The Cricketer
Huw Turbervill Huw Turbervill

LAST BLOWERS

Henry Blofeld explains to Huw Turbervill why this summer will be his last with TMS, as well as discussing his love of words, pigeons and buses

A certain Daily Mail columnist has spent a career ending every other article with the words, “You couldn’t make it up.” Never has that phrase been more appropriate than when The Cricketer went to interview Henry Blofeld in his Chelsea pied-à-terre, however. The broadcasting legend, famous for interspersing his cricket commentaries with observations about non-cricket things, looked into his conservatory midway through our chat and there was a pigeon, pecking imaginary grain off a lustrous carpet.

Of course, we all saw the irony immediately and had a hearty chuckle. Blofeld insists it has never happened before. There is another irony about his other favourite non-cricket topic – buses – but I will come to that later.

The timing for the interview was serendipitous. I had been looking to do it for months, for I am – I am happy to admit – a big Blofeld fan, and wanted to write a piece about how this logophile, with the fruity voice and old Etonian syntax, creates such marvellous soundscapes/wordtraits on the wireless. I also wanted to ask him how he dealt with criticism, for I acknowledge he is a real ‘Marmite’ figure with the British public. The interview had been booked in for a couple of weeks, but when it finally arrived, it was just two days after he had announced this summer would be his last commentating on Test Match Special. As Blofeld might observe himself this summer about a Joe Root cover drive, “what wonderful timing!”

The announcement caused some excitement, and the 77-year-old even went on The Andrew Marr Show, with the presenter telling him: “The continentals have Magritte. We have you!”

So…why is he hanging up his microphone now? “I have been doing it for nearly 50 years [since 1974], and there comes a time in all our lives when, if you have been doing the same job for a long time, you begin to wonder,” he says. “I think I have found it less easy lately, and so it has become harder work. Commentary has evolved, like everything else in life. This is not a criticism and please do not write it as such, for they do it brilliantly, but TMS commentary has become much more conversational. My great strength, if I have one, is my ability to describe. If you get six balls in an over all going through to the keeper, you have plenty of time to talk about the things I like to talk about… but it has become very conversational and I don’t get the time to describe in that way, so I find it a little bit harder. It’s old dogs and new tricks, isn’t it? I’m the last of the old farts and they are better off without me – the last of the old school. Probably the way they do it now makes it more easily reachable to the public. I also wanted to go out when people are still saying nice things about me, and to be vaguely in control of it.”

I make the point that TMS is not just a sports-broadcasting programme, however: I know lots of people who love it but do not love cricket. He is a unique feature of a unique programme. “I heard that just over 50 per cent of our audience are ladies,” he tells me. “A lot of them do not want to know the difference between leg-breaks and googlies. They are doing housework, and they want a comfortable voice. Robert Hudson, the rugby and cricket commentator, was head of BBC outside broadcasts (sound) when I joined, and he said, ‘You must remember that TMS is company’. It is the best definition I have heard.

“I was very close to John Arlott, and he gave me very good advice. A commentator always should remember a day’s Test cricket is like a symphony concert. You have to do quick bits, and slow bits. When you get excitement the cricket takes care of itself, so there is no time to talk about buses and pigeons – they come in when nothing much is happening. When you get the slow bits the commentator should be aware that, as well as telling the story, he is an entertainer. Find a battle within a battle. That is why I talk about the lady with the red dress beyond the square-leg boundary.” Exactly, I interject – the non-cricket anoraks love all that. “Yes, but the diehard Yorkshiremen go mad! You will never please everyone all the time, and I don’t try! I remember Peter Baxter saying to me I can go over the boundary. You look at the cricket mainly, but also the grass under the feet, the trees, the sky, the pavilion, the crowd and then the mount and frame. The ultimate compliment for me is someone telling me, ‘You made me feel I was there’.”

"A day’s Test cricket is like a symphony concert. You have to do quick bits, and slow bits"

I ask him if his famous lines (like: “As the bowler runs in, it’s so quiet you can hear the creak of the gasometer”) come naturally. “Yes. I honestly feel I have never contrived anything. I have never taken anything into a session of play that I am determined to get out – I think it does come fairly naturally. I was with Sky in the early 1990s and Aggers asked me, ‘what is the secret?’ I said, ‘two words – be yourself’. As soon as you start doing it like someone else it comes across as contrived.”

Blofeld is one of England’s most famous wordsmiths. “My father ran an estate but really he was an academic. Strange words were used often at home – I was brought up in that environment. My mother was highly bright too, and listening to them: one did pick up lots of words. I always have a dictionary besides me. There are lots of words that I don’t know the precise meaning of which I use, but when I am writing a book you feel you have to get the exact meaning. My father also had a brilliant speaking voice. My brother did too and he became a high-court judge. I inherited that so I have been very lucky.”

He admits that his three years on Sky were “not very good”. He says: “I don’t really stick to the screen. If I see something I follow it. I drive directors mad. I was asked back to TMS for the South Africa Test at Lord’s in 1994. I was very nervous, but I have never looked back!”

His house is packed with cricket memorabilia – pictures and trinkets, and, of course, books. Not just cricket, though. I can also see he is a fan of PG Wodehouse and John Le Carré, among many other authors. Perhaps his love of Wodehouse partially explains his sense of fun. I ask him if describing Ashley Giles as a ‘wheelie bin’ was Wodehousian wit. “Wodehouse is brilliant. Ashley got cross – I never said it nastily. We shook hands. I don’t like upsetting cricketers, but equally you see silly cricket and you have to say so.” Of course, his funny lines are not always intentional, like the time when he said Monty Python was running in to bowl. “I am always going to upset some – that is half the fun really.” So how does he deal with criticism? “You always take it on board. You could just knock it away. People do write rude things, not often… and now you have social media, and there is more anger… that is the place where they can go. Some are silly, but there are one or two quite good ones. They have a point. You must never think you are immune to criticism, if you write books, magazines, or are a broadcaster, that can be fatal – we will all get it wrong sometimes. My wife Valeria is my best critic. She likes cricket because she was born in Rhodesia, as it then was. She is very good at listening to my speeches, commentary and writing. She reads everything – she is brilliant.” He adds: “Did you know I was Le Carré’s only failure? David Cornwell taught me German at Eton!”

“The pigeons come in when nothing much is happening” 

Blofeld is working on another book, Over and Out, until the end of July. It is his farewell memoir to TMS. “It is light and amusing and will be out in time for Christmas.” He will also be commentating on the Tests at Lord’s and The Oval against South Africa, and then back at Lord’s again for the visit of West Indies, in his final knocks for the Beeb. On September 11, if the Test lasts long, expect the type of tribute from the crowd that said goodbye to Arlott and Richie Benaud, perhaps. Then he will move to Minorca at the end of the year. “They have a lovely cricket club, with 80 touring sides from England. I’m not retiring, though! I have 100 nights in the theatre planned next year (the 78 Retired tour, book tickets at www.henryblofeld.co.uk) and it is only 100 minutes to Gatwick. In 2000 I told The Guardian I would drink myself to death in five minutes upon retirement but I have survived! I don’t drink when I am doing a book anyhow, although when I finish I will tuck in.”

We end with some quick questions. It is well known that Ian Fleming named his 007 super-villain after Henry’s father, but less well known is that his middle name is Calthorpe, and he is related to the ex-England captain Freddie of that surname.

Then we talk about his other great non-cricket commentary subject, buses. “And there goes a red bus down the Harleyford Road” (Oval Tests will not be the same without that). Yet he was hit by a bus in Eton, cycling to nets at the age of 17, an accident that put paid to his promising cricket career. He spent 28 days in a coma in hospital. “I had 14 brain operations, plastic surgery, my collar bone had to be rebroken twice and my cheekbones flattened out. It was a bus full of French Institute ladies, coming to look around Eton, and they must have all leapt out saying, ‘Zut alors!’ Jonners said I had an acute attack of ‘busitis’ after that – as I kept talking about them.”

The accident cut short a promising career. “My best 100 was before the accident, for Public Schools against Combined Services at Lord’s when I was 16. Only three people have scored hundreds for Public Schools in that fixture – one was PBH May and the other was MC Cowdrey. Everyone thought I would be rather good, and Gubby Allen said he would sign me for Middlesex, but I got really bad brain-bruising and was never the same.” He did score another century after the accident at Lord’s, however, for Cambridge University against MCC. “I never got the wicketkeeping back except one tour with EW Swanton for the Arabs in 1966/67 in Barbados. We had 14 games and I kept in every one, and Everton Weekes was impressed. I also played for Norfolk for 10 years, and in one Gillette Cup match [in 1965] I made 60 against Hampshire at Southampton, which was the highest score by a Minor Counties batsman against a county for three or four years.”

There was also that story about England’s tour to India in 1963/64, when illness and injury meant Blofeld – covering the tour for The Guardian, was nearly drafted in to play the second Test, only for Micky Stewart to leap out of his sickbed on the morning of the Test. He then took ill again, sitting most of the game out. “I told him what a frightful s--- he was,” Blofeld said whimsically. “I think really it was down to MJK Smith, the captain. He said he thought I’d be struggling in the field with my fitness and he was probably right.”

As our chat draws to a close, I ask him what his favourite personal TMS moments are. “Headingley 1981, I took the last wicket – Ray Bright! I saw him the last time I was in Australia; I crossed the road to tell him that and he took the news rather less enthusiastically! I also enjoyed the Melbourne Test of 1982/83 – Geoff Miller running behind Chris Tavaré’s back to take the crucial catch like a greyhound in the slips. And then there was the Melbourne Test of 2006/07, when Andrew Symonds came in to bat. He missed the first three balls, and Geoffrey Boycott was saying he shouldn’t be playing, and how his mum in her pinny could play better. ‘If he’s a Test cricketer I’ll eat my hat’. The next day Symonds made 150!”

As well as The Guardian, Blofeld also wrote for The Independent and the Express, and Over and Out will be his 14th book. Then there has been Sky, Eton, bus accidents, wine, theatre tours, centuries at Lord’s, wicketkeeping to Weekes, Bond villains and, of course, TMS. It has been quite the packed life. Quite an innings. In fact, you probably couldn’t make it up…