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'Criticism and ridicule never seemed to affect Coleman's performances'

David Coleman was the Pavarotti of sports broadcasting.

David Coleman set the template for sport on TV in the sixties as presenter of the BBC's Saturday Grandstand programme.  Picture: BBC Archive
David Coleman set the template for sport on TV in the sixties as presenter of the BBC's Saturday Grandstand programme. Picture: BBC Archive

He was the master of fortissimo. Nuance was not part of his personality, either in front or behind the camera. At the peak of his career, his voice defined new forms of exaltation.

I was in awe of him, therefore, before we met for the first time in Germany at the 1974 World Cup finals, where we shared much social life between games. I had been forewarned about the kind of man I was going to associate with because of a surreptitious recording that had been made of him during a studio rehearsal earlier in his career. To this day I am not sure if he ever knew of it being circulated throughout the BBC, from the boilerman to the controllers of different channels. But if you hadn't heard the Coleman recording then you were lacking in your broadcasting education. You could have interpreted it as a kind of air-raid warning for those who might cross his path.

In it he rips into a very substantial editorial figure who is daring to direct cameras for some sequence they were preparing. Coleman swats him off like a troublesome flea and tells him what should be done in an unrelenting stream of penetrating invective which, within hearing distance, could have turned milk in a cow's udder instantly sour.

So there I was in this hotel in Frankfurt in '74 with Jock Stein, having dinner with the great broadcaster, hanging on every word he spoke, when in walked the BBC editor of their World Cup output, who rather brusquely told Coleman that he had to attend a meeting that following morning.

The great man took this as a declaration of war. Out the hellish legions of words suddenly sallied, turning this man of considerable substance into a mere trembling courtier who had forgotten to bow before the throne. I swear that Stein, no slouch when it came to dispensing wrath himself, blanched in the slip-stream of this attack. And then, as if he realised our own embarrassment about witnessing this, Coleman turned to me, a fledgling in the business, and snapped: "Don't let any of these buggers ever push you around".

From that moment on I was on his side. Because he had demonstrated again astonishing role-reversal. In the normal hierarchical arrangement of broadcasting it is the frontman who takes the flak, who has to be the passive figure, who ought to know his place and keep his mouth shut until the red light goes on. Not he. Throughout that World Cup he demonstrated time after time that you can cross into that supposedly illicit territory and help shape the final outcome. He was a trailblazer in that sense, although it is true to say nobody else before him, or since, could match that bravado.

It was because he was simply outstanding at what he did which allowed that imperious conduct to persist. I learned in Germany and then in Los Angeles 10 years later, at the Olympics, that not even the Beeb's director general would dare cross swords with him. As a result, many of his co-workers detested and feared him and went to all kinds of ends not to cross him. But in the States I noticed a change in the way he conducted himself, largely because the task there was much greater and he was in his element with athletics. He and Sam Leitch, the Scottish editor of Grandstand, had ganged up to push Kenneth Wolstenholme out of the principal football commentary role, but I felt he was never as much at ease in that area as he was with track and field.

And in LA he kept to himself mostly. The rumbustious arguer of Germany had become monkish. He would bury himself in his room in preparation for each event, particularly for the Opening Ceremony, which he regarded as the acme of commentating, and would meet up with his great athletics associate, Ron Pickering, only when going to the stadium. By that time the Scottish producer had decided to end the equipping of those two with separate microphones. Thus, with only one mic between them, there was born another Olympic sport, that of arm-wrestling for the mic as the two egos met head-on. Not that the viewer would have known, because at the root of their attitudes was a professional synergy which put each event into proper perspective and together they became, in my view, the greatest commentating pair ever, principally by virtue of Pickering's instinctive understanding of how to deal with Coleman.

His apparent indifference to criticism and occasional ridicule never seemed to affect Coleman's performances, which in itself was a lesson to any budding commentator. He claimed to me that he never made the famous statement "Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class". Whether he did or not didn't seem to matter too much to him as I believe he simply liked to see himself as the conduit for any kind of public discussion. And you could not possibly have covered so much territory in broadcasting and spoken millions of words without falling into the gaffe gin-trap, as I know to my own cost, having also appeared in the famous eponymous column "Colemanballs".

Then, by the time of the Olympics in Seoul in 1988, we were talking about something else about him. His voice. There were the early signs of a tremor appearing in the higher reaches. That top C moment which carried such momentum through to the viewer didn't seem as pure. Nobody spoke too loudly about it. It was almost a taboo subject. And that was a pity, because he went on too long. His lust for the mic, as we had all witnessed through the years, was unquenchable. But even before he finished at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 his voice was a mere caricature of what it once had been.

Nevertheless, without the least effort, I can still hear him in my ear, at his very best, with his lungs wide open and definitely showing his peerless class.

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