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Unbridled and unrelenting enthusiasm. There is no better phrase to sum up Murray Walker in word and deed.
His innate love of motorsport – on two wheels and four; on dirt or on Tarmac – was as abiding and powerful as his method of describing it across the airwaves.
Commentating on a sport he adored was seen as a privilege that he urgently needed to share with his viewers across the world.
For Murray, there was no such thing as a boring motor race. Journalists, staring at blank computer screens while searching for positive words to sum up a processional Grand Prix, became accustomed to Walker, still flushed with a couple of hours’ worth of adrenalin, bouncing into the media centre and declaring: “Well! That was incredible!”
When faced with incredulous looks and asked which race he was referring to, Walker would be genuinely perplexed; almost affronted.
This would come as no surprise to his television producers. Neil Duncanson, on behalf of his independent production company, Chrysalis, worked with Murray from ITV’s takeover of Formula One coverage in 1997 until Walker’s retirement at the end of 2001.
“He’s one of the very few guys I worked with over the years who actually added to the spectacle of the sport you were watching,” says Duncanson.
“It wasn’t Murray simply doing the driving and navigating, like most commentary teams do; he actually was able to lift it up.
“I know he polarised a few fans, but we always felt it was a small minority. From my point of view, especially in those Michael Schumacher years when that red car was winning all the races, we were getting concerned about pulling in viewers to ITV, particularly with no British driver anywhere near the front.
“When Schumacher was a lap and a half clear of everyone else, we’d say: ‘Turn it up to 11, Murray.’ And off he would go. He’d take off and give you something else to watch and to listen to. He was an absolute joy.”
An occasional side-effect of this dramatic increase in pace would be the emergence of what had already become known as ‘Murrayisms’; a euphemism for ‘mistakes’ in the eyes of the minority that Duncanson was referring to but, for a contented majority, slips of the tongue that brought further listening pleasure.
Rather than being a failing, Murrayisms had become an acceptable part of the Walker stock in trade.
“If a Murray Walker was to happen along now, they would have his arm off,” says Duncanson. “There aren’t many commentators out there today that sell a ticket. I worked with some good ones; people such as Kenneth Wolstenholme in football and Reg Gutteridge in boxing.
“These guys brought something extra to the broadcast; they pulled people in because they felt comfortable listening to the voice as much as watching the images on the screen.”
Having Walker’s company at the races was like being with your favourite uncle.
The paddock seemed to be complete when he appeared; this stocky figure with everlasting fervour and an ever-ready smile. For Murray, no part of F1 was dull, no matter how humdrum it may have appeared to the rest of us journalists.
There was an occasion at one Grand Prix when a team press officer had asked for our help. A new sponsor had come on board and wished to make his presence known to the media.
He represented a particularly dull product – something to do with a brake-pad material that could apparently survive on the surface of the Sun, or some such.
Our PR colleague accepted that he was asking a big favour to have us stop by during a busy time following free practice.
But since our media relations friend was well-liked and always helpful, it was readily agreed that working in the F1 paddock was a two-way street.
At the appointed hour, the press officer was to be as grateful as his sponsor was impressed by a room full of journalists and broadcasters apparently keen to learn more about the coefficient of friction – whatever that was.
Clearly enthused by the size of his audience, the sponsor seized the moment and launched into a technical discourse that had lost most of us after the first sentence. Twenty minutes or so later we emerged, thankful that at least the coffee and cookies had been palatable.
As we stepped outside and attempted to clear our heads, Walker suddenly piped up: “Well, incredible! Wasn’t that jolly interesting?” And he meant every word, as witnessed by copious notes in his usual neat handwriting. You could only applaud such remarkable diligence and zeal.
Walker was a one-man show, and host Steve Rider was frequently in a box seat for this display of solo artistry.
A highly acclaimed sports broadcaster in his own right, Rider worked with Murray when they produced coverage of the British Touring Car Championship for the BBC in 1988.
By then, Walker was commentating on all the Grands Prix. On free weekends he would attend BTCC events and immerse himself in a class of racing he had enjoyed since the late 1950s.
If a Grand Prix clashed with the BTCC, it mattered little because the Touring Car races were being filmed and edited, with Walker recording the commentary during the following week.
“He would compose this commentary, virtually frame by frame,” says Rider. “It would take him five or six hours. You left him alone and gave him cups of coffee. Then, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, he would come into the dubbing theatre and just say: ‘I’m ready.’
“And that would be the cue for everyone to stop what they were doing and take a seat as if this was a theatrical performance: Murray is about to dub!
“He would get behind the glass – and he would go for it. Jab-jab-jabbing at the screen; talking at full noise all the time. He would probably do it in about three or four sections.”
“The thing that struck you was that, even though he was dubbing, he made it sound as if he was there, doing it live. To do something as scripted and as pre-prepared as that and yet maintain an air of spontaneity about it is very difficult. In many ways, it was indeed pure theatre.”
“It took an awful lot out of him and, at the end of it, he would sit down,” continues Rider. “But nobody would leave. He would come out from behind the glass and say: ‘Right. Now we’ll listen to all of that back.’
“Everyone would sit there while we went through it from the start. Murray was exactly the same listening to the commentary as he was when delivering it. At certain points, he’d be up on his feet jabbing at the screen. It was absolutely wonderful. You could sell tickets for it.”
Walker’s ability to convey such genuine passion was such that, if he was in full flow and no one was watching, people would be drawn to the room to discover the source of this barely controlled hysteria – even if nothing of any note was actually happening.
“I always felt,” Duncanson muses, “that Murray could make a 5am milk round on a cold morning in Peckham sound like the start of the Indianapolis 500.”
Images: Getty/Haymarket Automotive
Incredible! by Maurice Hamilton is published by Penguin Books (£20, ISBN 9781787635593)
RIP Murray Walker OBE 1923-2021
John Cleland: more than ‘just’ two Touring Car titles