Comment on Commentators
By J. P. W. MALLALIEU, M.P.
IN sport a century ago there were probably more players than spectators ; and even habitual spectators were usually at least casual players themselves. Today, though there are more players than ever before, there are so many more spectators that watching seems to overshadow playing. I should be sorry if that were true, because playing a game is nearly always fun and always experience. You cannot get the same kind of fun or the same kind of experience just from watching.
All the same, I do not despise spectators. I am one myself. It is no passive occupation. If you go regularly to White Hart Lane or Cardiff Arms Park or Bramall Lane, you take an active and exhausting part. You are almost as much in the game as the players themselves ; and though you may not have a player's skill you must have a player's knowledge if you are to be a true spectator.
In the last thirty years, however, a new type of sportsman—the listener—has established himself. He takes no part in the game. He does not play it, as the men on the field do. He does not watch it, making his own judgements, adding his own enthusiasm, throwing himself into the warm and active unity of a sporting crowd, as spectators do. He just sits at home, tensely scoWling his children into silence or, even worse, leaving open his living-room window while he potters ;n the garden. He watches through some one else's eyes, effortlessly, taking much but giving nothing.
Now I enjoy listening. Indeed, I remember the 1934 and 1938 Test Matches less for Bradman's batting than for Howard Marshall's talking. In some ways I got more from Marshall's commentary than I would have got from my own eyes. For when some side other than Yorkshire are batting, and I am watching, I find it difficult to concentrate through a long day on every ball, with the result that just when a man is bowled I'm looking at the pavilion flag. But Marshall had a "trick of voice which made me sit upright for every ball. With that slow, even, melodious tone of his he would say: " Bowes is beginning his run up," and, then, with sudden acceleration and raising the pitch of his voice, he would say. "—and-he-bowls! " as if, before the ball had left the hand, he knew that a wicket was about to fall. Though almost invariably this keying-up was followed by the words "—and the ball goes safely through into the wicket-keeper's hands," spoken once again in slow, even, melodious tones, I was still dragged upright next ball by the very same trick.
From one of the latter-day cricket commentators, John Arlott, I get another pleasure which would be lost if I were watching instead of listening. Arlott, with that flat but oddly attractive voice of his, describes not only the play but the players themselves. Little movements, tricks and habits are not only noticed but inter- preted. Just as Cardus was not content in writing to say that " Grimmen was taken off," but said rather that " Grimmett retired to his lair," so Arlott's words build up the character and personality of a player until in your mind's eye you see not only the cricketer but the man himself.
In spite of Marshall and Arlott and some others, however, I, think that broadcasts of sports can be harmful. It is said that years ago a would-be commentator—perhaps it was Stewart Macpherson—was given a test at the B.B.C. He had to comment on an imaginary ice-hockey match whilst a panel of " selectors " likened in. After five minutes, assuming that he had given the Selectors enough time to make up their minds, the commentator stopped. At once, the panel begged him to continue. They wanted to know how the match ended.
A commentator with the facility to stir people about an imaginary match can stir them about a real match—however dull —and it is a fact that matches which soun*d desperately exciting on the wireless were, in fact, terrible to wa-Ich. This may induce many people to lose any interest in sport except the passive one of listening to it. After a, spell of listening they come to expect thrills, drama, heartbreak in every over, set or half. They then goy for •a .change, to watch cricket or tennis or football, and find that the spurious excitement generated by commentators has blunted their powers of appreciation.• They can no longer be interested in an intense chess-like duel between,' say, Hutton and Bedser. They want, and expect, obvious, easily-recognisable sensations every minute. When they don't get them, they stop watching as well as playing.
Apart from spreading phoney excitement, some commentators mislead listeners in even worse ways. One of them, babbling irrelevancies at a soccer match, completely missed a piece of genuine excitement—the scoring of a goal. Some minutes later, however, there was a near miss. The commentator, tuning up his sound effects, described this to thrilled listeners as a goal and so got himself right with the score-sheet. Another commentator, describing a race, picked out the wrong horse as the leader near the finish. Spotting his mistake, he invented. According to him the horse which in fact was already leading by several lengths was now making Et dramatic last-furlong spurt to come from behind and win. The only thing that really was coming from behind was the commentator.
Misinformation like this, misjudgement which suggests that a box6r is winning when in fact he is losing, misrepresentation which suggests that a match is close when in fact one team is running away with it, breed disgust, not only with broadcasting but with sport generally. Happily, these dangers are now beginning to diminish with the arrival of yet another new type of sportsman—the viewer. A television commentator cannot make a match more ex- citing than it already is ; he cannot tell viewers that the leader in a race is making a spurt from behind ; he can't easily induce them to believe that Woodcock is beating Savold. On television the viewer is, once again, able to make his own judgements, to see for himself, and a commentator who tries to be more than an especially concise guide to names and reminder'of scores will soon find himself at the Labour Exchange. In fact, television can heighten rather than blunt appreciation of sport. On the television screen you can see the ball turning, watch in detail the skill of the batsman, almost take personal part in the duel between bowler and bat. You can become more of a spectator than if you were actually there.
But, for my part, even if I ever can afford a television set, I shall for choice still go myself to White Hart Lane, Cardiff Arms Park and Bramall Lane, not only so that I may see the real game but also that I may feel the community of a great sporting crowd. They arc live people—not disembodied voices flowing from an instrument.