Today we celebrate the birth centenary of Brian Johnston, the heart of Test Match Special, the voice that reached homes around cricket playing countries carrying warmth and cheer. In happy coincidence with his 100th birthday, Arunabha Sengupta covers the career of the legend in the fifth episode of the series.
The TMS Cakes
It was approaching tea at Lord’s when a steward manning the Grace Gates was confronted by a determined lady named Aileen Cohen. According to BBC scorer Bill Frindall, the following dialogue ensued. “I’ve got a cake for Brian Johnston.”... “That seems a fair swap, missy.”
Anyway, Aileen Cohen, who lived near St. John’s Wood and had fired her oven to bake the first Test Match Special cake, was admitted into the commentary box and was thanked by name during the broadcast that followed. This was the forerunner of many such delicious offerings that the men in the box have enjoyed ever since, and almost all the kindly hands behind the sweetness have been gratefully mentioned on air.
It all started because Ms Cohen had heard Brian Johnston lamenting the lack of such confection in the commentary box while, “The players have gone in for tea and a slice of cake.”
Brian Johnston, a.k.a. Johnners, had such effect on the British households and beyond. His friendly, delightful voice, with child-like sense of endearing fun, made listening to cricket a family affair, not just the specialised precinct of the father alone. He managed to establish personal contact with his audience, for whom he was virtually an extension of the family gathered around the radio.
His much recognisable smiling face, with the famous hooked nose and bushy eyebrows, seemed to glow through the airwaves along with the cricket, complete with the mischievous, kindly twinkle in the eye. It appealed to a huge new population and gave TMS a new lease of life.
While Arlott represented the pure soul of the game, Johnston was its joyously beating heart. His love for pure wholesome fun for cricket and life, coupled with his penchant for double entendres, have entered the realm of folklore, and some are eternally enmeshed in the apocryphal. There is no record of his ever saying, “The bowler’s Holding the batsman’s Willey.” Yet, it is as much as part of the image of Johnners as the tall grandfatherly man who genially smiles from the past photographs. Holding-Wiley now appears in innumerable collection of giggles, gaffes and goof-ups, and has lent their combined name to a cricket website.
The smile that is worth the praises of earth is the smile that shines through tears
For someone who was rollicking good fun till the heart attack a month before his death, Johnston had a sadly morose childhood disfigured by early tragedy. When he was ten, he went through the nightmarish horror of watching his father, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Johnston, drown off the Cornish beach during a family holiday.
Subsequently, after his stint at Eton and Oxford, he went to Brazil to lend his unwilling hand to the family coffee business, and was stricken by an almost fatal nerve disease.
Following his return to England, he was drafted in the Battalion Grenadier Guards during the Second World War. Later in life, he recounted tales of his experiences during the War with characteristic humour laced with humility. When a senior officer had asked what steps he would take if he were to see German infantry advancing on his position, he had supposedly answered, “Very large ones, sir, in the opposite direction.” Yet, he did win the Military Cross, for recovering casualties under enemy fire – something which he seldom mentioned.
And although he did hone his talent for entertainment by regaling his fellow soldiers, the overall experience was not amusing by any stretch of imagination. He writes in his autobiography, “The heat and the dust, the flattened cornfields, the liberated villages which were just piles of rubble, the refugees, the stench of dead cows, our first shelling, real fear, the first casualties, friends wounded or killed, men with whom one had laughed and joked the evening before, lying burned beside their knocked-out tank. No, war is not fun.”
Broadcasts Outside the Box
Yet, the war served two purposes. Johnston was saved from his fearful plight of spending his life in the coffee business. Besides, a chance reunion with two BBC war correspondents, Stewart MacPherson and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, led to his interview with Seymour de Lotbiniere at Outside Broadcasts.
Strangely, Johnston, a stickler for punctuality, arrived late for the interview, but fellow old Etonian de Lotbiniere did not hold it against him and he was recruited.
He was naturally suited to the ad lib life of outside broadcasting and in his early days undertook a variety of assignments.
Johnston’s first job was to cover the disposal of a bomb in Hyde Park, while he perched in the embarrassing apparent safety of a ladies' lavatory, from where he emerged supposedly “looking a bit flushed”.
Such occasions led to his own live spot - Let's Go Somewhere - on In Town Tonight. It was a madcap programme in which he broadcasted from beneath an express train, spending the night horrified in the Chamber of Horrors, being attacked by a police dog, and snatching letters from alarmed members of the public from inside a post box at Christmas.
Adding to the picture
It was in 1946, during his first year with BBC, that Johnston was first approached to commentate on cricket. It was a gentle enquiry from old friend Ian Orr-Ewing, head of Outside Broadcasts, BBC Television.
Those were early days of TV. Just four Test matches had been telecast live before the War. Johnston found himself in front of the camera without any formal guidelines. Alongside him was the well loved former Surrey and England captain, Percy Fender, whose nose was the only one comparable to Johnston’s; and the leading cricket writer and extraordinary wit of the time, R.C. Robertson-Glasgow.
“We were completely untutored in TV commentary. There was no method or pattern ... Lobby (Lotbiniere) had set down the basic facts –(to mention) the score, who has taken the wickets ... The only advice given was, ‘don’t speak unless you can add to the picture’”
Thus, Johnston became a loved and recognised face and voice across the land, yet there are many who are of the opinion that his spontaneity was severely restrained by the formal, inhibited atmosphere of the Television.
Of course, there were many excellent moments.
With E.W. (Jim) Swanton, Johnston witnessed Fred Trueman, later a colleague in the box, decimate the Indians at Headingley in 1952.
In 1968 at The Oval, Colin Cowdrey appeared on the field encouraging spectators to arm themselves with towels, mops, blankets, handkerchiefs and get to work soaking up the puddles in the outfield. It was a grand success. With sawdust scattered everywhere, barely three minutes left in the match, Derek Underwood snapped up the final wicket of John Inverarity. The ones who watched still remember Johnston shouting at the top of his voice, “He’s out. He’s out LBW and England have won.”
Also, it was on Television, in Headingley, 1961, that he uttered one of the more famous of his numerous gaffes, “Neil Harvey is standing at leg slip, legs wide apart, waiting for a tickle.”
And when Glenn Turner painfully got up after being hit in the box by debutant Alan Ward at Lord’s 1969, and prepared to face the next ball, Johnston famously described Turner’s pale face and pluck before adding, “One ball left.”
It was not until he became BBC’s cricket correspondent in 1963 that Johnston started to appear occasionally on Test Match Special, sharing his radio duties with television. He generally covered the home Tests on TV, the winter tours on radio and spent several Saturdays broadcasting the county matches.
By the late sixties, he was the leading voice of cricket along with Arlott, and certainly the more recognisable face, when a singular shock staggered his happy world.
Dropped and second coming
In 1970, BBC Television unceremoniously dropped Johnston, without offering any explanation.
Some feel that the Test and County Cricket Board wanted a more serious image for its product and Johnston was too frivolous. The second conjecture is that BBC TV wanted only ex-cricketers in their team. This seems farfetched given that Denis Compton was also removed a few days down the line.
The least plausible explanation is the most depressing, especially given that the man in question is the image of pure, uncontaminated congeniality. Both Johnston and Compton were of the opinion that sport and politics should not be mixed. At that point of history the questions of South Africa and apartheid had raised their ugly heads and the decision makers could have been uneasy about politically incorrect statements aired live.
There can be some element of truth in the last school of thought. The only time one remembers Johnston being stripped of his jovial demeanour was while making a hard hitting speech against the boycott of South Africa at a special meeting of MCC in 1983. Not that he was pro-apartheid, he just did not think it had anything to do with cricket.
However, even as Johnston was digesting the incredible news about his loss of job, he was approached by Robert Hudson, the head of BBC Outside Broadcasts, who asked him to join Test Match Special full time.
The lack of explanation from the Television colleagues would rankle Johnston for the rest of his life, but his entry into the fold of TMS turned out to be the true homecoming of his talents.
Since that day, thousands of people took to watching cricket on television with the sound turned down, while their radios blared away.
Arlott and Johnston
If we remember Arlott for his literary brilliance and wizardry with words, Johnston is remembered for the touch of brightness, bonhomie and bloopers. The sense of camaraderie and cheerful, sometimes comical, banter he brought into the commentary box has lived on as his legacy.
The charming nicknames emerged in old Oxford style. Bill Frindall, the tireless scorer, became “Bearders” for his bushy expanse of facial hair. Henry Blofeld was christened “Blowers”. It went on for over two decades, ending with Jonathan Agnew metamorphosing into “Aggers”. By logical recoil, Johnston himself turned “Johnners”.
Next came many of his goof-ups, not all of which were involuntary.
“Welcome to Leicester where Ray Illingworth has just relieved himself at the Pavilion End.”
Sometimes there was calculated class in the wordplay, even if somewhat smutty. Consider this spoonerism. Witnessing the peculiar action of Asif Masood, which Arlott had described as “Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress”, Johnston, with calculated deliberateness, announced his name as “Massive A**hood”
Along with starting the mouth-watering tradition of TMS cakes, he also enjoyed reading snippets from the increasing number of letters that streamed in from fans, especially if they had funny stories to share, even if far away from cricket.
Finally, leg pulling within the box turned chronic. Johnston threw live questions at unsuspecting colleagues, timed to perfection just as they had taken a mouthful of TMS cake. And whenever any commentator said something which could be interpreted as risqué school-boyish double entendre, Johnston would make unusual hunting horn sounds from the corner of his mouth, often rendering the entire team helpless with laughter. One such occasion was when Trevor Bailey recounted an excellent delivery from Waqar Younis as, “How can he whip it out just before tea?”
The only occasions that found him visibly annoyed were when teams resorted to bowling wide outside the leg stump.
While his lively voice of frolic made him the toast of the nation, not all his colleagues were amused. Arlott certainly felt Test cricket was being trivialised by too much frivolity. Johnston on his part, did not really approve of the amount of claret consumed by Arlott during his professional duties. However, the two men maintained a professional relationship and combined to bring cricket to life all over the world.
Stop it, Aggers!
Jonathan Agnew maintains that in spite of his light hearted banter, Johnston was one of the most meticulous in his preparation for the matches and interviews. Before tours started, Johnston would make careful note of the walk and hair and other distinguishable features of players so that they could be recognised easily from a distance of 90 yards. Before talking to any celebrity, he would read every available material about the person that he could lay his hands on.
Yet, during his first season with TMS, Agnew was to be eternally linked to Johnston in one of the most hilarious incidents in the annals of cricket commentary.
On the second day of the 1991 Test match between England and West Indies at The Oval, Ian Botham tried to hook a bouncer from Curtly Ambrose. It was a bit too fast and Botham, struck on the body, lost his balance, went through an ungainly pirouette, and staggered towards the wicket. His last minute attempt to step over the stumps failed, and his right thigh flicked the bail. Christopher Martin Jenkins described his dismissal graphically.
After the tea break, when Johnston and Agnew were going over the details of the play, the latter analysed the hit-wicket dismissal with the words, “He just didn’t get his leg over.”
Leg over is the colloquial term for having sex, and considering the man in question was Ian Botham, the situation turned catastrophic. Johnston fought manfully against a fit of giggles for about half a minute, before falling into a helpless bout of laughter, from time to time squealing, “Aggers, do stop it.” For several minutes, all that could be heard were muffled snorts, chuckles, giggles and laughter. It brought Peter Baxter, the producer, rushing into the box hissing through clenched teeth, “Will somebody say something?”
Johnston now struggled for composure and managed, “And Tufnell came in and batted for 12 minutes, then he was caught Haynes ... England were all out for 419. I’ve stopped laughing now.”
While Agnew thought he had successfully ruined his career just a few months into the job, the 79 year old Johnston was embarrassed by the niggling thought that he had been unprofessional. However, the next day mails flooded in with stories of traffic coming to a standstill with drivers in hysterics, several of them pulling up on pavements to get over their guffaws, men caught up on ladders, hanging on for dear life as they roared with laughter. There was a deluge of requests for dubbed cassettes. TMS had never been this popular.
I have stopped laughing now
Other traditions started by Johnston were Champagne Moments to award a memorable passage of play, and the View from the Boundary, a 30 minute interview with a celebrity during a Test match. Some of the interviews were pure delights. In 1980, ninety-four year old playwright Ben Travers turned up with vivid recollections of WG Grace, and the debut of Don Bradman.
One of the latter guests was actor and author Stephen Fry. He recalls being greeted as “Ah, Fryers!” by the legendary commentator. Only Johnston could have convincingly abbreviated his name by doubling its letter count.
After Johnston’s death at the age of 81, Fry wrote, “Whenever I worry vulgarity, coarseness, ignorance, roughness, meanness, pessimism , miserablism and puritanical stupidity of England will get me down, I invent a certain kind of Englishman to put all that right ... gallant, funny, courteous, kindly, perceptive, soldierly, honourable, ... old-fashioned in the right way ...with a love of laughter, and understanding of cricket...Impossible that such an ideal could ever exist in the real world; yet he did, and his name was Brian Johnston.” He ended his tribute saying he had the “Stop it, Aggers!” moment as a ringtone, and thought of the location of Lord’s as St. Johnners Wood.
The entire TMS team was grief-stricken at the news of his death, but such was the disposition of the man, that the programmes in the aftermath of his death turned out to be joyful and hilarious. BBC Nine O’Clock News ended its obituary with the words, “I’ve stopped laughing now.” Soon, a Private Eye cartoon depicted Johnston knocking at Pearly Gates and beaming at the Almighty with a cheery, “Hello, Godders.”
Brian Johnston’s memorial service was held at a packed Westminster Abbey with over 2,000 people in attendance. The Grenadier Guards played Johnston’s favourite melodies, including the theme tune of his favourite Australian soap Neighbours –perhaps the only time it will ever be played in those hallowed quarters.
The address was shared by Colin Cowdrey and Prime Minister John Major, and the latter observed, “Summers simply won’t be the same.”
However, days after his death, a now elderly Aileen Cohen appeared at Grace Gates with a freshly baked chocolate cake for the TMS team. The sweetness spread by the man lives on whenever cricket is played.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
3. Rex Alston
4. John Arlott