Robert Hudson is perhaps the most unsung of the Test Match Special commentators. Nevertheless, he played the most important role in the conception of the programme. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of this most meticulous of commentators.
Don’t miss a ball – we broadcast them all
On a rain-affected August day, Robert Hudson sat looking tensely at the ticking clock from the commentary box of the North Marine Ground, Scarborough. Forty five seconds of his few meagre minutes of commentary stint remained, and Cyril Poole, who had taken aeons to amble to the wicket, now took another eternity to take his guard. The unforgiving second hand moved rapidly ahead as Fred Trueman, who had dismissed Ron Giles and Fred Stocks with his two previous deliveries, waited with the ball clasped in his eager hand.
With just moments to go, Trueman raced in and Poole obliged with a catch to Frank Lowson at short-leg. A relieved Hudson had just about enough time to yell into his microphone, “It’s a hat-trick! Back to the studio!”
This experience made Hudson, the North of England producer of Outside Broadcasts, determined to liberate cricket from the piecemeal scheduling from which it had suffered so long. He spent the next few months launching a campaign to start Test match coverage of every ball, not just scheduled broadcasts of some pre-determined sessions of play. He was helped in his noble mission in equal measure by genius and fate when, at Old Trafford next year, less than half of Jim Laker's record-breaking 19-wicket haul could be broadcast to the eagerly listening homes across England.
By 1957, Hudson had persuaded his superiors, despite a loud chorus of protests from the music lobby. Test cricket was to be allowed on the little listened-to Network Three, the forerunner of Radio 3, and every ball bowled was to be aired live. Test Match Special was thus born on 30th May during the England - West Indies encounter at Edgbaston, when Sonny Ramadhin and Peter May commenced their epic battle. It remains on air more than 55 years later, by now a tradition of the English summer, with a new home on Radio 4 since 1994.
Hudson, forever low key and unsung among commentators, was the architect of the “Don’t miss a ball – we broadcast them all” movement. Much of it was made possible by his momentous memorandum on ball-by-ball coverage to his Outside Broadcasts boss Charles Max-Muller in 1956.
War, Work and Wedding
Robert Hudson’s contribution to cricket commentary went far beyond his meticulous broadcasts from the box. While occupying influential posts as administrator, he spotted talent of the magnitude of Brian Johnston, Christopher Martin Jenkins, Henry Blofeld and Peter Baxter. With legendary chief of Outside Broadcasts, Simon de Lotbiniere, he wrote instruction manuals for commentators that would remain virtually unchanged for years to come. And all the while, he himself operated as a living, breathing example of how commentary should be done.
Born in Golders Green in 1920, Hudson served in the Royal Artillery in World War II, ending up as a lieutenant-colonel and serving in British Malaya. On his return to civilian life, he obtained a degree from the London School of Economics and spent a while roaming along the antiseptic corridors of corporate life. It was in 1946 that he found his vocation, when he successfully auditioned for BBC, recording a 20 minute commentary alongside John Arlott. “If they can use someone with an extraordinary accent like that, I must have a chance,” Hudson claims to have thought on meeting the great commentator.
He made his debut as a broadcaster covering Rugby on television in 1947, having been chosen by Ian Orr-Ewing, the same man who introduced Brian Johnston to television commentary.
In 1949, again on television, Hudson had his first experience of cricket commentary. However, much of his work during the first few years was freelance. It was only in 1954 that he joined the staff as the senior Outside Broadcasts producer of BBC North Region, based out of Manchester.
It was also at BBC that he met Barbara Kellett, an administrator, from whom he learnt much about the way politics and bureaucracy worked in the organisation. These lessons stood him in good stead as he spent his own administrative years weaving through the same machinations, bringing about innovations that would remarkably change the face of sports broadcasting.
However, one must confess that his relation with Barbara Kellett went beyond instructions in organisational management. 1957, the same year that Test Match Special was launched, witnessed the start of another long partnership as the two BBC employees got married.
Preparation, preparation and preparation
The trademark of Hudson’s approach to commentary was preparation and detailed research. No commentator ever held the microphone knowing more about the dramatis personae and the stage.
The legend goes that the old Yorkshire slow left-arm bowler, Wilfred Rhodes, advised him, “Paint a picture and keep it the right way up.” By then, Rhodes was blind, and thus thoroughly dependant on the radio. And Hudson took heed. He always spoke as if he was painting a picture for a blind man, one who had perhaps never seen a cricket ground in his life.
While instructing new commentators, however, Hudson asked them to imagine themselves speaking to someone at home – preferably, a housewife at her sink. Given that his own wife was still working at BBC, the recommendation is surprising and perhaps politically incorrect, but no one can deny the wisdom that simmered within.
Peter Baxter commentated with him on the day in 1968 when Colin Cowdrey implored The Oval crowd to help out in drying the water-logged ground, and England won with just minutes remaining on the clock. He remembers typical Hudson phrases that immaculately described the close in fielders gathered in a ring around the Australian tail-enders as Derek Underwood ran in to bowl – as precise as “the second short-leg from the left.”
Hudson's voice remained youthful and the lightness of his touch belied the homework that had gone into every commentary. He seldom undertook assignments of even county cricket matches without watching all the cricketers beforehand, preparing a book of notes on the descriptions, mannerisms, gaits and other defining characteristics. During the day’s play, he would be at the back of the box when others took turns at the microphone, to prevent repeating trains of thoughts that had already chugged along while at the same time being aware of everything that took place between his stints.
The scrupulously jotted observations about the cricketers enabled him to fill in the gaps in play with remarkable ease. In his book Inside Outside Broadcasts, he wrote: “Names are all very well and instant recognition is essential, but give a cricketer a mop of red hair and a cap slightly askew, and he begins to come to life.”
Princely weddings and royal blunder
Apart from cricket, Hudson also became a renowned rugby union commentator, and was especially famous for his broadcasts of state occasions – Remembrance Day services, investitures, funerals and five royal tours in 32 different countries, and 21 Trooping the Colours ceremonies.
His voice also conveyed the descriptions of the royal weddings of Princesses Margaret (1960), Alexandra (1963), Anne (1973), and Prince Charles and Diana (1981), as well as the funerals of Sir Winston Churchill (1965), Edward Windsor (1972) and Field Marshal Montgomery (1976).
On these occasions too, his approach to preparation would be as fastidious. He would spend at least two prior weeks interviewing every key figure, and making notes to himself on postcards, all written out in pencils of different colours. Everything would be included, from names of individuals to the exact moment when he should not speak, such as when music was due to begin or the brigade majors would bark out their orders.
He was there, long after his retirement, along with Peter Baxter and Brian Johnston as the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana got married in 1981. He sat in the St Paul’s Cathedral, filling in his notes, making sure that he could recognise people by looking at the back of their heads.
Unforgettably on that day, Johnston informed his audience that when the carriage reached his position, Earl Spencer and his daughter would probably wave to the crowds and go “up the steps of the pavilion ... I mean St Pauls.”
With so much care taken over what he said on air, Hudson made few such gaffes, but there was indeed one which has lived on through telling and retelling – and curiously, this was also touched by royalty. When a touring New Zealand cricket team was being presented to the Queen at Lord’s, he declared, “This is a moment they will always forget.”
Yet, he was always the one to be pushed ahead during the Queen’s visit to the Test Matches at Lord’s. “Always the teams presented to Her Majesty,” he would keep repeating. “Never the other way round.”
Leadership and Retirement
His elevation to the leadership of Outside Broadcasts in 1969 brought a hiatus in Hudson’s sporting commentaries, although he kept covering the state events. With his self effacing, shy demeanour of a university professor with an infectious neighing laugh, he nevertheless applied the lessons of the terrain picked up from Barbara, and during his years at the helm, managed to unite two warring departments that handled sports on the radio : Outside Broadcasts and Sports News. He also masterminded the radio coverage of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, the World Cycling Championships in Leicester and the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
After retirement in 1975, he continued to cover state events and a few county matches, sometimes also lecturing in the art of broadcasting. But, mainly he stayed in his home near St Albans, helping Barbara who had set up an antiques business.
When Barbara died of cancer in 1987, Hudson raised nearly £30,000 for the charity Macmillan Cancer Support.
Hudson himself passed away in June 2010, at the age of 90. In his obituary BBC pondered why he was so unsung a hero, concluding, “A determined and positive character, he would shy away from the limelight, preferring the anonymity that radio can allow. Few fully comprehend the important role he has played in the evolution of broadcasting.”
(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)