Nostalgic wallows 1: Bill McLaren

 

From bloodandmud.com

 

We’re now ten days into the Japan-hosted 2019 Rugby World Cup and my mental health feels more kicked around than the ball in the matches.  One of the two teams I support is already in danger of making an early exit from the tournament.  Meanwhile, the other team I support seems to have haplessly manoeuvred itself into a position where it’ll face New Zealand’s steamrollering All-Blacks in the second stage.

 

But aside from the anguish…  The tournament reminds me yet again of how much I miss being able to watch an international rugby match and at the same time listen to the knowledgeable and dulcet tones of Bill McLaren.

 

Although McLaren, who died in 2010 at the age of 86, worked as late as 2002, it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that he was indisputably the voice of British rugby union.  This was an era when sport, if you weren’t at the live event itself, was viewable only on a handful of terrestrial TV channels.  It was common for one channel to have a monopoly on broadcasting one sport and, by extension, for one commentator to have a monopoly on talking about that sport.  Hence, in my youth, it was almost impossible to see horse racing without hearing of the posh but eerily robotic tones of Peter O’Sullivan, or boxing without hearing the excitable Harry Carpenter, or Formula One without hearing the gaffe-prone Murray Walker, or rugby league without hearing the indescribable-sounding Eddie Waring.  McLaren fulfilled this role in the world of rugby union and for me was the best sports commentator of the lot, though I’m undoubtedly biased.  Rugby has always been my favourite team sport.  Plus McLaren came from Hawick in the Scottish Borders, the rugby-daft region where I spent many of my formative years.

 

There were three reasons for McLaren’s greatness.  Firstly, he knew his stuff.  I remember watching a McLaren-commentated game on a pub TV in Aberdeen sometime in the 1980s.  I was in the company of my good friend, the late Finlay McLean, and at one point, Finlay turned around to me and marvelled, “He’s just steeped in the game, isn’t he?”

 

When a try was scored, McLaren didn’t just tell you the name of the player who’d crossed the line.  No, he’d also observe how the player was the great-great-nephew of the man who’d kicked the winning points in the legendary Hawick-Galashiels derby of 1937, or a direct descendent of the tight-head prop with the great Western Province team that’d dominated South Africa’s Currie Cup in the 1890s.  It wouldn’t have surprised you if he’d identified the player’s granny as the stylist responsible for grooming J.P.R. Williams’ sideburns in the 1970s.  He seemed to know everything about rugby.

 

McLaren’s knowledge was encyclopaedic, but this was backed by a conscientious and professional attitude to research.  I read somewhere that when preparing for a game, he’d cover a full sheet of foolscap with notes about each player.  This meant that in the commentator’s box he was constantly shuffling around some 30 sheets of paper.

 

Secondly, although he was a Scotsman and often commentated on games involving the Scottish rugby team, he was never biased.  On the contrary, he always applauded good rugby, no matter who was playing it and even if Scotland was on the receiving end of it.  McLaren’s neutrality was especially admirable when you compared him with the international football commentators on the BBC at the time (and indeed still now), who seemed incapable of narrating an England World Cup match without speculating every second minute about whether ‘we’ could win the World Cup just like ‘we’ won it back in 1966.

 

Thirdly, and most importantly for me, his commentaries were laden with poetry.  McLaren had an amusing, fanciful, frequently wonderful talent with language.  Admittedly, he could be a tad unflattering in the turn of phrase he used to describe the over-sized players on the field.  English prop Colin Smart – famous for getting stomach-pumped after drinking a bottle of aftershave as a post-match lark – consisted of ‘considerable acreage’; English captain and lock Bill Beaumont looked ‘like someone who enjoys his food’; Welsh forwards Scott and Craig Quinnell were ‘two well-nourished individuals’; Scottish flanker Finlay Calder had ‘hands like dinner plates’; and Calder’s gangly fellow-Scot Doddie Weir was ‘the lamppost of the line-out.’  As for the legendary and frankly massive New Zealand flanker Jonah Lomu, running into him was like ‘trying to tackle a snooker table’.

 

© BBC

 

He had a fondness to likening players to animals.  They might behave like ‘a demented ferret’ or ‘a bag of weasels’ or ‘a raging bull with a bad head’ or ‘a whirling tsetse fly’ or ‘a runaway giraffe’ or ‘a slippery salmon’.  The Scottish scrum-half Roy Laidlaw (whose nephew Greig plays in the same position in the current Scottish team) was as elusive as ‘a baggy up a Borders burn’ – a baggy being, to quote the Dictionary of the Scottish Language, ‘a species of large minnow.’  Unsurprisingly for a Borders man, Scotticisms were common in his delivery.  Rugby balls were likened to ‘three pounds of haggis’, the famously square-shouldered Scottish skipper Peter Brown was like ‘a coo kicking over a milk pail’ and an injured player sitting dejectedly at the side of the field whilst sucking on a mint was at least ‘enjoying his sweetie.’

 

When it came to describing the turbulent passions and physical violence often unleashed on the pitch, McLaren was amusingly euphemistic.  Cheating was frequently described as ‘jiggery-pokery’ and punch-ups were dismissed as ‘a bit of argy-bargy’.  I remember how when fists started flying in the middle of one scrum, he commented: “It’s getting a bit unceremonious in that front row.”  And when Scottish centre Jim Renwick – whom McLaren had coached as a schoolboy – missed a kick and was caught by the camera mouthing the F-word, McLaren diplomatically remarked that he was ‘muttering a few naughty Hawick words.’

 

Some of his sayings became catchphrases.  When a player prepared to kick a conversion and half the stadium made disparaging noises in the hope of distracting him and making him fluff it, McLaren would invariably remark: “There’s some ill-mannered whistling.”  And when a conversion-kick made it between the posts despite being taken from a torturous angle, he’d declare: “It’s high enough, it’s long enough and it’s straight enough!”

 

Aware that in the Borders towns local players who’d made it onto the national team were seen as heroes, he’d often serenade the scorer of a Scottish try with the lines, “And they’ll be dancing in the streets of…” or “And they’ll be drinking his health down in…” – Hawick, Galashiels, Kelso, Melrose, Selkirk, wherever – “…tonight!”  As an honorary Borderer, I’d say they were more likely to be drinking his health than dancing in the streets.

 

McLaren’s manner and delivery were immensely relaxed and comforting, but his early life had been no bed of roses.  As a young World War II serviceman, he had to endure the Battle of Monte Cassino, of which one eyewitness said, “The men were so tired that it was a living death.  They had come from such a depth of weariness that I wondered if they would quite be able to make the return to the lives and thoughts they had known.” McLaren himself described Monte Cassino as a ‘vision of hell on earth.’

 

After the war, he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, which put a prompt end to any hopes he had of becoming a rugby internationalist.  TB was then considered incurable and he wasn’t expected to survive, but he and four fellow sufferers agreed to be guinea pigs for the trials of a new drug, streptomycin.  Thanks to this treatment he recovered, but three of the four other volunteers died.  It was while he was convalescing that he produced his first sports commentaries – describing table-tennis matches over the hospital radio.

 

McLaren was passionately attached to his hometown and famously said, “A day out of Hawick is a day wasted.”  A few years ago I visited Hawick for the first time since the 1980s and was upset to see how much it’d deteriorated.  Its high street was run-down and riddled with derelict properties – thanks to an economy weakened by the closure of local woolen mills, and also thanks no doubt to the opening of branches of Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and Lidl, which’d sucked the retailing life out of the place.  My first dismayed thought was: “What would Bill McLaren have said about this?”

 

McLaren’s commentaries were emblematic of an earlier, more innocent age, when rugby was still an amateur sport and because of that it was incredibly accessible – especially if you lived in a rugby-centric place like the Borders, where the guys you saw performing heroic deeds for Scotland on TV on Saturday afternoons existed during weekdays as mortals like everyone else.  As a kid living there, I was delighted when the man from the electricity board who came to our house to check on a power outage was none other than Jim Renwick.  Meanwhile, Scottish fullback Peter Dods was a joiner down the road in Galashiels and my old man, a farmer, was on nodding terms with Scottish flanker John Jeffrey, who farmed in Kelso – Jeffrey’s teammates had nicknamed him ‘the Great White Shark’ but to Bill McLaren he was just ‘the big Kelso farmer’.  And let’s not forget local electrician Roy Laidlaw, whom legend has it had to rewire the public toilets in Jedburgh the Monday morning after the 1984 Scotland team he was part of won the Grand Slam in Paris.

 

Yes, Bill McLaren’s voice evokes a simpler time in rugby, before professionalism, sponsorship, corporatism, razzmatazz and a profit-driven need to win at all costs took over.  But homespun though his persona was, I don’t believe there’s been a sports commentator in the years since who’s come close to matching him.

 

© From rugbyrelics.com

 

Death log 2015, part 2

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

Continuing my tribute to people I liked who didn’t make it past 2015…

 

In January, the theatre, film and TV actress Geraldine McEwan passed away.  Prim and forthright, wry and twinkling, McEwan’s persona made her perfect for playing two of the greatest Misses in British literature.  In the 1970s she played the titular, self-assured but too-fond-of-Mussolini Edinburgh school-mistress in a TV adaptation of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Spark reckoned McEwan best captured the essence of Jean Brodie, an accomplishment considering that Vanessa Redgrave had already played her on stage and Maggie Smith had played her on screen.  And later, from 2004 to 2007, she played Agatha Christie’s deceptively spinsterish and demure-looking sleuth in a dozen instalments of Miss Marple.

 

July saw the departure of the great Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.  Though he was famous for his performances in David Lean’s epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) and also for being the world’s most prominent bridge player, I’ll cherish Sharif most for playing the beleaguered Captain Brunel in Richard Lester’s 1974 thriller Juggernaut, which for my money is the best of the 1970s disaster movies.  Sharif’s calm and charm are put to the test when a psychotic criminal places six powerful bombs on board his passenger-stuffed cruise liner and – worse – the best the British government can do to help is send in a boozed-up bomb disposal expert played by the (at the time) boozed-up Richard Harris.

 

(c) United Artists

 

Writer Christopher Wood died in May, although his death wasn’t reported in the media until months later.  As well as co-writing the scripts for Roger Moore’s best James Bond movie, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), and for his worst one, Moonraker (1979), Wood was responsible for those oh-so-British, oh-so-1970s sex-comedy Confessions of… books and films, which he wrote / scripted under the pseudonym Timothy Lea.  In an interview with Penthouse magazine, Wood opined, “They were funny then, and they’re funny now.  Then again, I always did like smut.”  I’ve written about Wood before on Blood and Porridge, here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=1549

 

In September, the American actress Catherine Coulson died.  In her supporting role as the Log Lady in David Lynch’s much-loved Twin Peaks (1990-91), she provided that TV series with some of its funniest and most bizarre moments.  Before that, she’d helped to fund and served as assistant director and camera operator on Lynch’s breakthrough movie Eraserhead (1977); and she’d been married for a time to the late Jack Nance, who played the spectacularly bouffant-ed Henry Spencer in Eraserhead and the easy-going but henpecked Pete Martell in Twin Peaks.

 

(c) Lynch/Frost Productions

 

October saw the death of Denis Healey, British Defence Minister under Harold Wilson in the 1960s and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s.  He was described as ‘the best Labour Prime Minister Britain never had’ so often that I’m sure he was heartily sick of the phrase.  Still, it’s surely true that if the Labour Party had made the pugnacious and rambunctious Healey its leader in the 1980s, he’d have had a better chance than anyone else of ousting Margaret Thatcher from Number 10.  Instead, though, Healey ended up as deputy leader only, under the hapless Michael Foot.  Foot was a gentle, intelligent and very well-read man, but he belonged to a different political era; and the right-wing British press of the 1980s tore him to pieces.  (Mind you, Foot’s treatment seems mild compared to the abuse that’s been hurled at left-winger Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader in September this year.)

 

British film critic Philip French died in October too.  A reviewer for the Observer for a half-century, French was one of the few ‘establishment’ film critics whose opinions I could stomach during my youth in the 1970s and 1980s.  Unlike, say, Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard, or the BBC’s Barry Norman, or the ubiquitous Leslie Halliwell, French wasn’t a prude and didn’t allow his tastes to be boxed in by what was deemed ‘respectable’.  Actually, unlike a lot of his peers, he seemed to genuinely like films.  He loved Western movies in particular; and he was about the only major British critic to laud Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – now seen as one of the classics – when it was released in 1982.

 

In 2008, French identified his all-time favourite movies.  His list included such worthy choices as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others (2006).  I’m not so sure about his inclusion of Gandhi (1982) or Ratatouille (2007), though…

 

Gunnar Hansen died in November.  In 1974, this Icelandic-born actor played Leatherface, the most memorable of the serial-killing and cannibalistic Sawyer family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Masked, able to converse only in mewls and gibbers, and wielding the buzzing chainsaw of the title, Leatherface was initially one of the most terrifying characters in horror-movie history.  It’s a pity that his fearsomeness has gradually been lessened by familiarity, with successive sequels and remakes trying to turn him into a money-spinning franchise.

 

From revolvermag.com

 

Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor, who also passed away in November, was drummer with the great heavy metal band Motörhead during its glory years of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  He thumped the tubs, as they say, on 1977’s Motörhead, 1979’s Overkill, 1979’s Bomber, 1980’s Ace of Spades, 1982’s Iron Fist and 1983’s Another Perfect Day; although he played with them again from 1987 to 1992.  Devotees regard him as part of the band’s greatest line-up, alongside front-man and bassist Lemmy and guitarist ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke.  Alas, he wasn’t the only member of that line-up to succumb to the Grim Reaper during 2015:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6016

 

Another hard-rocking fatality of 2015 was Scott Weiland, one-time vocalist with grunge band the Stone Temple Pilots.   I was sniffy about the Stone Temple Pilots when they appeared, seemingly riding on the coat-tails of Nirvana and Pearl Jam; but I suspect if I listened to their 1992 breakthrough album Core now, it would seem much better in retrospect – compared to the dross that’s clogged up the charts in the 23 years since.  Actually, I prefer the five years (2003-2008) that Weiland spent as vocalist with the super-group Velvet Revolver, whose line-up included three Guns N’ Roses alumni, Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum.  I’ll always remember Velvet Revolver for their performance during the Hyde Part component of the Live 8 concerts in July 2005.  Swaggering onstage and promptly unleashing a sonic assault of heavy metal, Weiland, Slash and chums blew away a whole park-ful of cocoa-sipping Elton John fans and tofu-munching Coldplay fans.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAoL3QSDadE

 

In November, Jonah Lomu – the 1.96-metre-tall Tongan-New Zealand rugby player once described as ‘the first true global superstar of rugby union’ – died at the tragically young age of 40.  Lomu will live on in my memory for his performance during the semi-final between New Zealand and England in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  He laid waste to Will Carling, Rob Andrew, Rory Underwood, Mike Catt, Dean Richards and co. and helped his side knock 45 points past them.  Afterwards the Daily Telegraph described Lomu as “a runaway potting shed in boots” and said of the game generally: “If it had not added so much to English doom and despondency, it would have been permissible to laugh.”  To be honest, not being English, I laughed.

 

(c) The Guardian

 

Late 2015 was not a good time for old British character actors.  Warren Mitchell died in November.  Although Mitchell appeared in many low-budget British horror movies – The Trollenberg Terror (1958), Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Night Caller from Outer Space (1965) and Terry Gilliam’s medieval monster-fantasy Jabberwocky (1977) – and comedy movies – Postman’s Knock (1962), The Intelligence Men (1965), The Sandwich Man (1966) and The Assassination Bureau (1969) – he’ll be chiefly remembered for playing the reactionary loudmouth Alf Garnett in Johnny Speight’s 1960s / 1970s TV sitcom Till Death Us Do Part.  Speight intended Alf to embody the horribleness of right-wing bigotry.  Alf detested everyone outside his little bubble of white, Protestant, Conservative-voting southern Englishness, constantly insulted blacks, Pakistanis, Jews, Catholics, Scots, Welsh people and northerners, and at the same time was a hideous human being: selfish, cowardly, pig-ignorant and bullying.

 

It must have been galling for Speight (and Mitchell) when it became clear that many of the show’s fans hadn’t seen the irony.  They thought Alf was a hero for ‘speaking the truth’ and ‘telling it like it is’.  Mind you, that didn’t stop the two of them reviving Alf for further series in the 1980s, by which time he’d become a frail, pathetic old-age pensioner dependent on a home-help from the local social services, who happened to be – horror! – black; and for a final hurrah in 1997 with An Audience with Alf Garnett, which was broadcast on the eve of the general election that saw 18 years of Conservative rule come to an end and Labour sweep back to power under Tony Blair.  This was sly timing indeed, slice Tony Blair’s father-in-law was the actor Tony Booth, who’d played Alf’s layabout son-in-law in the original Till Death Us Do Part.

 

Also in November, British-Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey died.  The multilingual Jaffrey made over 150 movies in Britain, India and the States.  For me his finest hour was his supporting role as Ghurka soldier Billy Fish in John Huston’s epic adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story, The Man Who Would Be King (1975).  The film is regarded as a major entry in the CVs of its two stars, Sean Connery and Michael Caine; but Jaffrey’s delightful performance as the quirky, loyal, courageous and ultimately self-sacrificing Billy Fish comes close to stealing the show from the two leads.

 

(c) Columbia Pictures

 

And in December Anthony Valentine died.  I’ll remember Valentine for appearing in every second TV show I watched as a kid – as a regular in Callan (1967-72), Colditz (1974) and Raffles (1975-77) and as a guest star in Department S (1970), Budgie (1971), Z Cars (1972), Thriller (1975), Space 1999 (1975), Minder (1979, 1980 and 1983), Hammer House of Horror (1980), Tales of the Unexpected (1980 and 1982) and Bergerac (1983).  But the biggest impression he made on me was in the 1976 Hammer horror movie To the Devil a Daughter, during which satanic forces caused him to spontaneously and explosively combust inside a church – a dangerous ‘full body burn’ stunt that was actually carried out by Hammer’s main stuntman Eddie Powell.

 

Finally, December saw the death of respected Scottish journalist Ian Bell, who for as long as I can remember penned columns for the Scotsman, Daily Record and Herald – it’s for his work in that last publication that he was probably most celebrated.  In a journalistic / political era of soundbites, platitudes and simplifications, Bell was admirably unfashionable.  His writing was cerebral and ruminative and required concentration but, if you persevered, you’d have a hard time disagreeing with his arguments by the time you reached its end.   

 

If I’m not mistaken, his final column was a critique of the speech given recently in the House of Commons by Labour MP Hilary Benn (though it was cheered to the rafters by his Conservative counterparts) that called on Britain to join the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria.  “The great, acclaimed speech managed to say very little…” noted Bell.  “He did not explain why, having been wrong about three previous interventions, he had a remote chance of being right on this occasion.  He did not spare much of his passion on the risk of civilian casualties, despite all we know of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.”  Spot on, Ian.  And farewell.

 

http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14126940.Ian_Bell__The_dismantling_of_Hilary_Benn_s_empty_war_rhetoric/

 

(c) The Herald