Cricket commentator and doyen of Test Match Special Henry Blofeld talks to Dave Woodhall.
Henry Blofeld is one of the great characters of the English summer. As a mainstay of the BBC’s legendary Test Match Special for more than forty years he has entered into broadcasting legend, and this month sees him branching out into a long-overdue live show when, in conjunction with former colleague Peter Baxter who produced the show for 34 years, he will be touring the country with memories of Test Match Special.
The third test against the West Indies was petering out to a rain-affected draw as he broke off from writing his autobiography to tell us about the show.
“It’ll be a riotously funny occasion. Peter produced TMS for 34 years, I’ve been commentating for 41, yet I haven’t heard half of his stories before. He’s slightly different to me, and of course as a producer he will be able to give a different perspective on proceedings. We’ll be looking back at the history of the show since it began after the war, at some of the great characters who have made the show what it is, people such as John Arlott and Brian Johnston. We’ll also be talking about cricket broadcasters from even before then, such as Howard Marshall who started back in the thirties. It’s not about cricket, it won’t be about the great players and the matches we’ve seen. It’s a show, if you like, about a cricket show. There will be two parts, one for an hour and the other of 50 minutes, with Peter and myself talking. We’ll finish off with 15 minutes of questions that have been submitted by the audience earlier in the night and it’s going to be very, very, good fun. You’ll find all the humour that makes up Test Match Special will be at Birmingham Town Hall. It will be our answer to the greyness of the world.”
Test Match Special has always included presenters who played and love the game, but they usually weren’t star players. It’s a total contrast to Sky’s presenters, who all seem to be former England captains or great cricketers.
“It has to be a completely different approach. TV commentators are talking about what they can see on that oblong in front of them. They don’t need to say, ‘And the bowler comes up to the wicket’ because their audience can see that as well as they can. They have to add to the picture, to tell you why what’s happening is happening, and who better to say that than a former England captain? Radio, on the other hand, has to be the eyes of the listener and provide a detailed description of events. When, for example, you get a maiden over from a fast bowler with all six balls, plus maybe a couple of no balls, pitching outside off stump, there’s not much to describe. You might have to talk for long periods when nothing is really happening. That’s why first and foremost, the team on Test Match Special have to be professional broadcasters. The experts can come in between overs and tell us what’s happening in their way but we all have our own styles and ways of describing events.”
Which of course means you can get away with what makes Test Match Special so, well, special.
“We have to make it fun. We live in an age of doom and gloom. People want to watch something funny on the box, or go to the pub with friends and have a good belly laugh. We help them do that – laughter is compulsory on Test Match Special. That’s why it has such a great and wide-ranging appeal. For example, over half out audience is ladies. It’s the non-cricket content that’s so important. Test Match Special is a unique, unscripted chat show that runs for seven hours a day. That is what you’ll get the essence of during the evening’s show.”
Fun. That seems to be a word missing in modern cricket.
“I don’t know. It’s a very different game now; it certainly seems less fun to us watching it compared to the old days. Players are certainly a lot fitter, but whether a fast bowler becomes a better cricketer by doing 5,000 metres running around the boundary rather than bowling in a match I don’t know. I’m sure the players still enjoy the game much the same, though.”
Coverage of the game has changed, 20/20 and the sheer amount of cricket that’s on TV now must surely affect attendances.
“No, not at all. 20/20 cricket is totally different and tests profit from the comparison. It’s nonsense to say they’ve been affected. Look at the current series – against a weak West Indies, with poor weather and the Jubilee in competition, there were still sell-outs for the first three days of the Trent Bridge and Lords tests. There’s the proof.
“The games are also much more interesting. There was a time when a team would be maybe 220-3 after the opening day of a test. Now they can have scored 400 runs. Unless weather affects the result there are rarely any draws in tests anymore. That means everyone who comes along will have seen part of a game that will have a definite result.”
You mention the weakened West Indian team. Does it sadden you that they’ve been so easily beaten again?
“Yes, very much so. They had a great side – arguably the best of all time. But they’re on their way back. Both their organisation and their administration are improving, it’s a slow process but they will eventually win a series at home against significant opposition and it’ll all take off again. It’s cyclical, in the same way that a few years ago England were one of the poorer test sides and now they’re number one.”
You once said that you’d never retire for fear of drinking yourself to death. Is that still true?
“That’s true. Well, for fear of drinking myself to death even quicker. The BBC may retire me, or I’ll die on the job or be unable to do it, but I will never voluntarily step down. Commentating has its downsides but it’s been terrific. It’s the best job you could imagine. Why ever stop?”
Blofeld & Baxter: Memories of Test Match Special begins a nationwide tour on 16th June. It comes to Birmingham Town Hall on 21st July; tickets are £18.50 and available from the Town Hall box office on 0121 780 3333 or www.thsh.co.uk