Tuesday, 19 January 2010


In the thirty-something years I've lived in Britain, no sportscaster has come close to matching Bill McLaren, who has just died aged 86. He was simply the best at what he did in this country for most of the time I've followed British sport. It was one of the rituals of my first winter living with my then in-laws down in Sussex 1977, and it lasted and grew--for many years I'd tromp across London to watch rugby at the Prince George in Hackney, and McLaren's voice made it easy to enjoy any match, just as some of the other commentators made it difficult to enjoy even a good one. He was more accessible than John Arlott, more serious than Henry Blofeld, more expressive than Dan Maskell (not a difficult task, that last). If it weren't for McLaren, I'd probably not know that Hawick is pronounced Hoik.

Like many announcers, good or bad, he became something of a caricature of himself toward the end of his 50 year career, but unlike many, it wasn't that much of a detriment, because he never put himself to the fore, the game always came first, and he never seemed to struggle for descriptions of it. Although they served different roles, I'd compare his later career to John Madden's, who, as he grew older and veered into self-parody, was lucky enough to be re-energiezed, by the move to Fox, by the move to ABC with Al Michaels, and finally by the joint move with Michaels to NBC. It allowed him to re-examine and up his game, but the BBC doesn't work that way. In fact, it's Michaels who may be the closest American equivalent to McLaren's talent, although he is, or was, a generalist, whereas McLaren was a rugby specialist.

McLaren also suffered somewhat as the game changed; he was, and his style remained, the epitome of when the game was still relatively amateur, when the players looked like real people, not action figures, and before our passion for telestrators and computerized statistics took over. It may seem old-fashioned now, his voice and the game of rugby I came to love in the late 70s, but they were part and parcel of a different attitude toward sport. That McLaren continued to teach PE in a Hawick school for years while doing commentary on the weekends impressed me to; those of us who are lucky enough to have to do other things for a living besides talk about sport benefit from it, just as I benefitted from listening to Bill McLaren.

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