and times and information. Then you have the race director speaking in your ear, and the producer and the producer’s assistant, and you’re trying to listen to your co-commentator and for the countdown to the ad breaks, and I just want to be all over the place.”
“I have the greatest respect for Murray,” says Jackie Stewart, who has shared many commentary boxes with Walker, mostly in Australia. “He’s good to work with and keeps the spirit and energy at extraordinarily high levels. Murray is a character; he’s one-of-a-kind. He has the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager – of a pre-teenager, in fact.”
This, of course, is the point of Murray Walker: he is the ultimate enthusiast. Using what Clive James once famously described as a “trousers-on-fire” broadcasting style, Walker manages to capture and communicate all the fervour, frenzy and drama of motorsport. He is a 15-year-old boy locked inside a 73-year-old man’s body (sometimes with a 15-year-old boy’s sense of humour as well – at one point during the weekend he refers to Olivier Panis as “Olivier Penis”). He makes the viewer feel as if he or she might almost be there. He is the living embodiment of the first fire that turned us on to motor racing or football or music, but that often, over the years, quite naturally, wanes just a little.
Life, for Murray Walker, has fed and nurtured his enthusiasm. Switched onto motorsport at an early age by his father, his fanaticism has remained at a fever pitch ever since. Murray’s love of motorsport is unbridled, unsullied, uncynical and unadulterated. He can respond rationally to the sport, but more importantly he reacts emotionally, too. No-one who watched Damon Hill come home first in the last race of the 1996 season at Suzuka to win the world championship could forget the intense pride and emotion in his voice. He was cut and choked with it.
“Part of his skill as a commentator is that he creates emotion,” says team boss Eddie Jordan. “He makes watching Formula One very human and touching and patriotic. He brings great feeling to a set of pictures he has no control over – bit of an art I think.”
“I get very fired up during the race; it’s an all-action situation,” says Walker. “I think motorsport is enormously exciting, colourful, spectacular, noisy, dangerous and dramatic, and in my opinion you don’t deal with it in monotones and dull phrases – you try and make it live. And because I don’t try and work out things to say in advance, and because I’m so involved with it, I sometimes make mistakes.”
Ah yes, the legendary mistakes. The solecisms, the blunders, even the occasional indiscretions. Because for all his undoubted talents, Muddly Talker (or Flurry Squawker), as he is sometimes called, has been known to utter the odd goof and gaffe. As much as he uses well-worn techniques to slow his delivery down and allow himself thinking time (experienced Walker Watchers recognise his hallmark “And… And… And… And… And” and “Wait a minute… what’s happened?”), his mouth often runs away with him. Perhaps it is the speed and volume of his output that works against him, but only David Coleman himself can claim a higher position in Private Eye’s all-time Colemanballs Top Ten.
“In my own defence, as I’ve said many times [and he has], if what people call mistakes, and what I call slips-of-the-tongue or malapropisms, were genuine mistakes caused by a lack of understanding or knowledge of the sport, I would be very worried. In fact, I wouldn’t do it anymore. But when things are moving so quickly, there are bound to be times, in the heat of the moment, when I say the wrong thing.”
In fact, his attention to detail, his unending desire for knowledge of the sport, takes on near-obsessive dimensions. He is a completist with a very John Motson-like tendency towards statistical trainspotting. His commentary box position is plastered with diagrams, charts and mnemonics. He has crib sheets, rule books, and notebooks full of grid positions, lap times, points tables, track histories and driver resumes, among others, right back to 1986. In his kit bag, he carries at all times the Marlboro Grand Prix Guide (F1’s Wisden), assorted race reports and press releases, a rain jacket and poncho, white sticking tape, Kleenex, two pairs of glasses, a pencil case, and a Swiss Army knife.
He is an omnipresent force at any race meeting. He scours the paddock, pits and press rooms for stories, rumours and inside information. He talks to mechanics, engineers, technicians, drivers, team leaders and sponsors. He often walks the track. And because of his very gentlemanly, avuncular and excessively uncritical respect for the sport and its players (he would not, over the years, even be drawn on Nigel Mansell, who apparently calls him “dad”), everyone likes him – and everyone talks to him.
“What’s great for me is that I know Murray is never short of words and if I start to dry up he will pick it up,” says Brundle. “He’d prefer to commentate on motor racing, of course, but there’s no doubt he could actually do an exciting 20-minute commentary on a wall of fresh paint drying. He compare how the paint dried before, what the paint might do later on that day, and how the paint had been performing generally up to this point.”
This raw enthusiasm for commentating can even spill over into ordinary life. James Allen, ITV’s pit reporter, tells a nice story about a breakfast he shared with Walker before this year’s Brazilian Grand Prix. “At the end of it, just for a laugh, and perhaps to get himself into that mood for the day, he began to commentate on his own meal. ‘Does Murray want another slice of toast?’ he asked himself, in his best Grand Prix voice. “Yes, Murray does want another slice of toast’, was his heated reply. It was brilliant, brilliant.”
* * * * *
If commentating is genetic, then Murray Walker had a better start than most. His father, Graham Walker, was a pre-war motorcycle champion who later became a renowned BBC commentator. Encouraged to develop an interest in motorcycle racing – a passion that even today he says is greater than that for cars (“bikes make this lot look like a load of old geriatrics,” he tells me, during off-hand moment at Imola) – he made his commentating debut covering the 1949 British Grand Prix at Silverstone for BBC Radio.
He would have followed in the footsteps of the father he openly hero-worships earlier, but the war intervened. Born in Birmingham but brought up as an only child in a middle-class home in Enfield, Middlesex, he had attended Highgate public school before volunteering for the tank corps. His father had been a pupil at the same school and also served in the army. “I wanted to be in tanks or submarines,” he says. “I might have wanted to be a fighter pilot, if I hadn’t worn glasses.”
He trained at Sandhurst, before joining the Royal Scots Greys in 1942, a regiment he was with for four-and-a-half years. He saw action in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, before linking up with the Russians at Wismar on the Baltic coast. He was a technical adjutant and then commander of a tank division stationed at the recently liberated Belsen concentration camp. “Murray’s years in tanks make us drivers look like a load of wimps,” says Damon Hill.
Although the camp had been cleared by the time Walker arrived, it is his experience at Belsen in particular, and the war in general, that some believe fuels his fierce conservatism and patriotism. “The war taught me discipline, and I got to meet all kinds of people, but it also gave me a sense of identity in terms of being British and proud of it – very proud of it,” he says.
“The memories of the war have stayed with Murray, and I think he has nursed a grievance against Germans ever since,” says Mike Doodson, who has shared the commentary box with him since 1978 as a stats man and lap counter. “It would never manifest itself in his commentary, but you get the feeling he is less comfortable with Germans than he is with other people.”
He had won a business scholarship with Dunlop before volunteering for the tanks, and after demob rejoined the company’s advertising department. He also attempted unsuccessfully to make it as a motorcycle racer. He was hired by headache pill makers Aspro eight years later, and in 1959 join the ad agency that is now known as D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles. It has often been stated that, during his time there, he wrote the slogan “A Mars a day help you work, rest and play” and, even better, “Trill makes budgies bounce with health”; the truth is that he was an account director not a copywriter.
What is true is that he made a considerable amount of money. An astute businessman and rigorous negotiator to this day, he was offered a five per cent share in the agency shortly after he joined, borrowed £30,000 (an equivalent today of almost £400,000), and remained a director for 23 years. When he joined the agency, it had a single office in London and billings of £6 million a year. By the time Murray retired at the age of the 59 in 1982, the company had 54 offices in 28 countries and annual billings of £1.5 billion.
Throughout all this time – incredibly – he also maintained his broadcasting career. For 13 years from 1949, he commentated on motorsport, often with his father, inheriting the BBC’s chief motor cycling commentary spot parties father’s death in 1962. After that he “picked up [commentating] crumbs from the rich man’s table” – that man being Raymond Baxter. When the BBC committed, in 1978, to providing live broadcasts of all Grands Prix, he became a roving Formula One commentator – except, that is, when the budget would not stretch to it. As has recently been revealed, up until as recently as 1993, he commentated on many Grands Prix from a small room in the BBC Television Centre.
It is this the latter period – the time that most famously includes his knockabout commentary box duals with James Hunt – that established Walker undeniably as the Voice of British Motorsport. His voice is now instantly recognisable and as synonymous with his sport as Peter O’Sullevan is with horse racing, Dan Maskell with tennis and John Arlott with cricket.
“Watching Formula One without listening to Murray is like watching a horror movie or a love film without the soundtrack,” says David Coulthard. “You need him to set the scene and build the tension. Murray’s the music to Formula One.”
“He is ingrained in our consciousness by now,” says Damon Hill. “If you look back on the great moments from the last 20 years, it’s his words that you remember – they are part of the experience.”
Because of this, he’s actually very well-known – often better than the drivers themselves – and very much in demand. In Australia there is an unofficial Murray Walker fan club, which produces T-shirts with “Unless I’m very much mistaken” on the front, and “I am very much mistaken” on the back.
He was the instant choice for the voice-over commentary on the successful Sony PlayStation Formula 1 game, a compulsive and sophisticated set-up that includes such Murray classics as “He must be shedding buckets of adrenaline in that car” (all recorded at four levels of intensity) and a wonderful “gibberish” mode, on which he gets it all wrong.
He records voice-overs, and stars in that Pizza Hut commercial. And he is booked up months ahead has a after-dinner speaker (something his father also did), his self-deprecating style and very knowing ability to send himself up proving as infectious as the sport he has undoubtedly help popularise.
He is, by now, a very unlikely cult figure, a national institution, perhaps even a folk hero. “The interview I did with Murray in ’94, my very first as a Formula One driver, had a much greater impact on me that when Frank Williams offered me the drive,” says David Coulthard. “I’m being serious. Murray’s been my link with Formula One since I was a young boy, and it suddenly struck me halfway through that now he was interviewing me – that was the realisation that finally I was a Grand Prix driver.
* * * * *
For all this, there is a controversial theory – yet one gaining currency – that Murray Walker is starting to lose it. Talk to people around the paddock, to the sponsors and the money men in particular, and the feeling is that this year Murray has made one mistake too many. Too often has he got cars and drivers wrong; too often as he missed important developments; too often has Martin Brundle had to diplomatically correct him. During the qualifying session at Imola, he described Ralf Schumacher as “Michael’s son”.
Critics recognise that he was essential to the transition of F1 coverage from BBC to ITV (there was even a “Save Our Murray” campaign launched by the Daily Mirror), but once ITV has settled into a broadcasting system and audiences had adapted to the commercial breaks, the suggestion is that Walker will be dumped unceremoniously in favour of a younger, sharper, more presentable commentator. ITV strongly denies this, of course, but the rumours persist.
“The two-minute ad breaks would be less of the problem if the commentator were anyone other than Murray Walker,” wrote the Guardian’s Richard Williams, one of the few observers prepared to go on the record. “…But now we really need a reliable commentator, and Murray’s erratic credibility is suddenly a problem once more.”
“People say when are you going to stop, and I say I don’t want to stop because I like doing it,” Walker says, in his defence, when I put these criticisms to him in a quiet corner of a cafe at the Imola circuit, early on Sunday race day. “I know it’s my imminent problem, because it can’t be all that far off now in view of my age, but I will know when to stop before anyone else does – hopefully – and I don’t think I’m anywhere near that now. I feel I’m still on top of it.
“But it’s a 50-year relationship, isn’t it, and if I had to go I wouldn’t be upset – I be bloody distraught. I suppose I can’t actually envisage a life without it, because I can’t remember a time when my life wasn’t bound up in some way with motorsport. It’s an appalling admission to make, but I haven’t got any outside interests. This is my hobby. This is my passion.”
It’s true that Murray Walker keeps himself in great shape physically – he goes to a health club near his home in the New Forest twice a week and trains for an hour-and-a-half – and his short, compact, muscly frame looks sturdy enough to survive the sometimes punishing travel and commentating schedule he puts himself through. For the two days prior to this race, for example, rather than resting, he spent a total of 14 hours commentating on touring cars for the BBC.
Yet, just occasionally, and you see it in the eyes, he looks as if he is having trouble keeping it all together, as if the effort, levels of adrenaline and concentration that are required, are proving just a little too much. (“Senility strikes early,” he had joked, weakly, to the ITV director when he had forgotten an important name just before the qualifying session on the Saturday.) Perhaps, to be more kindly, he is suffering from no more that the effects of the hay fever that often afflicts people at Imola.
“What keeps him going, what keeps him young, is coming to the races and commentating,” says Eddie Jordan. “His hobby is his business – he wants to go to work, he needs to go to work. It’s harder to stay away.”
It could be the realisation of this professional Catch-22, of the fact that his passion for the first time could act as a trap, that the end of his long commentating career is closer than he thinks, that makes him more reflective towards the end of our chat. I ask him what he feels he has left to do.
“Make sure I go before my wife does…” he replies instantly, before the emotion catches up with him and brings him up short. He pauses, head down, for what seems an eternity. “Sorry. I’m getting emotional now,” he explains.
And perhaps it is because of all this talk of the twilight of his career, of his father’s death and his mother’s imminent 100th birthday, of the prospect of a life, and with it his 37-year-old marriage, coming to an end – or simply because he’s a warm-hearted, honest, decent sort of a bloke – but Murray Walker is crying before my very eyes.
Twenty Murray Mints
“You can cut the tension with a cricket stump”
“Nigel Mansell – the Man of the Race, the Man of the Day, the Man from the Isle of Man”
“Brundle is driving an absolutely pluperfect race”
“There is only one second between them. One. That’s how long a second is”
“And now the boot is on the other Schumacher”
“The beak of the Ayrton Senna chicken is pushing its way through the shell”
(During the 1994 German Grand Prix, as Martin Brundle climbs out of his broken McLaren and removes his helmet)…“Oh, Brundle’s got a bald patch – and he won’t be happy about that!”
“And now, excuse me while I interrupt myself”
“Thackwell really can metaphorically coast home now”
“…into lap 53, the penultimate last lap but one”
“Once again Damon Hill is modest in defeat”
“This would have been Senna’s third win in a row had he won the two before”
“Anything happens in Grand Prix racing, and it usually does”
“This is lap 54. After that it’s lap 55, 56, 57, 58…”
“I’ve just stopped my start-watch”
“With half the race gone, there is still half the race to go”
Tombay’s hopes, which were nil before, are absolutely zero now”
“Alain Prost is in a commanding second position”
“And now Jacques Lafitte is as close to Surer as Surer is to Lafitte”
“You can’t see a digital clock because there isn’t one”
(Postscript: there was a great set of photographs of Murray Walker at Imola that accompanied this profile, but I no longer have the issue of GQ in which this feature appeared)
© Philip Watson 1997/2015