Features - News Feature


Behind the scenes at the BBC


Everyone in Britain knows about BBC motor racing commentator Murray Walker and his famous gaffes. For 20 years Murray has kept television viewers around the world informed with his screeches and yelps of excitement. It is not just the British who enjoy it because the same commentary goes out to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and even Hong Kong. In fact, in Australia Murray is an even bigger celebrity than in Britain.

Everyone in Britain knows about BBC motor racing commentator Murray Walker and his famous gaffes. For 20 years Murray has kept television viewers around the world informed with his screeches and yelps of excitement. It is not just the British who enjoy it because the same commentary goes out to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and even Hong Kong. In fact, in Australia Murray is an even bigger celebrity than in Britain.

When I was just a race fan watching the BBC Murray's mistakes would drive me mad. I used to get so worked up that I would throw cushions at the TV and roar abuse because any idiot could tell the difference between a Minardi and a Ferrari. When I got into the business of Grand Prix racing I began to appreciate just what a difficult job it is and how well Murray does it. Murray makes mistakes simply because he is so excited that his mouth does not react to what his eyes see. There is nothing forced about Murray's commentary. He really is that enthusiastic. At the same time he is incredibly well-informed and works hard trudging around the paddock making that he is up to speed with everything that is happening. He has a notebook for each race and inside - in neat and ordered boxes he has every detail of what has happen to each driver in the course of the weekend.

The notebook is never far away from him in the commentary box, where the wall is usually dotted with notes pinned up to remind Murray of things he is going to say or quicker reference material he needs about a specific driver.

For those who have seen Murray in action in the commentary box there is a time-honored tradition just before the race which begins with Murray - quite literally - limbering up like a boxer, getting the adrenalin running by stretching and waving his arms around. Then the microphone goes into his hand and he's off...

During the broadcasts he has fellow commentator Jonathan Palmer sitting beside him - the two fight over the same microphone - while Ken Burton keeps an eagle-eyed watch from the sidelines, passing notes about important things which should be said. If Murray says "We are at half-distance now" you know that in his hand is a note from Ken. Also in the box is producer Mark Wilkin who keeps everything under control. Murray tells a story of fighting over the microphone with his late and lamented partner James Hunt to such an extent that the two very nearly came to blows. On one occasion Murray says he raised a fist to clonk James only to see Wilkin wagging a warning finger in his direction to suggest that physical violence was not the right thing in the middle of the programme.

In the high-pressure atmosphere of a commentary box, things can get pretty stressful. For a start the boxes are usually tiny so everyone is crammed together with TV monitors stacked up in corners. There are wires and plugs all over the floors and telephones which end up buried under paperwork. Sometimes one cannot even see the race track while on other occasions the view of the cars is completely blocked by fans waving flags and gawping in through the windows and pointing as though TV commentators are some kind of wild animal, needing to be caged.

The commentary boxes are gradually getting better but as commentary teams have grown so it has become more and more of a squeeze. Back in the very early days - before James Hunt was on the team - Murray would operate with just a producer and lap-charting journalist Mike Doodson. Gradually the team grew but BBC finances were never vast and so a few corners had to be cut. One of the best-kept BBC secrets was that for many years Murray and the crew did not go to the expensive non-European races - unless someone else - like Channel 9 Australia - would pay for the trip.

When the World Championship kicked off in Brazil in the late 1980s Murray would sometimes be flown to Rio for a day or two before the first race to do a few stand-up pieces in front of a camera before being flown home to commentate the race from the BBC studios in Shepherds Bush, London.

On such occasions the BBC employed what was called a "ghost commentator" - someone at the race track who was in constant touch with the team in London who had access to all the necessary timing monitors and could see what was going on at the track off-camera. Murray and James Hunt had only the pictures on the screens in front of them in London. The ghost commentators had to talk non-stop because in effect they were producing a verbal lap chart which someone in London would write down so that Murray and James could refer to earlier incidents or comment on strategy. In addition the ghost commentators would pass on relevant information such as the gaps between the cars and what the weather was doing. This would go to Wilkin who would pass on what he considered to be relevant to the commentators.

The original ghost commentator was radio journalist Mark Fogarty but in the late 1980s and early 1990s I took over that job. It was a bit of high wire act. There were times when Murray would identify a car and there would be screams down the wires from across the world suggesting the correct name. Mark Wilkin would tell Murray and the error would be corrected. There were other times when this ghost commentator sent Murray spinning off by wrongly identifying the cars. It happens sometimes.

The ghost commentaries actually became something of an event in London when some of the Fleet Street reporters found out what was happening and instead of flying to Japan and Brazil they snuck into the BBC studios in London and listened in to the guide commentary and thus were able to write more informed articles.

There was one sure-fire way of telling if James and Murray were not at the race. James was frustrated that the BBC would not buy him a ticket and would always want to know all the latest gossip before the programme began, interrogating the ghost commentators about silly season rumours or the moods of individual drivers. To make his point he would inevitably say something like "and we can't quite see from where we are sitting" at some point in the programme.

Murray sometimes put in a little artistic licence, notably at Suzuka in 1989 after the famous collision between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. From the commentary position we (Saward and Doodson) could see across the circuit into the glass race control building and were able to tell Murray about Prost's progress as he climbed through the building to see stewards. We even told him that Prost and the stewards were watching videos and waving their arms about a lot. Murray somehow managed to see all of that from Shepherds Bush!

One thing we did learn was never to get too involved with weather patterns. In Brazil - which is famous for its sudden storms - there was one year when I tried to keep London informed about whether or not it was raining. It became so confusing that Wilkin finally asked rather bluntly: "Is it raining or is it not raining."

"Both," was the only reply I had.

Murray is famous for his uncanny knack of saying something like "and all he has to do now is finish" and the driver in question immediately crashes or blows up his engine. What a lot of people do not know is that he also had a talent for saying something which the TV director - who had no way of knowing what was being said - would miraculously switch his cameras to cover. You can call it luck but I prefer intuition, knowing what a good director will do. When Murray said: "The Japanese fans are going crazy and waving their flags", moments later the pictures would show that. Magic...

In the later years, as the audiences grew, the BBC invested in its own "Grand Prix" truck - a million pound pantechnicon into which was squeezed all kinds of exciting video machinery. This meant that the BBC team could expand to include a pitlane commentator as well. Jonathan Palmer got the job. And then came Tony Jardine. What few people know is that there was another BBC pitlane reporter between the two. My wife.

After James Hunt died in June 1993 Wilkin decided to put Palmer into the commentary box with Murray and asked me to do the pitlane work. There would be no pitlane camera team, just a big heavy radio with which the pitlane reporter would send messages to the commentary box. Wilkin asked if I would do the job. I had other commitments but as my wife Amy was with me that weekend she was available. She had been the PR lady for Ligier before we were married so she knew a lot of people in the pitlane and could get the necessary information quickly.

As it turned out she had better access than we had imagined. When Mark Blundell crashed his Ligier at the first corner - having qualified really well - he disappeared into the motorhome and wanted to be left alone. Knowing how to open the right doors Amy simply walked into the motorhome told Blundell that he would feel better if he talked about it and led a meek but mystified Blundell up to the BBC commentary booth. Johnny Herbert was given similar treatment when he retired.

Taking drivers to the commentary box was the emergency plan for when James failed to turn up. It happened once at Spa when he was laid low with food poisoning. Murray was fed a steady procession of drivers to fill in.

On another occasion - we were in Japan as I recall - Wilkin came on the line and explained that James's alarm clock had not gone off and that we were going live without him. He had promised to get to the studio as fast as possible. It was some strange hour of the night in London and for a few short minutes Murray went solo while James drove what must have been one of the fastest ever runs between Wimbledon where he lived and the BBC in Shepherds Bush. He had his foot flat to the floor the whole way and jumped all the traffic lights. Out in Japan James mad dash caused as much excitement in the BBC box than the race itself although to this day I am sure whether I believe that James arrived with three police cars chasing him - as Mark Wilkin insisted...

In Portugal the F1 circus had a party or the BBC boys Damon Hill, Ken Tyrrell, Johnny Herbert, Eddie Jordan, David Coulthard and Martin Brundle all made speeches. Bernie Ecclestone presented Murray with a splendid silver trophy to say "Thank You" for nearly 20 years of great coverage. Everyone in F1 was there. As he made his speech Murray asked if perhaps he was rambling on a bit too much and suggested that perhaps he should stop.

"Don't worry Murray," came a voice from the crowd, "There's a commercial break coming up soon."

A couple of days later ITV announced that it had signed a two-year contract with Murray to have him become their commentator.

"It'll come as no surprise to anyone that Grand Prix motor racing is my

absolute passion," he commented. "Naturally, I'm overjoyed that I'm going to be able to communicate my enthusiasm to the English-speaking world as part of ITV's Formula 1 team."

Long may it continue...