Murray Walker – An Appreciation

Published June 11, 2011 by tootingtrumpet

The Walkers at The Island in 1931

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.

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5 comments on “Murray Walker – An Appreciation

  • A fine tribute. This programme somehow completely passed me by, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. It’s available (for now, anyway) on YouTube, starting at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifsRZJW7ix0 , and I look forward to watching it. Sometimes, people (I’m admonishing myself here) can be knee-jerkingly harsh on commentators who fail to quite make the mark. This says two things, I think: how hard a job it is to do well**; and how much the commentator’s voice is bound up with our experience of watching sport, given how much of said experience these days is mediated through the telly or radio. And any discipline whose pantheon can include such stylistically diverse talents Walker and Richie Benaud deserves respect.

    I love Walker’s bottomless and relatively uncynical enthusiasm for his sport, but I also miss Hunt. My earliest F1 memories (I used to watch it a fair bit; not so much now) come from the last couple of years of the Walker/Hunt commentary team, and his loss was certainly felt over the airwaves. Bless the pair of them.

    ** I was going to say something here about how unnatural it is to talk more or less non-stop for hours at a time, but when it comes to Walker and motor racing, that probably doesn’t apply.

    • Fredorrarci – Thank you for your kind words. The point about voices is well made, I’ve found the actual commentating relatively easy and I flatter myself that I don;t sound too bad when I play back my Testmatchsofa.com work. But my voice is nowhere near the pros. The best example of voices is this extraordinary race – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQggeLfUNF8 (Apologies to Phil, who does not hold with racing and I have a lot of sympathy with that view). The way the voices work on that race is almost perfect, a work of collective genius with Peter O’Sullivan calling Red Rum’s heartbreaker over Crisp with humanity and excitement. A great commentator can make the event.

  • A beautiful article, Gary. He also displayed an amazing knowledge of the TT on that TT reminiscences interview.

    On a personal note, my family moved to South Africa for a brief few years at the start of the 80s. It was a very unhappy time for me, but Murray’s commentary on the FI races (the TV broadcaster must have bought the BBC coverage in) was one of my vital connections to home.

    • Thank you Phil, especially as you were the man who told me of the programme. Sorry about the clip above. I mark my life by sport, so i know exactly what you mean when feeling that Murray’s voice was “home”. His brain appears to have slowed down not a jot and his conjuring up of names of TT riders was extraordinary.

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