Murray Walker saw his first TT race in 1925 – yes, 86 years ago. His father, Graham, was a racer, a good one, and his son inevitably idolised him and the men who raced with him. That experience had two effects which were to shape Murray’s long life – it gave him a love, a passionate, emotional love, of motorsport and it gave him the burning desire to live up to his father’s success (his father commentated on the TT was well as raced it), a desire that has fueled the podgy, squinting, bank-clerkish man who wasn’t as quick as his father on the roads, but just as quick on the mic.
Though the BBC doesn’t do much live sport these days, it does the history of sport very well. In Murray Walker: Life in the Fast Lane (not on the i-player – God knows why – but you’re sure to find a feed somewhere), Murray looked back on his life with the help of library footage and some very evocative stills. As you would expect from such a programme, there was an air of the early obituary about it, with talking heads saying warm things about the principal. But there were also lots of shots of Murray waddling about the paddock (both hips have been replaced) being greeted by the young guns of today with genuine warmth.
Not all was sweetness and light, as Murray’s account of working with James Hunt showed. It is well known that the two men didn’t get along – Murray old school, middle middle class, in trade (he worked in advertising full-time until he was 60), all detailed notes and preparation on race day; James, upper middle class, playboy, winging it and off to have “a look at the other side of the circuit” ie a spliff. Incredibly, on the mic (just one of them over which they bickered and fought), it worked like a dream.
Murray was no wordsmith, nor could he call upon technical knowledge, but he had three great attributes as a commentator. His voice cut through the air like the sound of a 125cc motorcycle bouncing off the rev limiter, complementing the pictures perfectly. He loved the racing and the racers, and had the untutored natural facility to convey that love not just to the heads of his audience, but to their hearts too. And he knew his history, able, even today, to place any racer, any event, any circuit within its proper context. Without my really knowing it, Murray’s is probably the commentary style I aspire to emulate at Testmatchsofa.com – not worrying about the errors, concentrating on conveying the love for the game and setting it within a historical context. I’ve another forty years left then!
Having explained his moving commentary on Damon Hill’s clinching of the World Championship, in which he just held back the tears just long enough to salute the man he had known as child, grief-stricken teenager and impecunious biker, the film left us with two images that underlined Murray’s unflinching love for the life he led. There he is standing in a field watching motocross, as he did when learning his craft in Sixties television, and he’s still talking to anyone who’ll listen; there he is again, at Silverstone, on his feet, mic in hand, commentating on a clubman’s race for the sheer fun of it all. He knew the greatest sin he could commit was to be boring and he’s spent 86 years in motorsport not being boring. And he’s still not boring today.