Esteemed cricket writer and commentator John Arlott talks to former England cricket captain Mike Brearley about his early life and his love affair with the game of cricket.
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That was as good a ball as Willis has bowled.
It was up, it was on a length, it was on line, it moved in a little
and Richards simply walked into it, and on-drove it.
Willis again. And that's chopped down, between slips and gully.
Gully, who's Willey, turns and chases it.
They canter an easy two.
No trouble at all.
-Do you have any favourites among the commentators?
-Yes, yes. John Arlott.
Massie, who's bowled unchanged throughout the innings.
20 overs now. In for two.
And, after Trevor Bailey, it will be Christopher Martin-Jenkins.
It's not an easy job commentating.
I think John's been one of the best, by a long way.
He's a man of many parts.
He's generous to a fault.
Both in deeds and in thought.
He's a lover of cricket, and of cricketers.
But well aware of the dictum,
"What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?"
John, here we are in Alderney. I wonder what made you choose
to come and live here when you decided to retire.
I'd been coming here for a long time.
I came first of all by accident.
A neighbour in Highgate introduced me to the island in 1951.
And I always wanted to come here and retire.
Several things. First of all...
the tempo is superb.
Secondly, it's extremely quiet.
And, thirdly, and I think this is most important,
people of the island let you live your own life.
It's completely peaceful, as far as I'm concerned.
Nobody worries me. Nobody bores me.
And I can live alone
and not see anyone except my wife or my family for a week and then
do a party, have some people into dinner, something like that.
I find it the absolutely perfect existence and also, of course,
it's very good for my bronchitic chest, because the air is so clear.
What was the first money you ever earned?
Did you do a paper round or anything like that?
No, I was very upmarket. I, er...
I used to do scribbling for Mr Goodall the builder in the school holidays.
And I was supposed to have shorthand,
which was a bit of a glorification of my rather thin capabilities.
But he used to dictate this to me.
I also remember it used to end,
and I understood this for gospel for many years...
.."To clearing site and removal of dibrizz."
I later learnt that meant debris.
Oh, I see.
Removal of dibrizz.
But, all right, that was my first six bob a week, I thought.
One of your first jobs, not your first job but, I think,
your second job probably, was being a policeman.
And then becoming a detective.
Why did you...? What was so interesting in that to you?
Well, first of all, my father wanted me to have a secure job.
We were poor. I grew up in the slump.
And the desperate thing my father wanted was that
I should never be out of work.
So, first of all, I went into the local government office,
then into the mental health service as a doctor's clerk.
All pensionable jobs, you see.
And then, into the police force, which was also pensionable.
And Southampton Police had about the best
club cricket side in England so I thought
if I could combine security with cricket, I'd be doing fairly well.
I wouldn't say, though, that I was ever a particularly good policeman
or a particularly good cricketer, but, er...
It seemed to me a way of growing up.
It seemed to me that offices were petty and small-minded.
And that the police force would be bigger, and more virile, more manly.
I was wrong.
It could be very small-minded in those days.
I don't know if it is now.
There's not the appalling, back-breaking discipline
of the chaser sergeants and the chaser points, you know.
Driving you round the beat at 3-3½ miles an hour,
as some of those old sadists used to do.
But I suppose it was a way of life that brought you into contact
with people, in a way that, perhaps, it wouldn't do so much today.
Yes, it did.
And that was the most valuable part of it all.
And the other thing is, of course, that it's a hardening process.
I don't say it makes you into a bully, it removes physical fear,
which is very useful indeed.
And if somebody says, "I'll clock you," you're not frightened.
I mean, it may be that he is going to clock you.
It may be he's going to knock you down.
It may be he's going to produce a great, big black eye.
But you've had a black eye before, at boxing, and things like this.
You're not physically frightened, which I think is a good thing.
And you reckoned the police helped you, being a policeman helped you?
Oh, I know it did.
I know it did because, at school, it was possible, at times,
for me to be bullied.
I hit back, on instructions from my father.
And I was threatened to be taken to the headmaster for bullying, myself!
Yes, it makes you altogether more self-reliant and less fearful.
-And more generally secure in outlook, I think.
And before that, the mental health job.
I mean, did you actually have contact with...
Was that an interest or was it merely a branch of the civil service?
I was doctor's clerk in a mental hospital
and I was working with patients most of the time, with doctors,
and I was frequently on the wards.
In your teens, you see, that's a very morbid experience.
Again, it teaches you a terrible amount about life and about people.
And the fact that the people they call insane are, in fact,
ordinary people with just one little kink, one little twist,
one little oddity.
I wouldn't have missed that. I wouldn't have missed either.
But I wouldn't want to have spent as long as I did in either, really.
Because you were in there four years.
Four years and 11 years in the police force.
Things change now at a vast rate.
I remember talking to my mother not long before she died.
She was saying when she was married there was no radio, no television.
No internal combustion engine, no motorcars. No aircraft.
And she lived to look at television and see a man land on the moon.
All right, it's trite, I know.
But it does show just what has happened to us.
-And how difficult, understandably difficult, it is for many people to adjust.
I don't know about you. You may master computers.
But I stand in utter awe of computers.
And yet I go round to my friends' houses
and find their 10-year-olds putting computers together with DIY kits!
And, you know, one never knows
whether to stay an old square or try to live up to it or...
You've mentioned your father a couple of times.
What did he do? What was he like?
He was the cemetery registrar at Basingstoke.
He was a terribly good mechanic and he was tutored in diesel engines
by Dr Diesel himself, of which he was very proud.
It was a shame that...
He did that, you see, to get a house for himself and my mother,
and a secure income before he went to the First World War.
He was very small. Very neat. Very capable. Superb with his hands.
He could do anything in the house.
Furnish the house in oak.
He used to mend our shoes.
Change the fuses. Do the plumbing.
And the carpentry. Do all the repairs about the house.
And, in addition, feed us from the allotment.
Of course, he worked himself to death.
He just worked so hard to keep the family going on a small income
that, when he retired, there wasn't very much left.
He was a very sweet, gentle, loving, indulgent man.
He and my mother were just so wonderful.
The poverty never mattered. It never occurred to me.
I only stand back and look now and realise how poor we were.
And I'm amazed that we were so incredibly happy as a family,
-how well we understood one another.
-Mm. There were just the three of you?
The doctor, I believe, recommended my mother to have another child.
And she said, "Yes, I would, Dr Bethel, if I could afford it."
And it really was like that.
She was a very capable woman.
She was the local Liberal agent and did succeed,
the only one who ever did,
the only agent who ever got a Liberal in for Basingstoke.
It sounds as though your relationship with them
continued to be really close.
I mean, you asked your mother her opinion about the politics and
your father's reaction was, you know, there was a lot of communication...
We were always terribly close, yes.
I loved them dearly. I was desperately grateful to them.
It's about the most important thing people do for other people, isn't it?
And these other... Well, let me ask you,
are there decisions that you've actually regretted?
Things that you wished you had done?
As they say, that's a good question.
There ought to be.
I'm trying, as I've never thought of this before,
but what I suppose is that,
once I make a decision, I accept it,
and I don't gripe if the dice fall the other way.
I've been lucky, you see. Desperately lucky in many ways.
Unlucky in a few.
A few unimportant ones.
To think that the cemetery keeper's boy
was going to be a commentator, a poet, an author.
Even be conversed with by you.
It's a pretty heady thought, you know, that...
It's one that you appreciate more than
if you've been born into some kind of privilege.
Sometimes you tell yourself you've done it yourself but you know,
really, that there's a vast element of luck in it,
of being in the right place at the right time
and doing the right thing that was warranted at the right time.
I'm sure there are 50 better commentators then me
about the place who are not doing commentary.
And, uh, I was there when it happened.
But I had a feeling also that
you were quite ambitious to do well in something.
I mean, you said about various things that, at that point, you saw
you couldn't do any more and weren't going to be good enough at it.
I think, wouldn't you say, you wanted to do something really well.
-Yes, I did.
-Or some things really well.
But I wasn't looking for something to do well.
I became interested in things and tried to do well at them,
which I think is a different matter.
I didn't want success at any price. I wanted...
I wanted to do what I've done,
which was earn my living doing the things I've loved.
You see so few people who are really happy in their work.
Decent, nice, fundamentally mentally contented chaps will tell you
they're happy in their job but they're not really.
The job doesn't satisfy. It doesn't please them.
It doesn't make them terribly proud.
It's rarely a thing...
It's rarely doing something that,
if they weren't doing it professionally, they'd do as a hobby.
That's right. There are not many of those.
And, for us, we've both been fortunate in that way.
Yes, I think it might have taken a lot of persuasion to ask you
to refuse the England captaincy(!)
It would have taken a lot to stop me becoming a commentator once
I had the chance of it.
Or a Guardian cricket correspondent.
Or almost all the other things I've ever been.
Desperately lucky. Right time, right place.
Not only were you a cemetery keeper's son,
but you were, as you've already said...
You failed your school certificate.
-I mean, you didn't have a very...
-Spectacular, was it?
Well, I mean, the one subject I would have passed
and might have got a credit in, which was geography,
I left halfway through the paper, knowing I'd done enough to pass.
I went to see Reading play in a cup tie
and, for that reason, they turned me down and failed me
in geography, which I always thought was a dirty trick.
But I took it after I'd left school, you see.
I left school in rebellion.
Yes. Why was that?
What happened at school? What was your school?
It was Queen Mary School, Basingstoke,
which was a little grammar school of 125 boys.
Tough and hard, with a Prussian headmaster
who enjoyed wielding the cane.
We looked each other in the eye very early on.
I think he thought he would beat me into submission.
I had more whacks than anybody else in our form.
You used to touch your toes, whip your coat-tails up your back
and, out of the hem of his gown, he pulled this cane,
which was as thick as my thumb, and four feet long.
He always used to cane at the washbasins,
because there it echoed all round the school.
And the bruises lasted for about a fortnight.
Red the first night, gradually going black, and, er...
..you'd take a three or four and stand up and look him in the eyes.
I never had a six.
I never did anything quite bad enough to deserve that.
I never saw anybody who kept consciousness after
he had one of Percival's sixes.
They would fall on their faces or stagger out and
the people in their form would catch them.
Take them out and run their head under the tap in the basins.
But he enjoyed it, poor fellow,
and he had asthma so you can only feel sorry for him.
But it set you against the whole school process?
Well, I had friends there and some staff that I respected immensely.
But it set me against him, you know, so that I had to draw level,
even though I couldn't afford it,
to the extent of smoking the same expensive cigarettes.
I did put it straight years afterwards.
When, bewilderingly, he turned up at our old boys' dinner
and they asked me to propose his health.
I said, "Me? You know what I thought of him."
And the chairman said, "Yes, say it." And I said it.
And I still don't know whether it was cruel or deserved.
Or valedictory or whether he hadn't asked for it,
and deserved to know before he died.
If he's listening now, I meant it.
John, you've written at least one hymn, maybe you've written more.
And that wasn't all that long ago, was it?
-Oh, it's a long time ago.
Late '40s, I should think.
I wrote three or four hymns for the BBC hymnbook,
one of which is pretty constantly reprinted.
More reprinted than anything else I've ever written, I think.
-Is it about ploughing?
-Yes, harvest festival.
Yes, anything to turn an honest penny.
Presumably there was some belief behind it.
Yes, I was brought up to God.
In church I was brought up, I suppose,
as what you'd call a practising Christian.
The loss of my eldest son hit... hit that pretty hard.
It's all very well for people to tell me
about it being all for the best and things like this.
That matters, I suppose, to me, more than anything else at the time.
It hasn't changed much over the years, except other things have joined it.
I rate my family higher than anything else in the world.
Too many of them gone.
You see, you either belong to the club of "It happens to me"
or the club of "It doesn't happen to me" and...
never the twain you shall meet.
That's a corny thing to say, but it's true.
They really don't understand each other
and neither can explain to the other, really.
You can't win 'em all, you know.
Luck over some things, and not over others.
That's pretty corny and trite, too.
And I needn't have said it and I probably shouldn't have said it.
-Talk about something else.
-Yeah. What shall we talk about?
I must say,
filming with beaujolais is much better than just filming,
-don't you think?
-It is, yeah.
Not the connoisseur's drink, but the ordinary chap's drink.
In the old bistro glasses, the 19th-century bistro glasses.
-They're lovely glasses.
-They're not delicate, sensitive, or anything like that.
The glasses they use...
Where did you get them? You've got a lot of them, haven't you?
Yes. Bought them in Burgundy from Christopher Fielden.
Oh, and from a lady called Lesley Taylor in Cirencester,
who used to buy 'em a lot in France and bring 'em back and sell 'em.
You simply don't find them any more.
It's a wonder they're not all gone.
Thank goodness they bounce if you have reasonable carpets.
And sometimes off the parquet, too. They're pretty solid.
That's probably done no good at all to the microphone.
-The table's all right, though.
-They are solid. The table's used to it.
Yes, we touched on it before,
whether you'd ever worked too hard for the family.
And one of the aspects of that was being a professional,
wasn't it, and doing jobs properly and not turning things down.
Yes. I think I'm not so reluctant now.
You see, for a long time as a freelancer, you think,
"If I refuse this job, I may never get another."
And especially when I left the BBC
and left the shelter of a permanent, pensionable job
and set out into the wilderness that my father so dreaded,
there was then a time when I accepted anything,
right, left and centre. If it was work, I took it.
And for years, of course, you never took a holiday.
But Maurice Eddleston cured that.
Turned up one day and he said, "When are you two going on holiday, then?"
So Valerie looked the other way and I said,
"Well, I don't think we are, Maurice." He said, "Why not?"
"Take the girl for a holiday."
I said, "But, Maurice, you know, there's so much work to do and if you're a freelancer..."
He said, "I'm a freelancer. We're going on holiday."
"Why don't you make him take you somewhere?" he said to Valerie.
She said, "Well, you did say you'd take me to Venice."
So I said, "OK, we'll go to Venice.
"And what's more, we'll go on the Orient express."
So I rapidly accepted a job to write an account of a Test tour.
Dashed this down. Every night I filled it in,
kept the job up-to-date, so that as soon as the cricket season ended,
we could dive off and we got on this train at Waterloo, er, Victoria.
Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.
This was the romantic dream of all time.
This was the Orient Express.
They took the diner off at Paris on the way out.
We went on the way out in a cabin where there wasn't room
for two people to stand up at the same time,
nor even one to stand bolt upright.
On the way out, we were next door to the toilet,
which reeked to high heaven of ammonia.
On the way back, we were at the opposite end with half a mile walk to the toilet.
And I'm not sure which was worse.
And on the way back, they took the diner off at Milan.
But the exciting thing was that to eat,
you bought off these trolleys on the railway platforms.
And, in Switzerland, you could get off and you had 40 minutes for a meal at the border.
In a railway buffet. And a railway buffet in this country means
everything a railway buffet means in this country, but there it doesn't.
And so often, you know, you go to a French town
and the best restaurant in the town is the railway buffet.
And this was like that, or it tasted like it, in Switzerland.
And we had the most magnificent time in Venice.
And, you know, this is where I vacillate. I'm so feeble.
I don't know which is the finest city in the world.
Whether it's London, Paris, Vienna, Venice, Rome.
Bordeaux's got to get pretty closely into the running.
And Beaune, the walled, boozy city of Burgundy.
Or Beaujeu, the little forgotten town of Beaujolais. I don't know.
Barcelona, the Ramblas.
I don't think... Well, I don't know.
But, on the whole, not many good cities outside Europe.
Not for the European, I don't think.
-Sydney takes a beating.
-Sydney takes a bit of beating.
Trouble is, it's full of Australians.
Well, there are exceptions.
Yes. There are exceptions, actually.
There's some very nice Australians.
And Sydney is, in many ways...
..I suppose, the most attractive of really modern cities.
If you can put up with the taxi drivers.
You had your own...
What was your first experience with Sydney taxi drivers?
The first time I ever hailed a cab and he pulled up.
Being used to London, I put my hand on the handle of the back door
and the driver looked up at me and said, "Do I bleeding stink, then?"
You get in front with the driver in Sydney.
Which I'm always happy to do anywhere, anyway, but I...
I was over-accustomed to London.
The trouble is, if you get in the front seat,
and especially in a Test series,
"You bleeding Poms haven't got a chance, have you, eh?"
"We'll mop ya, mate."
Yes, there can be no greater pleasure than a tour of Australia
with a winning English side, especially if they've lost the first Test match. Oh!
Glorious. Because they are not the world's greatest losers.
They do melt away a bit.
Mind you, they melt away all over the place, don't they?
I've seen them melt away in Kent
when things are not going well, and in a much different style.
They've a rather nicely spoken, smiling style when things go well,
but they melt away quietly.
Ah, not like the Australians, Mike.
You must admit, not like the Australians.
Nobody gets so bitter as the Australians.
Nobody has ever been on the receiving end of that
-more desperately than you except, perhaps, Harold Larwood and Douglas Jardine.
To go there and win is great but you come back with scars on the soul.
Yeah, well... Mind you, the biggest opposition and hostility was when
we in fact lost the time after, because we'd one the year before.
And then the Packer players came back.
And we didn't agree to all the detail that they wanted and I seemed to be,
to them, the person who made all the decisions as to what rules we played under and everything.
And it was quite an interesting, interesting tour.
You never did a braver or better, or calmer thing in your life than that.
I must say, I boiled with indignation for you
and was overwhelmed with admiration that you could put up with it.
-I couldn't have put up with it.
-I lost my temper once.
-Perhaps you couldn't buy a machine gun.
I met Bob Hawke there who, towards the end of the tour...
-The new Prime Minister.
-The new Prime Minister, who told me... He said that he had a lot of...
He was very interested to meet me, and he was a very nice, pleasant man.
And he told me that he thought I didn't quite handle the Ockers as well as I might have.
And that they weren't all as bad as I probably thought.
In fact, quite a lot of them voted for him, he said. HE LAUGHS
Yes, the Ocker is an unfortunate symbol that too many of them have adopted, you know.
People like Dennis Lillee and Marsh, Rod Marsh,
-who almost welcomed the concept of the Ocker image and it's...
-It's not nice.
I'd take Marsh out of that category a bit. Put Ian Chappell in.
But I'd take Marsh out a bit.
I mean, about Rod Marsh, he never appealed...
Occasionally he got angry if he thought they'd been done.
But, generally speaking, he never appealed unless he thought it was out.
I used to get great fun out of him, because somebody would say,
"Ah, you're being tough again, Rod." And I'd say, "But he's not tough.
"He's a dear, nice, sweet, cuddly teddy bear."
"Get off, mate!" This was the one thing he couldn't stand.
He'd take almost anything else. But not being described as a nice, cuddly teddy bear of a man.
I suppose not many people would, really!
No, let's let Rod off,
if only on account of that wonderful calling back when he said not out.
Randall? Yeah. I believe Greg Chappell
was so fed up, he went off to fine leg for a couple of overs.
Took no part in the running of the match but, yes,
I think Rod Marsh is...
I mean, off the field, he bristles, doesn't he?
He doesn't shave and he bristles on the field.
And there's a nice story of him with Derek Randall and Randall coming in to bat one day,
I think in England, in a Test match, and saying...
You know, they never could understand Randall.
Well, a lot of people can't understand him!
But the Australians could understand him less than the rest of us.
And Derek came in and said, " 'Ey oop, Marshy, how you goin', then?"
And Rod Marsh didn't say a thing. "Are we not chatting, then, today?" says Randall.
And Marsh eventually says, "What do you think this is, a...garden party?"
But he was all right. And off the field, quiet and a very warm man.
I've known some splendid Australians.
-Especially the nice, tame ones who settled in England, like Jack...
..like Col McCool.
Bill Alley's still here.
Always had that elegant, dignified Sydney side.
What a good player, my goodness.
What a loss he was, for years, to top-class cricket.
Yes. They do make me laugh sometimes, but not always.
Sometimes they make me very cross, indeed.
They don't lose well. That's...
Well, again, in my experience, Rod Marsh would be the first
at the end of a Test match we'd won to come and shake everyone's hand
and say, "Well played," and, you know, be there.
What I always remember and, I'm not always proud of our reactions,
especially the reactions of our football supporters, but, in 1948,
when Bradman's side rolled over us like a steamroller,
and there was the outside chance to win at Headingley,
and we missed it, we dropped two crucial catches.
We didn't quite have the side to do it.
Above all, I don't think we believed we could win.
And then they came to the Oval.
And they won. And the cheers, the farewell for Bradman
and the cheers for the side were so, so generous,
I'd never been prouder of an English crowd of any sort in my life.
And they haven't often shown us that kind of generosity.
It's hard, if you've been trying, and you're combative
and you're competitive and you're a good performer.
It's very, very hard to lose easy.
I remember that...
Was it the '57 West Indies side that lost and, suddenly,
after the Oval test, they all disappeared.
There was no grumble, no complaint.
But when everybody thought we were going to have a party now,
we can fetch the bottle and they'd gone.
Well, I didn't find the Australian players like this.
-The public, perhaps, but not the players.
And another thing I will always remember is that
great West Indian win of 1950.
You know, the Ramadhin and Valentine team.
And how an originally stunned English public,
and, by heaven, they were stunned, read the reports that West Indies
had won so many series over there, but they'd never won any here.
And then they came and...
I'm not sure, moved as the West Indian spectators were at Lord's
when they coined Ramadhin and Valentine and all this,
I'm not sure that, in many respects, the English spectators,
-once they'd got over their surprise, weren't even more impressed.
They were a funny couple, weren't they?
Those two on the boat over, the rest of the team spent
much of the time teaching them to sign their autographs.
They said it didn't matter whether they could bowl or not,
but in England, they got to sign their autographs.
Garfield Sobers said to Charlie Davies when he came over,
"Charlie," he said, "if you're going to be an English county cricketer,
"you won't qualify until you've eaten half a ton of lettuce."
You must have had enough county ground lunches to know how deadly true that is.
Good ones were... I mean, not true at Lord's, though.
-Marvellous lunches there.
-Lord's were very good.
I always liked that story of Ted Dexter saying,
when he was Test captain, "Why do we always have to give them this hot
"tomato soup and things like this in hot weather?"
"Why don't we give a nice, well-chilled, cold consomme?"
So they duly served this and the Australians, to a man,
complained that the soup was cold!
I've always cherished that.
I've never found it a necessity, funny.
You see, I've worked in radio and television and never known,
really, very much about either.
I remember when I was a little boy and my father made
our first crystal set, listening to a banjo in the earphones.
But then, you see, I used to go out in the evenings,
playing cricket, playing football.
Playing bridge in my bridge-playing phase.
Then leaving home and going into digs
when they didn't want you in their room, listening to their radio.
And then I married, but then came the war.
So you didn't much look in or listen in.
And, after the war, it was a question of working,
going to London and being all eyes and ears for London.
And then, this influence of the French, so I've never really
much listened to radio or looked at television, except the Today programme
in the mornings which is the ideal bathroom compassion.
I mean, you can shave, shampoo,
think, or anything you like.
Stand on your head while that's on. I find it infinitely entertaining.
But, otherwise, that and the 5.40 news.
And that's it.
For the rest, you know, work through the day
and dine through the evening.
Do you use a video? I mean, do you ever think there's something
you'd really like to be able to see at your leisure?
I often think that, but I always forget to do it.
It's rather like that silly story about the Irish video recorder
that records programmes you don't like and plays them back when you're out.
I've always thought that Ideal arrangement.
No, I ought to.
I looked at the series of John Betjeman programmes.
I did remember to do that quite faithfully.
But that's the only series I've really ever looked at.
-He was a good friend of yours, wasn't he? Or he is.
Er...immense influence on me.
I mean, I think I would never have tried to write poetry
if it hadn't been for him.
And the first anthology I ever made, with George Hamilton,
was based on the Betjeman topographical poetic theme.
And my middle son's godfather,
I see him from time to time,
he's a very pretty thirst in champagne in his old age.
He messed about with whisky and things like that at one time.
But now I believe he actually knows the grande marque one from the other
and you've got to be very careful what you take there for him to drink.
But always a funny man with an immense streak of sincerity
and depth of feeling.
And as independent a thinker as I suppose there's been in this century in Britain.
-And you shared quite a few of his views, didn't you, as well?
I mean, a lot of your poetry was about English towns and places,
and crafts and...
Yes. Yes, indeed.
As I say, an immense influence on me in that respect.
I only wish I'd been as good as he is.
I imagine that it also actually influenced what you did do creatively
-which was, amongst other things, broadcast on cricket.
You see, the good poet, in his imagery, defines.
He describes precisely. He doesn't say, "That was a good stroke.
"This is a pretty cricket ground. This is a good-looking man."
He says what is a poised, graceful, well-timed,
powerful - or whatever - stroke.
"This is an old-fashioned looking ground, a leafy, tree-y ground
"with an Edwardian pavilion,
"or a Victorian pavilion, or a modern pavilion."
And I think if you're trying to describe things to people,
that's the sort of thing you've got to say in a commentary.
Say what you see.
You see, it's easy to be a commentator
and bring out statistics.
And a terrific number of people are vastly interested in statistics.
You know, he wants so many runs to do so and so.
And I always had Bill Frindall to tell me that. But, for me,
it was in through the eyes and out through the mouth and...
-Something happened in between!
-There was a digestion process, yes,
because there was an editing process.
But you say what you see.
-Every man sees something different.
In fact, in my younger days, I had been known to observe
attractive young women walking round the ground and that type of thing.
In your younger days only, of course!
But I... Well, this is a big topic but, I mean,
I read that somebody said of you, in your early days at the BBC,
that you had a superior mind and a vulgar voice.
And I wondered if people tried to change you from being what you were.
Well, I tried to change my voice once.
On the Thursday, I was producing a programme and Val Dyall came in.
And after a bit he said, "John."
I said, "Yes?"
He said, "Are you trying to do something to your voice?"
I said, "Well, I'm trying, you know, not to sound too much like a country bumpkin.
"You know, I'd like to get onto a sort of standard southern English."
He said, "You fool! Everybody in this studio can speak that."
"You're the only one who can speak authentic Hampshire."
He said, "Don't, for God's sake, throw that away."
And I thought, "Well, I suppose he's right and it's going to seem a bit of an effort."
You do it anyway, you know. I went back home once, I remember.
I'd been to the police training school and I'd just come back,
so I'd been to the Birmingham police training school for the Southampton force,
and I'd been back about a month.
So I'd been away from home for four months.
My mother said, "You better go out and see the men."
And these were the men who were grass-cutting outside, you see.
So I went out and said hello and how were they.
And they quizzed me about Southampton.
Was it true there were trains - they meant trams - running through the streets.
These were very old men.
I said, "Yes, it was." And this went on and on.
And after a bit, one of them looked me and he said,
"And what be this here London talk you been putting on, then, eh?"
Who'd have thought that, 50 years ago, mine was a London talk.
But the first recording I ever made,
I did a live programme first,
then I was asked to come on Country Magazine.
And we knew there was a repeat going out at half past five in the morning overseas.
It took me a lot to get out of bed at that time.
We got up, got out and switched this on.
And I can imagine my face fell. I said, "Oh, dear. Oh, dear."
My wife said, "What's the matter?"
I said, "Well, that's the script I did.
"That's the script, but they've got this country chap reading it."
So she threw her head back laughing and said, "That's you, you fool!"
I'd never heard my recorded voice. I never dreamt it was like that.
I think it's a shock for everyone, isn't it? The first time you hear it.
But this seemed to me to mean I was ruined forever.
I was never going to get this career in broadcasting I'd come to dream about.
But, with a bit of good advice, and with your own personality,
you stuck with it and you cut your own path, really, didn't you?
It was a new thing, what you were doing, wasn't it?
-Certainly in sport.
-It was in a way, yes.
You see, Howard Marshall had done it.
Howard Marshall - we used to play back the discs sometimes - a bit behind the play.
There'd never been, I think, previously,
an attempt at precise visual description.
He used to read out the square number on a soccer ground.
But you didn't get any idea. You didn't, it seems to me...
After I went on the instructional staff,
I used to get every record I could and play 'em back.
But I couldn't find that anybody had any immense visual urge.
I mean, you got facts and details of play
and what was happening at the event.
Heaven knows, that's more important, but...
I don't know. It's just your own particular bent, I suppose.
You expose your own mind and you never do it more than in commentary,
when you're speaking absolutely ad-lib
and you don't know what's going to happen in the next second.
It's got to come out and...
The funny thing was, I used to find that
if I was writing about a day's play, I tended not to remember
the play that I'd done a commentary on, because that went in and out.
It's funny. You retained other things.
But you had to cast your mind back. It was a deliberate effort
to pick up what you'd done the commentary on.
It's almost as if you'd purged yourself of it.
-It's about as immediate as you can get, isn't it?
Yes. I always used to think if you could get the man caught at the wicket
before the crowd shouted, you were up with the ball.
Yes, I rather liked those...
Sometimes something I find myself doing sometimes is,
where there's a photograph in a cricket book, of a dismissal,
to see the beginnings of recognition in the crowd...
-Just starting to...
Yes, that's right. And the stump's by then on the ground.
-Or the man's already started to walk.
Yes, it's funny. There's nothing in cricket, to my mind,
not even a spectacular six,
-there's nothing so exciting as the fall of the wicket.
-Hm, I agree.
And when a side is running through another's batting
and wickets are going down quickly, and you hear this almost,
almost like the baying of a pack of hounds every time a wicket falls.
And they're hounding the side that's being bowled out.
I often think that sides are bowled out for small totals
almost psychologically, after the first three or four wickets are down.
Then you can feel the crowd waiting to roar again.
It used to be like this at the Oval when Bedser, Loader, Surridge,
Lock, Laker, with Eric Bedser in reserve, were bowling out sides,
when they first started to win the championship before the crowds dwindled.
We used to go there, almost like the crowd at a gladiatorial contest,
to watch the other side torn to pieces.
Well, that reminds me of the famous '74/75 series in Australia
when Lillee and Thomson demolished us on some bad wickets.
The England players used to refer, towards the end of the series,
and I think this wasn't just healthy hangdog humour,
they used to refer to the seat reserved for the next batsmen in as the condemned cell.
I think they got the message pretty well.
There's no doubt that communicates to a crowd more than anything else,
the destruction of the opponents.
Hitting a six, all right, spectacular. Beautiful.
We've seen, you know, that glorious stroke onto the roof of the...
Lord's pavilion, by Hughes.
But there's nothing quite to compare with the bowling rout of a side.
-Shall we talk about South Africa?
-Yes. Why not?
I mean, we got to know each other partly at the time of
the D'Oliviera affair, as it could be called, in 1969.
And, of course, your experience of South Africa, and your contacts
with South Africa, went a long way back before that, didn't they?
Yes, I went in '48/9 and I was desperately shocked by what I saw there.
I never dreamt that these things went on.
I'd heard lip service paid to the awfulness but, you see,
this was just the time
when the first nationalist government of Dr Malan was returned.
And I saw and heard some quite terrible things
about what happened to ordinary black people there.
And I didn't know what to do.
And I still haven't really done much about it.
I haven't done as much as I ought to have done.
And, you see, it's so easy, especially for English people,
especially for cricketers, to go to South Africa
and not see what goes on because it's not flaunted.
It's not pushed under their noses.
You'd have great difficulty in finding a taxi driver, sometimes,
who would take you to these compounds and, er...
And I thought, perhaps, I'd done something
when I helped bring Basil D'Oliviera to this country.
And I think that did do something that perhaps you can't see.
It must have made a lot of people convinced
that their cause wasn't quite lost.
If one could do it, in a way, he stood for them all.
But then, you see, there's been a clampdown since.
A certain amount of liberal thinking,
and a certain amount of increased repression.
Old Smuts was so clever. He used to give them a fresh liberty every year.
I mean, it would've taken 200 years for them to be really free.
But he didn't impose fresh restrictions and fresh repressions,
as the nationalist government has done since and this is distressing.
It's distressing to think about it.
I don't know what the answer is.
Except, perhaps, the most appalling one of all,
that, you know, one can't lay one's tongue to.
Well, it's going to be explosive in the end,
I feel all too sure of that.
It's an important thing you did, to help to be responsible for getting Basil D'Oliviera to come to England.
How did that happen?
Well, out of the blue, I got this letter from a young man,
beautifully written in green ink, terribly courteous correspondence,
saying how much he loved cricket and how much he'd like to learn
to be a coach and qualify to be a coach in England
so that he could go back to South Africa and teach his own people.
So, I thought I'd never heard of anything much more hopeless, really.
There was such charm in the letter.
I went on and replied to him to see what we could work out, you see.
And, in the end, I said, "Well, how good a player are you?
"Because I think, if you want to come here, probably you'd only help us as a player."
He sent me some pretty remarkable statistics of his performances
for Cape Coloureds and so on.
And he'd gone as high as he could in cricket, for a Cape Coloured.
And I really began to give up hope.
People just couldn't see.
I mean, if I said, "Look, this chap made 286, so many sixes..."
They'd say, "Well, it must have been an absolutely plum wicket."
"Well, in the same match, he took six for 16."
And they'd say, "Oh, it must have been an awful wicket.
"Must've been a bad batting side." They wanted it both ways.
Well, then, Alan Oakman and Pete Sainsbury and Jim Gray
went and played in a match and they saw him play.
And they came back and I said, "Well, what's he like?"
And they said, "Well, he's a very, very gifted player."
"Very talented. A bit crude."
"But still, you know, first-class."
Even then, I couldn't get anywhere and John Kay helped me immensely,
Manchester Evening News and a Lancashire league expert and player.
And, all of a sudden, he came to me that his club,
they'd got rid of Gilchrist and had been trying rather secretly
to sign on Wes Hall, and, at the last minute, Wes let 'em down.
So he rang me up and he said, "Look, if your chap wants a job, he can come."
He suggested a wage figure which was very low.
Now, this had been going on now for six years.
Eventually I wrote and said, "Look, the chance has come.
"I don't think it'll ever come again. I know the money is not good.
"But if you want to come, you must say yes to this and come."
He decided to. I made a whip-round in the local village and he came.
Made a terrible start, poor kid. Couldn't get a run for a month.
He'd never seen these slow, sodden, muddy wickets. Anything like it.
And then, all of a sudden, everything came good for him in May, end of May.
And he actually finished with more runs than Garfield Sobers in that league, in his first season.
And, I mean...
if you'd seen - I mean, I almost wept - his amazement
at sitting down to eat with white people
in the dining car of the train, at the airport and so on.
And yet, he kept utter and absolute dignity and good nature.
And, I think, through all the troubles, probably better than anybody else.
And, well, as you know, he became a British citizen.
He played for England. Shook hands with the Queen.
And he never, to my mind, made a fool of himself,
which would have been so easy.
But I just think he behaved with infinite dignity.
You see, what I think was important about Basil was that
he gave hope to his own people. Millions of them.
It isn't going to happen to them but they knew there was hope.
It was possible, if not for them, for their children. Or their children's children.
And this was the important thing about him coming here.
To prove that it wasn't inevitably bondage.
Mind you, I think anybody else might find it a bit difficult to get out.
But he did that and he did show them.
He was not only dignified, he was actually reticent, wasn't he?
-Yes, he was.
-I mean, I remember feeling I wished he would come out with what he felt about it.
And I had no idea until recently, after the big row had subsided,
-just how passionately he always felt.
-My word, he did.
And people used to try to goad him into exploding about it and he wouldn't.
This was where the dignity was immense because
anybody who's lived under that kind of bondage has got to hate it.
And he never showed that hate.
From the cricket point of view, how can you see Test cricket surviving, hanging on?
I mean, it's a slender thread all the time, isn't it?
Desperately so, yes.
Because of the men, of course,
who will do anything for money, even a little money.
But this agreement was voluntarily entered.
And I think we must stand by it. And, if we do, I'm also sure that
that is the likeliest way of producing an improvement.
-It's the way that has produced some minor improvements in the last 10 years or 12 years.
It's the only thing that's reversed the tide.
And it's very questionable how far the tide has been reversed.
But it's been just pushed back a little bit in some areas.
-You wouldn't want to go again?
-I'd never go again.
Well, I was on the last MCC tour there,
as a young hopeful who did all right for a while
and then had a terrible end to the tour, from a cricket point of view.
But I stayed on and went around and saw whatever I could see.
The banta stands and the Transkei.
And met politicians of different hues.
Political hues, as well as visible ones.
And, like you, I mean, I was appalled.
It was much worse than I'd imagined.
And that was what made me feel that I didn't really want to have anything to do with it again.
And that I didn't know how to make any difference.
But I didn't want to have any more to do with it than I had to.
And the other thing I felt was that we're trying, in this country,
to be multi-racial in every way
and it's also a symbol for black people in England, and Great Britain,
that we don't put South Africa, and dealing with South Africa, first.
In a sense, I'm sure that's absolutely true because
one of the things that few people ever mention is the great necessity,
in an increasingly multi-racial society, to convince of our sincerity.
And, if this were done, there'd be far less doubt, far less anxiety,
on the part of the people coming in, especially from the West Indies,
as to, in fact, where we do stand.
And to say that we must keep politics out of sport is ludicrous.
Politics control everything we do, whether it's our attitude to sport,
to money that's made available for sport.
Literature. What we eat. What we drink.
What is prohibited coming into the country that we might eat or drink.
Absolutely everything we do is controlled by politics.
It's impossible to say that sport isn't, or can't be.
It must be. It always is.
In fact, it's only when you live in a relatively free society that
you don't notice it, isn't it?
The luxury of not noticing it.
Pushes him out on the off-side. He's caught. Caught and bowled.
At second slip.
He was one of those who'd had
none of the booty until then.
Massie's technique, bowling,
sliding it across the right-hander,
has worked again and this is
a record that puts him on his own,
taking 13 wickets in his first...
An edited version of a landmark series first broadcast in 1984. The distinguished BBC commentator John Arlott talks to former England cricket captain Brearley about growing up between the wars, his career as a helper in a mental hospital, a policeman, a poet, a wine and football correspondent, and a cricket writer and commentator. The interview provides a fascinating insight into the life experience and attitudes of a liberal thinker born almost a hundred years ago and who died in 1991.