Sport

Murray Walker obituary

Seldom can any frontrank outside-broadcast commentator have had a longer span at the microphone, or a voice more distinctively identifiable with their sport, than motor racing’s Murray Walker, who has died aged 97.

In British broadcasting lore John Arlott’s rural burr will always remain redolent of cricket’s roots in the village green, just as Dan Maskell’s creamy courtside whisper was homage to the leisured grace of the suburban tennis club, and Bill McLaren’s Borderer’s brogue forever implied the blazered probity of olde-tyme amateur “rugger”.

So, at grand prix time for bikes and cars, for more than half a century, the passionate yawp and yowl emanating from Walker’s commentary box was an almost onomatopeic accompaniment to the snarling beasts hurtling past at 200mph. It may have been high-octane noise, but the descriptions were also skilled and professionally accomplished.

On both radio and television, Walker’s florid “pants on fire” commentaries were heard across seven decades. The first grand prix he described live was for BBC “wireless” at Silverstone in 1949 (won by Baron Toulo de Graffenried’s Maserati 4CLT) and his television finale – for ITV in 2001 – was the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis (won by Mika Häkkinen’s McLaren).

His last live commentary of a grand prix was in 2007 for BBC radio, when he was 83 – the European Grand Prix for Radio Five Live, as a one-off substitute for the regular commentator, David Croft.

In all, Walker covered more than 350 Formula One grands prix, more than 200 Isle of Man TT and senior Manx motorcycling events, and countless other categories from powerboat races to motocross and speedway. For well over half a century, if noisy motor sport was broadcast, you could pretty much guarantee that Walker’s decibels were attempting to drown it out in his valiant efforts to enhance the narrative and embellish the scene. But it was not without cost. Years of exposure to the din left him with hearing loss in both ears.

While his stimulating ebullience was appealing to (most) cognoscenti petrolheads, a wider audience fondly enjoyed the commentator’s accompanying torrent of tautologies and full-spate sophistries, his “Murrayisms”, as he called them. Most outside broadcasters are embarrassed by (or flatly deny) their reported heat-of-the-moment bloopers, but Walker happily revelled in, and nurtured his. “Far too often I’d operate mouth before engaging brain,” he would admit, “but the action in front of me was always happening at such a lick.”

The good ol’ trouper knew, too, that happily confessed horse’s-mouth recitation of these touching gaffes not only saved the bother of a freshly minted script each time, but also handsomely enhanced his fees on the lucrative after-dinner circuit.

You need to squawk for the full effect: “This leading car is absolutely unique – except, of course, for the one immediately behind it, which is identical.” Or: “Mansell’s now totally in front of everyone in this race, except the two in front of him.”

At an Australian race in the late 1980s I timed Walker as he spent more than an hour merrily signing for a shrewd trackside vendor, free, a towering pile of T-shirts printed with one of his all-time classics. On the front of the shirt was the legend: “Unless I Am Very Much Mistaken…” and, on the back: “Yes, I Am Very Much Mistaken …” And he employed this title for his 2003 autobiography, too.

Always proud to call himself a Brummie, Walker was born in the Hall Green area of Birmingham, the son of Elsie (nee Spratt) and Graham Walker. The infant was gulping exhaust fumes from the first. His father was a crack works rider for the city’s fabled Norton motorcycle company. At four, the boy watched his father become the first man to average more than 80mph in winning a grand prix on the gruelling Clady circuit in Northern Ireland. Mother and son would spend their summers bringing up the rear with the spanners and oily rags as Graham vroomed around the circuits of Europe. By 1935 Graham was working not only as editor of Motor Cycling magazine, but as BBC radio’s first dedicated motorcycling commentator.

After Highgate school, north London, and a crammer course “in tanks” at Sandhurst, Murray was commissioned in 1942 into the Royal Scots Greys, achieving the rank of captain. He helped make the push from Normandy to the Baltic, and on demobilisation, went into advertising, a career which, on its own, might have made him worthy of note.

After spells as an accounts executive at Dunlop, Aspro and Esso, in the late 50s he joined the fledgling company Masius, which had a small London office and billings of under £1m. By the time he left the board in the late 80s, Masius (by then with a host of partners) was itself a leading worldwide brand with 50 offices in 27 countries and billings of well over £1bn.

On a grand prix weekend, when you managed to catch Walker in one of his benignly reflective moods over a late-night brandy, he would list, like a softly sung plainchant litany (and each recollected with a personal tale to spice the memory) all the accounts he had helped get off the ground – Pal, Lassie, Chappie, Kit-E-Kat, Trill and Treets; Mars Bars, Milky Way, Galaxy, Bounty, and never forgetting Opal Fruits, “made-to-make-your-mouth-water”.

All the while, weekends were spent shouting into a BBC microphone at the motorcycle racetrack, at first as breathless pit-man interviewer to his father’s commentary box descriptions. On his father’s death at 66 in 1962, Walker inherited the “family” microphone, and in no time had morphed into being the BBC’s senior globetrotting motor-racing man as well. From 1980 to 1993 he was accompanied in the commentary box by the former British world champion James Hunt, in a surprisingly successful double act, until Hunt died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 45.

When ITV bought out the Formula One grand prix contract from the BBC in 1997, the Daily Mirror cornily but tellingly ran a Save Our Murray campaign, but in truth it was a wholly unnecessary gimmick and ITV duly signed up Walker who, after all, had long been a treasured national institution. The previous year, he had been appointed OBE.

On his retirement from advertising aged 59, Walker and his doting and doted-upon wife, Elizabeth – whom he had married in 1959 – moved from north London to a sublime 13-acre patch of the New Forest – deer, ponies, tinkling trout stream included. Among the mementoes and trophies that littered his office den, and alongside fondly displayed sepia pictures of his father in his champion’s leathers, was a striking, specially commissioned oil painting of a hell-bent vintage 30s race car at top scary lick – his hero Tazio Nuvolari in action.

“Tazio Nuvolari was the very best of all,” he said. “I was 14 when dad took me to see him at Donington in 1938. He drove an Auto Union. It changed my life, I think, to watch as he smilingly slalomed into and out of every corner, all arms and elbows and hair-raising four-wheel drifts, all opposite-lock and showers of shale and cinders. Tazio was the man a whole generation queued up all night to watch, unquestionably the greatest driver of them all for me.”

After he ended his regular Formula One commentaries, Walker continued to appear on television for a number of years afterwards, mainly on magazine programmes but occasionally commentating on less high-profile motorsport events. Acknowledging the partial deafness he had developed over the years, in 2006 he became an ambassador for the David Ormerod Hearing Centres, and campaigned to help people understand the importance of frequent hearing tests.