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Quinn: Bill McLaren, goodbye to a legend

opinion Keith Quinn

By tvnz.co.nz's Keith Quinn Rugby Writer

Published: 2:49PM Thursday January 21, 2010 Source: ONE Sport

It is very appropriate that the BBC in their first tributes to the life of the Scottish rugby commentator Bill McLaren have described him as one of the world's most significant sports broadcasters of any kind. That has to be true.

Bill, who died this week in Hawick aged 86, came into the broadcasting of sports events when it was very new on this new-fangled goggle-box thing called television. His death this week brings down the curtain on a style of commentary and a harking back to pioneering days of broadcasting.

There had been radio commentary all round the world for about 20 years when, in the early 1950s, a part-time radio man, and full-time schoolteacher, Bill McLaren dared to bring rugby to a growing viewing audience in Britain, most of whom were steeped in football (soccer) and had probably never seen rugby played. With his lovely Scottish burr, Bill gently introduced the game to wider viewing, as well as telling the folks at home about the personalities and playing records of the players involved.

No one in any sport had ever done broadcasts in the McLaren way. Radio had, quite correctly, introduced a style of full verbal description of the game's action - but for TV something else was needed. Bill picked up on that and allowed the viewer to see for themselves what was happening and only added identification of who was doing it - and why. As well he told his audience background information about every player in the game and why the referee had blown his whistle.

His style caught on, he won a huge following, and he carried on commentating for 50 years. When he retired in 2002 at his last broadcast, of a Scotland v Wales game in Cardiff, what a tribute it was when the crowd of 65,000 spontaneously looked to the commentary box and broke into a rousing version of 'He's a Jolly Good Fellow.'

So now the tributes are pouring in. The reasons the writers are recalling their best stories is because Bill was such a nice man and so worthy of them. His manner of living and working was so unique that for so many years he was, for many tired hacks, a mixture of curiosity and admiration. For broadcasters like myself, he was always been an inspiration.

Bill's brilliance and consistency remained a curio for many writers who just pitched up on match day and took their seats in the press box without the need for much pre-match preparation. Not so with Bill McLaren. He maintained a standard beyond high excellence for all of his 50 years. Not once did he slip or treat a game he was assigned to cover as 'just another one' and just turned up to his commentary booth on the day with his hands in his pockets.

No way; Bill always meticulously prepared his famous 'big sheets' for every game.

These were larger than large cardboard folders, doubled over, onto which he laid out the personal and playing details of everyone who was likely to be on the field on the upcoming game he was to call. Like the famous American football quote 'Winning starts on Monday' Bill's prep would start four and five days out from his next assignment. Each day during the week he would add, in neat pens of many different colours, the heights, weights, age, quips, quotes, one-liners and statistics on every player. Not just in the starting fifteen but in the reserves of both sides as well. And the referees and touch judges, coaches, assistant staff, even Managers sitting in the grandstands. Everyone likely to be seen on the telecast

I have seen some of these works of art. I went to Bill's house in Hawick in Scotland a number of times and had many a chat with him. When you went into his study his 'big sheets' were all there, filed in order, in case he needed them for any further games involving those teams later in the year. But for any further games he would not ever repeat his cards. For a new game a new set would be meticulously written up.

In recent years his sheets have made big money at various auctions around UK and in New Zealand. It has become something for the players involved in a game from the past to want to have their personal record of what Bill McLaren wrote and said about him on their big day.

Bill was such a gentle, patient person. You knew that from the time you first approached him. He would dig deep into his pockets for his ever-present 'Hawick Ball' sweeties to offer to you. He tried to attend the training sessions of all the teams he was to commentate on and if there were players in the game he did not know he would approach to ask them questions about themselves, but he would always break the ice with the offering of a 'Hawick Ball' A clever man too, was our Bill.

Like many New Zealanders I first became aware of Bill McLaren when New Zealand TV took coverage of the 1967 All Blacks tour of UK. I was a lad who had just started as a cub office boy at NZ Broadcasting in Wellington. Bill did the commentaries of the tests on that tour and immediately the nation was won over with the gentle burr of his delightful Border's accent. As a nation we took particular pride in the way he mispronounced 'Sammy Stra-han of the Mana-WA-too' and then told us of '16 stones of balding Jack Hazlett!' We loved it!

By the 1972-73 tour when I was a young commentator, I had opened up a new notebook and had written down my observations of how Bill did his broadcasts and some of the expressions he used. My thinking was 'if McLaren is this good, I want to be like him.'

Mind you no one (apart from some outrageously clever British comedians) could ever truly impersonate the McLaren style. Many of his vocal expressions are unique to him; like 'there's Grant Batty going at it like a buzz saw!' or 'aye, they'll be dancing in the streets of Kelso tonight!' or 'he's twisting and turning like a salmon in the burn!' and so on. There are zillions more.

He was such an inspiration to players too. I recall talking to Jim Renwick the Scottish centre one time and he told me that after a narrow loss to Ireland one time in Dublin the general consensus in the Scottish team was that 'we would have played much better had Bill McLaren been commentatin'!'

So Bill would turn up to every game impeccably prepared for any occurrence. He used to say that he never used 95% of his prep 'but you need to have it there in front of you in case you need it.' Wise words for any broadcaster.

But it was after the game that Bill continued to amaze people around him. He told me once, 'listen Keith, I see these blokes in the media, after the game they go straight to the bar and prop it up. Me, I head straight for the train or the airport. If I'm doing a game, say, in Cardiff. I get the train straight back to London, catch the shuttle flight to Edinburgh, and then drive home for an hour to Hawick. When those other blokes are waking up on Sunday morning with their hangovers, or reaching for their aspirin, I'm either getting the golf clubs out of my shed or walking the dogs on the hills.'

If you will allow me a couple of indulgences I'd like to finish with an example of how the McLaren talent stretched around the world. Because he set such high standards as a broadcaster about the best anyone else in the rugby commentating world could hope for as a compliment is 'you're not bad but isn't that McLaren just great.'

Years ago Bill and I arranged to meet at The Greenyards, the home ground of Melrose, in Scotland, where we both had watched a new touring All Black team practice. Bill was not sure about a couple of the New Zealand players and I had little information about some of the Scots involved. So we crammed into Bill's wee car and swapped notes. It's what broadcasters do.

I told Bill a story about the parental background of Bernie Fraser the All Black winger and how he was part Fijian, part Portuguese and part Scottish.

On the next day when the game was played Bill saw a big TV close-up of Fraser come up on screen and he quite rightly mentioned the man's bloodlines. His home viewers would have loved to know that the wild-looking Polynesian New Zealander had Scottish blood coursing through his veins. In the next commentary box, calling the game for TVNZ, I said much the same thing for my New Zealand viewers.

That night back in the All Black hotel I happened to pass the team's lounge when their game was being replayed on TV. A few of them were sitting about. I slipped in to watch as well. Bill McLaren was the commentator of course. When the quote about Bernie Fraser came over, delivered in Bill's delightful manner and perfect emphasis, the All Black Manager Russ Thomas leaned over to me and whispered 'Keith, why don't you New Zealand commentators do research and deliver it the way Bill does.'

Honestly, I had no reply to that.

In 2000 I dedicated a book I had written, 'A Century of Rugby Greats' to two men. Neither came into the categories I had written about, though both had been good players in their own right. One was Winston McCarthy the New Zealand radio commentator who was a great influence on me as a listening kid. The other in my dedications was Bill McLaren.

On a holiday to Scotland that year I took the book to Bill McLaren's place. Bill and Bette's hearts were heavy. One of their beloved daughters, Janie, had passed away a few month's earlier from a cruel cancer.

Over the teacups we chatted away about her passing and then about what good fortune the game had given to both of us as broadcasters.

When the discussion came to rugby Bill's face lit up. He became animated about what the modern game had become; particularly lamenting the loss of sparkling back play. There in the living room he placed several chairs and cushions on the floor and he danced through and around them in impersonations of how the great runners of yore used to sidestep and jink. It was amazing to see.

I reckon Bill would have been about 76 when he was dancing around the room that morning in remembrances of people like Cliff Morgan, Jackie Kyle and Barry John.

I last saw Bill just over a year ago. On my last two visits to Scotland, for the Rugby World Cup in 2007 and on the 'Grand Slam' tour in November 2008, I was taken by John Thorburn, the secretary of the Hawick rugby club, to Bill's house. By then Bill's health was fading.

It is going to be a cherished memory now that on the first visit he held my hand firmly for an hour as we sat on a couch and watched a World Cup game come in from France. A year later his memory had slipped markedly. He might not have recognised me but when his wife Bette reminded him that 'your friend Keith from New Zealand' was here, Bill's eyes lit up. 'Ah! The All Blacks,' he said and then he began a truly memorable summary of what our national team had always meant to him.

He talked about being a small boy and seeing Jack Manchester's 1935-36 All Blacks walk solemnly onto Mansfield Park in Hawick. 'I'll never forget it lad,' he whispered, 'they were huge! They looked like prophets of doom!' And he went on and on about how he judged good play against 'what the All Blacks would do' by comparison in any situation.

When someone dies we usually reflect how sad it is that we won't hear their voice again... But in Bill's case we will. His commentaries are 'attached' for all time to 50 years of tests and tour games on TV. They ought to be treasured.

Some people might listen now and say the McLaren-isms might sound old or out-moded. That may be so, the English language changes. But one thing that all young TV commentators of today should do, and I believe it is still relevant, is to listen for his manner of delivery. Bill's commentary was classic TV; he did not shout a full blown verbiage of non-stop radio description, instead he would let the broadcast breathe sometimes, or add a line about a player to compliment the close up shot, or let drop a little quip about the history of the ground or the game or the club, or fully appreciate the difficulties of refereeing. Never too much, and always done with just the right voice pitch.

TVNZ's original tour broadcaster of rugby David ('Doc') Williams emailed after hearing of Bill's death; 'I think what I admired about his commentary work was how he let the game unfold without wild judgement, he saw it as a game. Richie Benaud was another who had that quality, a quiet way of looking and reflecting, giving important insights that you had missed or did to know about which enhanced the game.'

In summary if you absorb Bill McLaren's work really closely, between the lines you'll hear Bill's greatest legacy, one which some broadcasters these days seem reluctant to show, and that is an unbridled love of the game.

Share your memories of Bill McLaren on the mesaageboard below.

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  • James H said on 2010-01-21 @ 21:14 NZDT: Report abusive post

    I'll always remember his description of 'healthy citizen' of larger players and his love of 'up and under'

  • chester1811 said on 2010-01-21 @ 17:29 NZDT: Report abusive post

    It is with revered acknowledgement and sadness that I read today of Bill MCLaren's passing. He was a legend in his own right. A fantastic commentator that surpassed all before him. He was the benchmark. His commentary reeked of professionalism and sound research. He would quote a players background (club, place of birth, family) as if he knw the player personally and in some instances regarding international players, he probably did. He will be missed. From an ex-player NZ & UK & Aust

  • iaingracie said on 2010-01-21 @ 17:07 NZDT: Report abusive post

    Thank you Keith...the art of TV commentary is sadly dying...although there is one young lad...well not so young now... who continues to respect Bills' era. He is Derek Rae...and although from a different code I know respected and followed Bill's example of detailed preparation. A lovely tribute which I hope will find space as a mark of respect from overseas...and I hope read with humbleness by today's AB's and a desire to emulate their erstwhile peers.

  • T-Mac said on 2010-01-21 @ 15:01 NZDT: Report abusive post

    Great insight there Mr Quinn to a true legend. Thanks a lot

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