If you cannot imagine Formula One without Murray Walker, he knows how you feel. He tells Matthew Franey why, aged 75, he’s not nearly done with the sport that has become his life
I shook hands with Murray Walker and watched as he walked out of London’s RAC Club – the diminutive figure smiling as he left. Behind me a waiter swooped with the bill and fixed me with a toothy grin. “I only watch eet because of heem,” he told me in a crescendo of rich Italian accent. “You know, the racing… because of heem… and hees shouting!”
And there is the crux of what makes Murray Walker the man he is. A man who even gives Italians – the most passionate race fans of them all – a reason to turn on the television.
Walker presents a surprising array of paradoxes to those who meet him for the first time. Listen to an hour of any classic Murray broadcast and I defy you to come away without the impression that here is a man with ceaseless naiveté an enthusiasm for his Sport that knows no bounds. Spend an hour in his company, however, and you will glimpse hints of the advertising executive who rose to the top of his profession, the motorsport fan who would have you believe there is no place in his heart for nostalgia, the tough-talking broadcaster with a deep-rooted soft spot for his father. Only on the surface is he the trousers-on-fire caricature of his TV personality. Why then, I asked him, does he think he has become such an established when his an perceptions of himself are so very different?
“I never expected to have the following I have now,” Walker replies, as earnest reflection furrows his brow. “Things happen progressively through life and I started doing this as a bit of fun. I never, ever saw it as a job, because it wasn’t my job. I was doing very well in terms of my work at the advertising agency, I was in a rewarding and interesting profession with a lot of challenges and good people to work with. I had a bloody good working life. So I never saw broadcasting as anything other than an interesting hobby which got me to places I couldn’t have got to as a punter. It wasn’t until I stopped doing my day job that it developed to the extent that it has.
”If it hadn’t ever happened I assume I would have retired aged 55, which was when the company let you go, and I’d have been bored out of my mind. But I was brought up in an atmosphere where my father was a dominant personality and as a result I was always going to love or loathe motorsport. There were no grey areas and, as I was very fond of my dad, I do suspect that subconsciously I wanted to emulate him. He was a top man on motorbikes, the equivalent of world champion before the war, won the TT and Grands Prix and all that sort of stuff.”
At first Walker Junior followed Senior into motorcycling, enjoying fair success in trials at the end of the 1940s. But Murray had already had his first taste of life behind the microphone with a run out at a Shelsley Walsh hillclimb in 1948 and the attractions of being paid to talk about it, rather than paying to do it, struck a chord with the young biker.
“Looking back on it now, my job mattered more to me than riding,” Walker admits. “I’ve always been the kind of bloke who is interested in security and trying to make a bit of money, rather than sticking my neck out.
“In 1949 I mentally arrived at some sort of career crossroads where I could do this or that, and I decided to do ‘that’, which was concentrate on the job. I suspect that the real reason was that I wasn’t good enough at the competitive stuff on bikes to reach the standard that I would have wanted to reach.”
While commentating at Shelsey, Murray set out to catch the attention of a BBC producer working alongside him. The result of his continuous ‘shouting’ was the offer of an audition at a Goodwood race meeting for BBC Radio. Again the Beeb liked what they heard, for Murray was soon standing at Stowe Corner for the 1949 British Grand Prix. More work followed, with a rather apologetic request to cover motorcycle racing that was readily accepted by the novice reporter. Alongside his father, Graham, Murray covered motorcycle racing for over a decade until Walker Sr died in 1962. Thereafter he continued to commentate on all the things that the BBC’s lead racing man, Raymond wasn’t interested in: rallycross, Formula Three, Formula Ford – “the things I used to think of as the crumbs from the rich man’s table”.
It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, when James Hunt’s title-winning antics had ensured that public interest in Formula One was at an all-time high that the BBC decided to cover every Grand Prix. Walker was to be the front man, Hunt the laconic analyst. The match was made in commentary heaven and for nearly two decades the excitable Walker and chocolate-voiced Hunt boomed into living rooms in Britain, Australia and elsewhere.
Hunt, of course, died tragically in 1993 but Murray continued alongside Jonathan Palmer until, one day late in 1995, his career veered suddenly into a metaphorical gravel trap.
“I’d been with the BBC for 47 years. In that time I had got to know the methods of the place, the people, the procedures, quirks and it was an awful blow when they lost the rights to televise Grand Prix racing. Psychologically it was a hell of a blow for me and even more for them.”
The news that ITV had bought the rights to show the following five seasons of F1 for an enormous £60million had come as a complete surprise to everyone, Murray Walker included.
“The first I heard of it, knew of it, even suspected that anything was going on, was when I got into my car at 4pm at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu where I had been doing an after-lunch speech. I turned on the radio and the top story on that broadcast was the BBC losing the rights.”
Walker admits that a few expletives were among the first things to pass his lips, but soon resigned himself to the fact that after half a century in the job, all that was good had to come to an end. That is, if it wasn’t for a truly remarkable campaign started by the tabloid media…
“There was this sort of inter-regnum period where no one knew what the hell was happening and God bless them, the Daily Mirror ran this double-page spread: ‘Save our Murray! Do you want Murray Walker to continue? Phone 0800 1234. Or are you fed up with Murray Walker? Phone 0800 1235.’ And it came out the right way. There were a lot of other nice things in the press as well but I was resigned to thinking that was it. I assumed the new lot would take a broom and sweep out everything, especially the oldest retainers. So I was therefore gigantically flattered when a couple of ITV people appeared on my doorstep and said, ‘We would like you to continue. Do you want to?’ To which I replied, ‘I’ll think about it… I’ve thought about it… Yes.”
One year on, Walker is clearly proud of the efforts of the new production team, especially considering the obvious difficulties of convincing a spoilt audience that commercial breaks were about to become part of their GP viewing time.
“It’s been a bloody marvellous year as far as I am concerned,” intones Walker, a hint of relief evident in his voice. “We had this conundrum of trying to make three ITV companies, freelancers and former BBC staff to work together before the first race. If ever there was a recipe for disaster, that was it. The potential for politics and backstabbing was huge but to my absolute amazement, there wasn’t a whiff of it all season.
“The BBC did a thumping job within their self-imposed limitations. The Grand Prix was always part of Grandstand, which was grossly under-resourced. But if you have a pot of a certain size and you have got to cover soccer, rugby, cricket, women’s one-armed mud wrestling and all that sort of thing, then you will only have so much for Formula One. ITV, by virtue of the fact that they have put such a large amount of money into it, made it a stand-alone programme, resourced it properly, with enough of the right people and were very serious about it.”
He admits the advertising breaks are the nemesis of a smooth-running broadcast – pointing out that even the best-timed interventions missed Damon Hill taking the lead at the Hungarian Grand Prix – but still argues forcefully that British viewers don’t know what bad coverage is.
“We have five two-minute breaks per race,” he explains. “Do you know how long the breaks in Germany are? Six minutes! Remember RTL television is Germany, is Schumacher, is Frentzen, is Mercedes-Benz.
“I know it is of no consolation to our viewers that Britain was the only country not to have commercials, but having said that, it is still the best TV coverage in the world. Look at the add-ons in terms of driver interviews before and after the race, pitlane updates, studio reaction. One of the things the BBC used to get castigated for was giving no updates after a race, well we’ve got them by the hatful now.
“I am very well pleased and arrogant enough to think that the nation ought to be satisfied on a swings-and-roundabouts, total package basis.”
Indeed, supporters of the new ITV team look no further than Murray’s new colleague in the commentary box to point out that far from suffering, the coverage has improved. Martin Brundle has been touted by many as a suitable successor to Hunt. How does Walker assess his co-commentator?
“I think Martin is better than James…” He pauses, perhaps realising that affection for Hunt still remains strong among F1 followers, before continuing. “You have to take the atmosphere of the time into account and James was so sensational with his experience of being world champion when he first started and his mellifluous voice and his outspoken manner and devil-maycare image. There was only one James and only ever will be, in my opinion. I know you can never say never, but it is mighty unlikely that somebody like him will happen along in today’s era.
“But having said that, Martin, in my opinion, is better because, in his early days and for a long, long time, James didn’t really care about the job. He had to be goaded into saying something and a lot of the things that he said were vindictively unfair especially towards Riccardo Patrese, whom he held responsible for the Peterson accident and never, ever forgave, and Ken Tyrrell, who he was outspokenly destructive about.”
But the viewing public loved to listen to Hunt’s controversial interjections and Murray admits that in his partner’s later years, the former champion became almost too mellow and certainly less connected to the contemporary racing scene. Something that makes man-of-the-moment Brundle a key asset.
“Martin is, at the moment, totally in touch,” Walker asserts. “He is still testing and is a daily element of the Arrows team. His difficulty from now on is that as he gets further away from his driving career, he must keep in touch with what is happening.
“As a chap to work with he is magic. He is an extremely nice person, gigantically experienced, eloquent, has .a nice sardonic sense of humour and some bloody good one-liners. There is no angst between us in the box as there tended to be with James and Jonathan. That was probably just as much my fault as theirs, maybe more so, but the fact remains it was there. Martin and I seem to have a good chemistry and rapport. We like working with each other and are prepared to defer to each other. If Martin wants to talk, I’m very happy to let him talk because I know it k going to be relevant, constructive and add to what is going on.
“His area of expertise is those things about which he is uniquely qualified to talk and about which I know nothing. In other words what it is like to be in the car the cockpit experience. Martin is the best there has been at that, in my experience.”
No matter how good the people around you are, mistakes will creep into two hours of live commentary. It is something for which ‘Muddly Talker’ is synonymous and a charge he accepts with a weary smile but feisty defence. A Grand Prix commentator, he points out, does not have control over what the viewer sees. Walker can only describe what is being shown at the time the image you and I get on our sets at home. The trick is to weave in the information coming in all him via the headphones, timing screens and by simply looking out the back of the commentary box. No wonder, Murray smiles, things sometimes go awry.
“Theoretically we could do it as well from your living room as from the track. But then you wouldn’t have the ambience and the fed because we have been there for three or four days.
“What has transformed the whole thing beyond recognition in terms of commentating satisfaction and viewer involvement is the timing equipment from Tag-Heuer. Before it came I used to rely on Mike Doodson, who stood writing figures in vertical columns on a piece of paper as the cars went by – it’s called a lap chart – and while you could retain in your head who the first two or three are, there was no way to absorb and communicate what was happening behind them. You were forever looking away from the monitor at this list of vertical figures working out that number eight had gone up from sixth to fourth and then trying to convert those figures into names in your head, during which time, of course, the viewer sees Alain Prost leave the track, hit the Armco, burst into flames, get out of the car, punch a marshal and I say, ‘Here’s something interesting, Martin Brundle is now in 12th position.’ That’s when you get the ‘Can’t the silly sod see what’s going on?’ sort of complaints.”
Mistakes aside, Murray aged 75 retains the same enthusiasm for the job as the first day he picked up the microphone. Grand Prix racing is his raison d’être and he remains fiercely loyal to the sport as a whole and some of the more controversial characters within it. Take, as an example, his staunch support for F1’s paymaster-general Bernie Ecelestone, a man arguably more responsible than any other for the transformation of racing from a gentleman’s sport to a professional circus.
“The whole thing is so much better organised, promoted and administered,” he argues. ”You could say that it is more professional, and I would agree with that, but I wouldn’t agree with it in a derogatory sense. I would see that as praise.
“You see, I don’t look back nostalgically to the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union races which I used to watch as a child. Sure, I acknowledge it to have been one of the great era by virtue of the technology, but the actual racing, which people talk with bated breath about, wasn’t a patch on what it is now.
“I think that motor racing owes Bernie a gigantic vote of thanks for what he’s done. Avarice and greed will always be a part of F1. It is understandable that some current teams are miffed that they aren’t getting as a big a slice of the cake as they feel they are entitled to, but Bernie has built this business and is entitled to the rewards. Where you draw the line I don’t know and I deliberately try not to get involved with the politics. Doing my job depends on maintaining a degree of naive enthusiasm and if political cynicism replaces naive enthusiasm then you spoil it for the viewers.”
It is this appreciation of the demands of the viewer that makes Walker an exception to the rule. In the highly-charged political arena in which he works, he holds some rather unfashionable views about many of the major players past and present. Who would he hold up as his favourite driver to work with?
“Risking the vilification of my colleagues in the media, I would unhesitatingly say Nigel Mansell. Unlike some journalists on the GP scene, I always got on very well with Nigel and although I would be the first to admit that like us all, he has his less admirable traits, I am prepared to ignore all of those, partly because I didn’t experience them, but also because what I was there to talk about was his ability as a racing driver, not an after-dinner speaker.
“I did a 20-minute interview with Nigel – not the easiest of It jobs – in the pit;ane in Brazil. It was about 40 degrees, baking hot, but we did a bloody good interview and I got it back to the technician, who promptly told me ‘You didn’t turn the microphone on!’ I had to go back to Nigel and say ‘I’m sorry Nigel, I’m at your mercy, but can we do it again?’ And bless him, he did it. But every time he saw me after that, he would say – (Walker wears his best Brummie accent) – ‘Have you turned the microphone on, Murray?’
‘As a media person, he was magic. Wherever Nigel went something was happening. He was having a row, or his wheel was falling off, or he was passing in impossible circumstances. Nigel is a colourful character. You may not like the colours but that is what you get. And that is more than you can say about most of them today. I mean how many are there now? Eddie Irvine is certainly one but there aren’t many others.”
He may deny feelings of nostalgia, but it’s plain that the ’80s was a golden era in his life. His favourite characters in the sport? Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna, Mansell, Gerhard Berger. His opinion on current GP drivers? Not, in general, a match for a Prost or Senna.
“You’ve got Schumacher who is head and shoulders above all the rest in terms of the total package but there are precious few characters left in 1997. Michael is gigantically professional but not charismatic like a Piquet. Damon certainly isn’t a real character and I don’t mean that unkindly. Unlike his father who was an outgoing, eloquent personality, Damon is, in comparison, an introspective, quiet, uncommunicative chap in public. Sitting at this table now he would be bloody good fun but towards the media less so. Eddie Irvine, if you can take the rough and the smooth, is the most genuine of them all. I think you need to understand Eddie – and I am not sure that I do – but I respect him enormously for what he has achieved and for his frankness and outgoing attitude.”
The genuine superstars may have retired or gone, but you are left with the feeling that Walker’s beliefs remain: the sport is a strong as ever and the legends of racing will continue to entertain us and him. In the meantime, the legend behind the microphone has no plans to call time just yet.
“Stopping is not something I would happily envisage,” he says. “But Anno Domini will catch up with me because I am nearer the end of my career than the beginning. I am 75 years old and I like to think that I will know before anybody else that it’s time to go. You do know, you feel yourself start flagging, but I will be back next year that’s for certain. Having started so well with Martin, I would like to rivet that association and make sure that he has all the support from a grizzled veteran like me that he needs in order to enable him to go on with someone else.
“There are always just as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it What you have got to have is the incentive to find them, which, thank God, they haven’t just at the moment because they are satisfied with what I am doing.”
As he prepares to leave, he pauses and fixes me with a stair. “I really can’t envisage not doing it,” he says. “This job is my life. It is what I am passionately interested in, enthusiastic about, love doing. I adore the sport and like talking about it.” It is what makes him the ideal Grand Prix commentator. Well, that, and his shouting…