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Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

Archive for April 2015

Richie Benaud: More Than Just Player, More Than Just a Commentator

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Richie BenaudOthers have written plenty about Richie Benaud the player, and Richie Benaud the commentator, but there’s a lot about Richie Benaud the person that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves in the obituary pages during the past week.

Benaud the captain was arguably the greatest cricket has seen in the post-war era. His on-field achievements have been well-documented elsewhere, but his skills as an innovator went well beyond the boundary ropes.

From the time he became Australia captain at the start of the 1958/59 season, Benaud understood the increasing importance of good public relations. After each day’s play, he would hold a press conference for British and Australian reporters, something that had never been done before, and wasn’t done again until many decades later.

These press conferences weren’t the cliché-ridden, predictable affairs that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Benaud talked candidly and was never evasive in his answers. He would talk about the day’s play, clear up any misunderstandings about incident or doubtful decisions, and he was fair in his assessments of players from both sides. In effect, he more-or-less wrote their articles for them.

When touring England in 1956 and 1961, Benaud took a great interest in the BBC’s early television commentaries. After the 1956 tour, he stayed behind and took a job with the News of the World as a police roundsman. Unlike so many of today’s retired sports stars who think they’re God’s gift to television once they’ve been retired for five minutes, Benaud was serious about making it in all forms of journalism, and was prepared to start at the bottom, doing the less glamorous jobs. His relationship with the paper lasted more than half a century until its very last edition in 2011, in which he wrote an excellent column which emphasised the importance of subeditors, something too many newspaper owners nowadays see fit to cut back upon.

Around the same time, he managed to arrange a crash TV course with the BBC. He was a fast learner and soon absorbed a great deal of information about the use of cameras and tips for commentary.

One of his tasks was to spend a day shadowing one of his heroes, the horse racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan (who is still very sharp aged 97). Sir Peter instructed Benaud to remain silent, take notes, write down any questions he had, and at the end of the day they would go for a drink and he could ask his questions.

Benaud made his first BBC radio commentary in 1960 and soon moved into television, a relationship that would last until the corporation lost the rights to televise England cricket in 1999. Further work followed in Australia, initially with ABC and then as an integral part of Kerry Packer’s revolution with Channel 9, who he would continue working for until shortly before his death (a voiceover obituary of Philip Hughes was his last work for the broadcaster).

The newspaper columnist Richard Littlejohn once asked Michael Parkinson what one characteristic all the successful people he’d interviewed had in common – the answer was they were all very hard workers. This could certainly be said of Benaud. From the time he married his second wife Daphne in 1967, she would carefully plan his whole year in his diary, and there would be few, if any, idle days.

If he was not working, he would probably be playing golf. During the British winter, he would be in Australia running his public relations and sports news agency, or commentating for Channel 9.

He would be up every day at dawn, writing, telexing, or even fitting in a round of golf before a day in the commentary box. It was quite common for colleagues to be arriving at the breakfast table at 8:00am to find Benaud returning from a round of golf.

After a busy day there would usually be dinner parties at night. The hospitality was superb – he certainly appreciated good food and fine wine, but in the background you could be sure to hear the ticking of telex and tape machines, later fax machines and the ping of emails arriving.

Benaud usually ended the Australian winter by reporting on a few golf tournaments around the world before arriving in England with Daphne in May, where they would set up their office at their flat. In September, he and Daphne would usually go on a gastronomic tour of France where he would fulfil various business commitments he had in the country.

He’d typically arrive in the commentary box fairly early, complete with two battered leather cases and in later years his laptop. During his off-duty moments, he could often be found studying the Sporting Life and Racing Post, where he had a decades-long friendly rivalry with Jack Bannister in picking winners which lasted until weeks before his death.

During the long BBC era, a full day’s commentary would end with Benaud appearing in front of camera, still immaculately dressed, often in his cream jacket, to record presenting links for the late night highlights, which included a slick and acute summary of the day’s play. He’d do this from the top of his head, without notes, and would cue in various film inserts.

When the rights transferred to Channel 4 in the summer of 1999, Benaud moved with them. The tone of the Channel 4 coverage was quite different to what preceded it. Far greater use was made of technology and it rapidly made the old BBC coverage appear somewhat staid.

Benaud adapted his style to the Channel 4 coverage – his commentary style became a little looser, and he appeared to be given more freedom to use his dry sense of humour. He probably sounded more like the Richie Benaud viewers in Australia had been hearing for many years. Channel 4 never used him as a presenter but he was still regularly seen in front of camera at lunch and teatime features.

Analysing the final decade of Benaud’s life and career is a little more tricky. He famously retired from British TV commentary after the 2005 Ashes, turning down an offer to be part of the Sky Sports team when they took over the rights the following summer, but that wasn’t quite the end of his relationship with British television. His voice was once again heard on the BBC, who took the Channel 9 commentary when they showed highlights of the 2006/07 Ashes series down under, and the same applied when ITV had highlights of the 2010/11 Ashes. At the 2009 Ashes series in England, he appeared as an on-screen analyst for Channel 5’s highlights programme during the Saturday of each Test, though he did not commentate at all.

Ever the professional, he instructed three or four very close friends, whose judgement he trusted, to be completely straight and tell him if they felt he was ‘losing it’ as a commentator. Commentators in other sports had gone on too long: Eddie Waring (rugby league) really was suffering from dementia in his final years. John Motson (football) began a decline in the late 1990s and became a parody of himself. Tony Green (darts) lost the plot years ago.

Thankfully, Benaud never did ‘decline’, but there was a significant change in the way Channel 9 covered cricket that did not suit his style. In his final years, Channel 9 moved from two to three man commentary teams.

One of Benaud’s strengths is that he knew when to say nothing and understood the power of the pause. He also would develop a talking point during his half-hour commentary stint. The three-man booths meant a more conversational style and near-constant ‘banter’ between the commentators which prevented him from working in the way he always had.

A planned retirement from commentary in 2010 to focus on studio work and features never materialised. He continued to be heard on commentary, though less frequently than before, and as a summariser, rather than describing the play-by-play action. He was effectively the ‘third man’ of the booth, and he would have to fight to get a word in edgeways. Indeed, there were at least two half-hour commentary stints in later years where he didn’t say a single word for the duration.

His commentary career ended when, in October 2013, he crashed his vintage 1965 Sunbeam Alpine into a wall, sustaining a cracked sternum and shoulder injuries. Friends said he seemed more upset at having written off his car than the fact he’d sustained injuries which would take many months to recover from.

A planned return to the Channel 9 commentary box in 2014/15 was prevented when he was diagnosed with skin cancer, a likely consequence of many years of playing in the blazing sun without sun cream or a hat in less enlightened times, which ultimately prevented him from coming anywhere close to the age of 104 his mother reached.

During his final summer with Channel 4 in 2005, Benaud regularly referred to the long-running ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ advertising campaign on Australian television that told viewers to slip on a shirt, slop on sun cream, and slap on a hat. Unfortunately, that advice came decades too late for him.

Richie Benaud's advice to commentators

Richie Benaud’s advice to commentators

Benaud’s advice to commentators is timeless. It was relevant when he started in 1960, it’s relevant now, and it’ll still be relevant in another 50 years’ time.

When it comes to TV cricket commentary, Benaud set the standard for others to follow. The modern-day Sky Sports coverage is technically brilliant, but it lacks the joie de vivre of the Channel 4 team Benaud spearheaded. The Sky Sports commentary team often feels like a clique of middle-aged, grey former England captains. It’s one-dimensional, lacks any ‘light and shade’, and is punctuated by prattle about rounds of golf and wine cellars – both passions of Benaud’s, but the key difference was when he was in the commentary box, he made the players on the field, not himself, the focus of his attention.

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Written by Marcus Stead

April 18, 2015 at 8:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Jeremy Clarkson: Some Perspective, and What Happens Next!

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ClarksonLet’s be clear about one thing: Jeremy Clarkson was got rid of because he subjected a colleague to an attack that left him requiring hospital treatment, which was preceded by a prolonged period verbal abuse that amounted to bullying.

Initial reports of a handbags ‘fracas’ between Clarkson and producer Oisin Tymon following a long day’s filming were underplayed. The truth was far more serious.

That’s why the BBC made the decision, not because he’s a very different beast to most of the corporation’s staff.

They’d have taken exactly the same course of action had it been those who fit the BBC mould better, such as their favourites Stephen Fry or David Tennant, and the same would apply to the legions of managers that dominate the BBC in their unofficial uniform of pink open-neck shirts and designer stubble (like Alan Yentob and Danny Cohen, more on them later).

You can’t go around launching physical attacks on your colleagues, and yes, there are limits on what you can say when shouting at subordinates, even in a high-pressure environment.

It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, but the BBC were wrong turn a blind eye to the warning signs in the months leading up to the incident by increasing Clarkson’s workload.

His friends and colleagues had known that he had been fragile for some time following a difficult 2014 – his mother had died, his marriage had broken down, he’d had health problems, and the N-word scandal in the middle of the year had left him clinging on to the Top Gear job by the tips of his fingers.

Whether in sport, the movies, music or TV, it’s a fact that talented people are often difficult to manage, and the BBC didn’t manage Clarkson at all well for the 12 months prior to his departure.

However much the BBC bigwigs hated Clarkson and everything he stood for, the fact is he was the frontman for one of the most successful brands it has ever had.

It’s worth remembering that for the first 24 years of its life, Top Gear had a more sombre magazine format that mixed reviews of new cars with features on motoring safety issues and the impact of new government legislation. Presenters in its early years included former newsreader Angela Rippon, as well as the science-based academic William Woollard and the calm, thoughtful, understated motoring journalist Chris Goffey.

The emphasis began to shift towards entertainment from the time Clarkson joined in 1988, initially as a bit-part reporter. Within a few years, he had become the programme’s main presenter, and with Clarkson at the helm, it was regularly BBC Two’s most-watched programme of the week throughout the 1990s.

The old Top Gear began to lose its way towards the end of the 1990s as long-standing presenters left to be replaced by relative unknowns, and following Clarkson’s first departure in 2001, the programme appeared to have run its course and was axed later that year, with many of the then-presenters going on to take an almost-identical format to Channel 5 under the name Fifth Gear (a programme still going strong 14 years later, now broadcast on History).

Top Gear LogoThe following year, the BBC relaunched Top Gear with a radical new look. A returning Clarkson was at the helm of a new studio-based format that went for mass entertainment, humour and controversy, complete with sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May (who replaced Jason Dawe from the second post-relaunch series), which helped build a chemistry and rapport that remains fresh well over a decade later.

Clarkson owned a stake in the new format and could share in its commercial success. Thanks in no small part to Clarkson’s presenting style and very, very strong work ethic, the new-look Top Gear rapidly became a flagship of the BBC’s Sunday evening schedule, providing a welcome alternative to the genteel dramas that generally dominate the timeslot.

The format’s success was good news for Clarkson, who sold his stake in the franchise for a reported £13 million in 2012, but also great news for the BBC, for whom the Top Gear has become big, big business.

In January 2015, the new series of Top Gear on BBC Two was simulcast in more than 50 countries across Oceania, Africa and the Middle East, with a further 10 countries in Asia showing it within 24 hours of its original transmission, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia.

Then there are the format rights, which the BBC sells to overseas broadcasters to make their own versions, as well as live arena shows, the Top Gear magazine, repeats on Dave, BBC World and other channels globally, DVD releases, and other branded merchandise. Not bad for a series that began as a regional programme for BBC Midlands in 1977!

All these factors combined means that Top Gear is now worth somewhere in the region of £150 million per year to the BBC. To put that into perspective, the annual budget for BBC Radio Four is £115.9 million, the entire BBC local radio network in England is £146.5 million, while on TV, BBC Three’s annual budget is £112.9 million, BBC Four’s is £67.8 million, while the BBC News Channel costs £57.5 million.

Whichever way you look at it, if Top Gear was axed, it would create quite a shortfall in the BBC’s income.

The BIG question is this: Which is bringing in the money? Is it the Top Gear brand/format? Or is it Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May and the senior production team?

Yes, the BBC owns the Top Gear name and franchise, but without Clarkson and co, how much use is it to them?

Clarkson and co can come up with a new programme name, tweak the format and keep going with another broadcaster, but the BBC has a far tougher task in making Top Gear a success with Chris Evans, Joss Stone or whoever else at the helm. They own a programme name and a format, but not much else.

Would the British public warm to it? Would international audiences take to it to the same extent? That’s anyone’s guess at this stage.

One big irony is that Top Gear is a very un-BBC programme, made by and broadcast on the BBC.

As an institution, the BBC has, in the last two decades, become increasingly inward-looking, bland, self-satisfied and smug, dominated by a metropolitan elite who all went to the same universities, attend the same dinner parties in Islington, shop at Waitrose, have the same cultural tastes, and hold the same set of liberal views.

This culture has been allowed to expand over the years as BBC mandarins recruited and promoted from within their own kind.

Andrew Marr, himself a part of that set, put his finger on the pulse of the BBC’s institutional bias a few years ago when he said: “The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities, and gay people. It has a liberal bias, not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”

Do goldfish know they’re goldfish? Are they aware that a world exists outside their goldfish bowl? I’ve no idea, but BBC executives don’t appear to know much about life beyond their own goldfish bowl of BBC buildings, fashionable restaurants, pretentious opera houses, and designer-furnished homes in the more fashionable parts of London.

Last week, Alan Yentob, the BBC’s ‘Creative Director’ said on Newsnight, said, in defence of the BBC: “There are quite a lot of programmes which reach out to audiences which are C2s, DEs, which aren’t the metropolitan elite.”

C2s are the social demographic described as ‘skilled manual workers’ and DEs are ‘semi and unskilled manual workers, pensioners, widows (no other earner), casual or lowest grade workers’.

They’re not the sort of people Yentob or other BBC executives encounter very often, but believe they know what they want to watch, and kindly make programmes for.

I have been known to mingle with such peasants, usually for a few beers and a game of poker than a dinner party with overpriced, obscure food and wine from Waitrose, and I can assure Mr Yentob that these philistines consume very few of the BBC’s programmes outside of sport and Top Gear, generally preferring the offerings of Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky, and, increasingly under Peter Fincham’s leadership, ITV.

Then there is Clarkson’s old nemesis, Danny Cohen, the BBC’s Director of Television, who made an offensive comparison to Jimmy Savile when describing Clarkson’s situation. This is the same Danny Cohen, still only 41-years-old, who, fully aware of Savile’s, erm, ‘dark side’, commissioned a special ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ programme shortly after his death, and also has such highbrow, intellectual hits as ‘Snog, Marry Avoid’, ‘The Inbetweeners’ and ‘Hotter Than My Daughter’ to his commissioning CV.

So yes, there are plenty of good reasons for liking Clarkson and liking Top Gear. But less clear is why Clarkson is somehow considered a ‘right winger’.

Stephen Fry was once described (by an uncertain source) as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like’. On that basis, Jeremy Clarkson is ‘a left wing person’s idea of what a right wing person is like’.

Driving gas-guzzling cars and making politically-incorrect jokes about foreigners and homosexuals does not make you right wing.

In the eyes of BBC types, a right winger is something undesirable that behaves like Clarkson, but where is the evidence that Clarkson is especially right wing?

Yes, he attended Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, and he’s friends with David Cameron (not that David Cameron is truly right wing). He comes from a well-off background and his mother, Shirley, did very well out of manufacturing Paddington Bear toys (the prototypes being Christmas presents for a 12-year-old Jeremy and his sister, Joanna).

But beyond that, the evidence is thin. When has Clarkson ever said anything of note about the things that right wingers (quite a broad church, actually) consider important?

Has Clarkson had much to say at all about things like national sovereignty, a low-tax economy, the traditional family, law and order, proper education, Christianity, personal responsibility and individual liberty?

These are values the BBC cliques are at best indifferent, at worst downright hostile to, but are the values that millions of ordinary British people hold dear.

That’s not to say Clarkson should have things to say on these matters – he’d be well-advised to stick to what he’s good at, but to claim he is a ‘right winger’ is neither fair nor accurate.

Clarkson Hammond MaySo what happens next? We know that the planned arena shows are to go ahead without any Top Gear or BBC branding (the shows will be known as ‘Clarkson, Hammond and May’), and inevitably, Clarkson’s agent will be (has already been?) inundated with offers.

James May and Richard Hammond’s contract expired at midnight on 1 April. They, too, are free to speak to rival broadcasters.

Sky are going through a period of cost-cutting at present after paying a staggering £4.18 billion to hold on to their Premier League football rights, up 70% on the previous inflation-busting auction just three years ago. They’re unlikely to splash out on a big contract for the trio.

ITV are the front-runners to sign them. As a business, it’s in much better shape than it was seven years ago, its share price has risen steadily in recent times, and they have money to spend. All they’d need to do is come up with a new programme name, a slight format tweak, and they’d have a product they could export globally and successfully, as they do with Downton Abbey and many other flagship programmes. Could it be as big a hit as Top Gear? There’s no obvious reason why it couldn’t.

Such a programme would also attract, and I hate to use Yentob-speak, the ABC1 demographic that ITV finds harder to draw in – more affluent, younger people (especially men), who are much sought-after by big brand advertisers, like, well, car and electronics companies, the sort who advertise during ITV’s football coverage.

Of course, there are other possibilities, Channel 4, Channel 5 (recently purchased by American giants Viacom), Netflix, Amazon and goodness knows what else.

For the time being, Clarkson would be well-advised to take a break, sit on an island somewhere and get his head together, but bet your bottom dollar on him being back on our screens before too long.

Clarkson is dead. Long live Clarkson!

Written by Marcus Stead

April 2, 2015 at 2:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized