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Wolstenholme, Benaud and the value of silence

March 25, 2011

Today marks the ninth anniversary of the death of Kenneth Wolstenholme. Despite being too young to have ever heard him live, like every other Englishman with a fondness for football I am acutely aware of his place in the history of the national game.

Wolstenholme’s most famous moment was, of course, the 1966 World Cup final. You can’t help but feel a little sorry for Hugh Johns, who was commentating on the game for ITV. For all history cares, he might as well have stayed at home. “Some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over… It is now.” Those words are as entwined in the memory of England’s victory as the debate over Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal or the sight of Bobby Moore holding the trophy aloft. Indeed, their place in the national psyche meant that commercialism would eventually get its hands on them. Wolstenholme was unhappy at the BBC for using his most famous line as the title of a sports quiz show, and was similarly displeased at its use by various companies in promoting their products.

Following that day at Wembley, Wolstenholme lasted just five more years at the BBC, as David Coleman became the corporation’s main football commentator. “It was clear they didn’t want me any more and I was a bit miffed about that,” he remarked later. His treatment suggests that his stature has grown over time. After leaving the BBC he worked for Tyne Tees Television in the 1970s, before appearing briefly on Channel 4’s early Serie A coverage. England’s World Cup victory would always be the pinnacle of his career, but it was not the only significant match he covered for the BBC. On the domestic front, he was involved from the very beginning of Match of the Day in 1964. He was there at Celtic’s European Cup triumph in 1967, and then at Manchester United’s win a year later. His last significant match was the 1970 World Cup final between Italy and Brazil.

Fast forward to today and you wonder whether any of the current crop of commentators will be viewed as fondly 35 years after the biggest match of their own career. Which of them would we consider truly excellent? None will ever will win universal acclaim, but the likes of John Motson and Martin Tyler are probably the most publicly recognisable voices working today and two of the longest serving. They have presumably done more right than wrong to survive in the industry for as long as they have. But of the others plying the same trade today? No names stand out.

The standard of commentary in the modern era is certainly an issue on which Wolstenholme had an opinion. Before his death, he claimed that the ubiquitousness of many of those describing football matches in this country was down to broadcasters encouraging uniformity. He complained that “all the commentators seem to have been told to change to the same style. It bores me. They don’t seem to realise that while silence in radio is death – in television it can be golden.” Wolstenholme was undeniably one of the old school of broadcasters, coming from an age where there was often just one man with a mic and even when an “expert summariser” was present, his opinion was only offered only sporadically. As football began to be presented more as entertainment rather than for its own sake, the death knell was sounded for commentators of Wolstenholme’s ilk. When Sky Sports arrived with coverage of the newborn Premier League, they wanted coverage to be more American in tone. Two commenators on a live match became the norm and the ex-pro on the gantry would have a lot more to say. Moreover, increasing amounts of televised football created a need for more commentators, and it was inevitable that some would be better than others.

Yet despite the increased intensity of football coverage in this country since the 1960s, the value of knowing when to speak and when to fall silent is still an important, if undervalued, one. Cricket is a slower sport than football. Even the most frenetic Twenty20 game still has pauses between each delivery. In test matches there is certainly more scope for silence and reflection. The principles of TV commentary remain consistent though. Richie Benaud was the master of knowing when to speak and when to be quiet. Barney Ronay puts it better than I could: “The big thing about Richie’s broadcasting wasn’t so much what he said, as his silences. He gave us a master-class in the pregnant pause. No yodelled catchphrase, no elbow-jabbing banter, just the perfectly timed nudge, the wry one-liner and sparing, but eagerly hoarded, words of praise.” Benaud regarded the commentator as having a responsibility to add to the pictures, rather than telling the viewers what they could already see. Many of those tasked with covering football today would do well to heed that advice.

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