Murray Walker obituary: F1 broadcasting legend dies aged 97
Several generations of fans grew up listening to his voice describing the exploits of the likes of Jackie Stewart, James Hunt, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Jenson Button.
To the wider public he was best known for his occasional gaffes and the “trousers on fire” commentary style so famously described by Clive James.
In fact at heart he was a hardworking and hugely knowledgeable enthusiast, who was admired and respected by the drivers and team bosses he talked about, and by everyone who knew him in paddocks across different motor sporting disciplines.
His fame extended well beyond the UK, since his commentaries went also to Australia, New Zealand, Canada (and thence much of the USA) and South Africa. More people listened to him in Holland and Belgium than followed their local broadcasters.
He came into broadcasting in the slipstream of his famous father. The name Graham Walker figured large in his life, and Murray made no secret of the fact that he always tried to live up to his dad's legacy.
“I was born into a motorsport family,” he explained. “My father was a professional racing motorcyclist from round about 1920 to '35. I was born in 1923, and I used to go on the continent with him and my mother, attending races.
“It struck me as being quite normal, because it's what my father did. But while I was going to Germany, Holland, Belgium and Italy it was quite unusual for people in England to have been to Scotland, or Wales, or Clacton - never mind a foreign country!'
“He won the TT, and was the equivalent of World Champion before the war. I suppose, and this is probably a masterpiece of over simplification, he was a Graham Hill rather than an Ayrton Senna. But by a combination of natural ability, bloody hard work and application, he got the job done.
“He had a gigantic personality. He was a wonderful man, he was a decent, honest, likeable person. He was very good with words, and a brilliant after dinner speaker. He would stand up without any notes and genuinely hold the room in thrall for an hour.”
On retiring from the saddle, it was only natural that Walker Sr should turn to broadcasting, and he became the BBC's voice of motorcycling. In those days, the TT was a major national event.
“They used to have a team of five commentators around the course,” Murray recalled. “But the main point was back at the grandstand. He masterminded all that lot, and he did it brilliantly well. I've got recordings of him at home which I listen to with admiration and gigantic respect.”
In September 1939, the Walkers were at a trials event in Austria, where Graham was managing the British Army team. Warned by a coded telegram, they escaped hours before war was declared.
As soon as he was old enough, Murray was in the thick of the action. It's hard to imagine the Walker of his commentary days issuing orders with his head sticking out of a tank turret, but his war service was serious stuff.
“I went through Sandhurst, and I became God's gift to the British army, because I now had a Second Lieutenant's pip on my shoulder!" he recalled.
“The Royal Scot's Greys was very much a cavalry regiment – Princess Di's father was one of my officers. To be honest, I was a round peg in a square hole because I'm not a horsey person, but they weren't mechanical people, and it suited them very well that I was.
“I joined them in Normandy from Sandhurst. I fought through Holland and Germany, did the Rhine Crossing, and my regiment did the link-up with the Russians.
“Then I was promoted and became technical adjutant of the British Army of the Rhine Armoured Fighting Vehicle School at Belsen, the concentration camp which had been turned into an army establishment. I'd gone into the army as a boy, and I came out a man. It's a bit of a cliche, but it's true.”
It was perhaps inevitable that the de-mobbed Captain Walker should try to emulate his dad's two-wheeled achievements.
“To be honest, at first, I wasn't particularly interested in the sport,” he admitted. “It was just something that was part of my life. My real interest didn't begin until after the war. I did get the bug then, and started racing motorcycles, but I wasn't very good.
“I won a race, had a few places, but I was better at trials riding. It slowly became clear to me that the flame wasn't burning brightly enough. I suppose I realised I would do better at business, and riding became a hobby as opposed to something I had to do better at.”
Business meant spells in advertising for Dunlop and Aspro before “I got headhunted to change direction in the advertising business from being a client to being on the agency side. That was really my forte – I had at last found something that suited me. By then I'd also started broadcasting.”
The family connection kickstarted Murray's part-time BBC career in 1949, initially with cars rather than bikes.
His first radio outing was at the British GP at Silverstone, alongside Wimbledon guru and future Panorama host Max Robertson (“he knew as much about racing as I did about tennis!”), and the same year he made his TV debut at a rather more obscure hillclimb event in Kent. He also joined his dad to form a unique pairing for bikes.
“I carried on broadcasting motorcycles with my father from 1949, when I started, to 1962, when he died,” Walker said. “We were more like brothers than father and son. We had a great rapport and had a telepathic thing going.
“There was never any need to do this, 'Over to you Murray' stuff, because I knew when he was going to stop, and vice versa. I was also doing what I call the crumbs from the rich man's table in motor racing, which was the things Raymond Baxter didn't want to do or wasn't able to do.”
Baxter was the anchorman of the BBC's motor racing coverage, and Murray waited patiently in his shadow for two decades.
“He did the big ones and I did the little ones,” Walker explained. “I did the F3, rallycross when it started, but also the odd grand prix. I was doing quite a lot for radio on cars, and I also worked for years for ITV, doing motorcycle scrambles, while working for the BBC. On two occasions I had commentaries going out on both channels simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon!”
Murray wasn’t frustrated that Baxter got priority: “You've got to remember that from Monday to Friday, I used to get in the office at 8am, and work a very long day. Every year I was with the agency was a record year. And that was my life.
“The broadcasting was my hobby. So it wasn't very frustrating, because I was doing a lot of travelling for the company, and I was very heavily occupied.”
Walker was a huge success in advertising, where he looked after clients such as British Rail, the Co-Op, Beechams, Vauxhall, Kitekat, and, most famously, Mars Confectionery. He didn't dream up the slogans but, as account director, he got them into the memories of millions.
One consolation was that Baxter wasn't getting much F1 work either. The BBC had never shown more than a handful of grands prix each year, and in the mid-seventies, the sport all but disappeared from British screens. It was largely a delayed reaction to the proliferation of cigarette sponsorship, while the arrival of Durex contraceptive backing at Team Surtees in 1976 didn’t help.
BBC coverage of James Hunt's classic championship-winning '76 season was restricted to the finale in Japan - and even that was shown first by ITV. Then, in 1978, there was a massive turnaround.
ITV threw its hat into the ring by showing three races live, and the BBC responded by experimenting with highlights on Sunday evenings.
Thus Grand Prix was born, and Walker, not Baxter, got the job. The latter's star had waned since a Monaco GP four years earlier, when he was commentating in the London studio and Murray was at the circuit to send information back to the great man. The line failed, the crash-strewn race was chaotic, and an ill-informed Baxter floundered helplessly.
Despite that disaster, the studio trickery continued in the early days of Grand Prix. Murray would do his research during practice, travel back to London on Saturday, watch the race arrive via satellite at the BBC, wait as the highlights package was cut together, and then add his commentary as it was broadcast that night - knowing exactly what was going to happen next.
Even after Grand Prix gave him regular work, Murray continued with his day job.
“I had an absolutely enthralling business life,” he said. “I helped to build a company that, when I joined in 1959 had one office in London, and by '82 was a 54-office business, in 26 countries, with about a $1.5bn turnover. I didn't do all of that, but I did a lot of it.
“And it was pretty stressful. I reached a point when I was 59 and a half when I thought, ‘Bugger this, I've got to stop something'. So I stopped the job a bit early. They gave me my full pension, bless 'em, and I thought I'd have a few broadcasts to occupy me.”
Grand Prix's audience grew, especially after James Hunt came on board to provide unexpurgated expert opinion.
Walker was wary of Hunt at first, but they became firm friends. Together, they began to cover most of the races in situ, a practice which increased after Sunday Grandstand created a new live slot on BBC2 in the mid-eighties. Budget constraints meant that as late as 1993 Murray didn't get to some events outside Europe, although he tried to maintain the illusion (‘We can't see the pits from here, but...’).
Live broadcasts added to the pressure, and increased the possibility that something might go wrong.
Part of Walker's enduring appeal was the prospect that he might trip over his tongue, or congratulate someone on their winning drive just before they slid into a barrier. Millions of armchair fans liked to catch him out, but he claimed that it didn’t bother him.
“No, it doesn't actually, although I don't wish to sound complacent,” he said. “First of all, I'm a human being, and all human beings make mistakes. But my consolation is that what people say are mistakes are, in my eyes, a slip of the tongue or a failure to observe something because I wasn't watching the screen, because I had to do something else.
“Which explains it - it may not excuse it, but it explains it. If people were getting at me for cocking it up because I didn't know enough about it, hadn't done my homework, hadn't applied myself to it, then I would be extremely worried.
“But, happily for me, it seems to have become a loveable trademark and that gets me off the hook to a certain extent. I have to say, a bit cynically I suppose, that it's better they say something about you than say nothing.”
Murray had the last laugh. He took full advantage of the jibes and ritual humiliation on BBC Sports Personality of The Year to become a well-paid after dinner speaker, and a much wanted name in the TV advertising world that he knew so well.
Many viewers didn't know how difficult his job was, especially after pitstops became standard and made races infinitely more complex.
“I think it's more frustrating with my sport than most others,” he explained. “Football, for example, is a fairly simple sport. You can see there are 11 blokes on each side, and what they're trying to do is kick the ball between these two posts.
“But even I don't know the half about what goes on inside a grand prix team, and I've been observing it and trying to find out about it for years.
“So I am talking from the point of view of somebody who doesn't know it all, to somebody who knows infinitely less than I do, who probably isn't particularly interested in the sport, and who has just had his lunch, taken his dog for a walk, and turned the TV on. I'm talking here about most of the viewers, not the anoraks. And somehow we have got to tell them what it's all about.”
And then there was the constant knowledge that drivers could get hurt, or worse. When Gerhard Berger sat helpless in the remains of his burning Ferrari at Imola in 1989, Walker said simply, and with dignity, that nothing he could say could add to what the viewer was seeing for himself.
“I thought Berger was dead and his body was being cremated and we were live on television,” he admitted.
“But you can't say, ‘My God he's been killed and he's being burnt to a cinder’. But nor can you say, ‘Oh he's alright. Don't worry, they'll soon put it out and he'll be right as rain tomorrow’. Because you don't know that either.
“This is the difficult bit. You are live, talking to millions of people worldwide. In these stressful situations it is a big problem to get it right, not be too extreme one way or the other.
“It becomes instinct, or feel for what you should say or what you shouldn't say, rather than consciously thinking about it. If you thought about it you probably wouldn't find the right words, or get them out at the right time.”
Thankfully, Berger was not seriously hurt. Five years later, Ayrton Senna crashed at the same corner. His Williams looked barely damaged as the TV helicopter lingered above it but, as the seconds ticked away, it became apparent that something was seriously amiss. Murray had to keep talking, at least until the BBC director cut back to the studio.
“The blackest day whilst I've been commentating and someone has been killed,” said Walker. “There's never been a situation where such a gigantic and charismatic personality has been involved, and where it was literally happening in front of millions of people, to whom you were having to convey the facts responsibly, without going over the top too much emotionally. It was an extremely difficult experience.”
In contrast, two years later, Walker experienced one of the highs of his career, famously saying that he had to stop due to a lump in his throat as Damon Hill crossed the line in Suzuka to clinch the 1996 World Championship. He also received an OBE for services to broadcasting that year.
A few months earlier, the news that the BBC had lost its F1 deal to ITV for 1997 came as a huge shock.
“I had been doing an after lunch speech,” he recalled. “I got into the car to drive the 20 miles home, turned on the radio for the four o’clock news, and the top item was ‘The BBC has lost the grand prix rights to ITV’.
“I thought, ‘Well bugger me!’ It was a complete bolt from the blue. Nobody knew about it. Even Jonathan Martin, the head of sport, didn't know about it. So yes, it was a bit of a choker, to put it mildly.
“Shock, alarm, despondency, concern, outrage, worry... But then, on reflection, I said to myself, ‘Well, I've been doing it a bloody long time, I'm at the end of my career rather than the beginning. If it stops here that's my hard luck, but I couldn't have gone on very much longer anyway, so maybe this isn't a bad time to stop.’”
It was far from end of his career. It soon became apparent that ITV wanted to retain Walker’s services, and he duly signed up. He would continue as lead commentator for five seasons, forming a brilliant new team with Martin Brundle, before finally calling time at the end of 2001.
“There's a lot to be said for getting out on the top,” he noted a few years earlier. “It's the sort of decision that Jackie Stewart made so well, and that others, like Graham Hill, made so badly. I could go out on top with whatever reputation I've got intact, or I can try to make a contribution to them doing it properly.
“I'll know when I'm not doing it as well as I want to do it, before anybody else does. And I like to think that I will have the sense to say, ‘That's it’. I don't want to be a bloody old has been.”
However, even after 2001, he didn’t stop, continuing to contribute to features and interviews on ITV, BBC Radio 5 Live, Sky and Channel 4, and writing a hugely successful autobiography. Health issues slowed him down in his nineties, but he always kept himself up to speed with the latest F1 gossip. He didn’t have time to pursue any other hobbies – simply because he didn’t have any.
“I'm a one-track mind,” he said. “My wife says if it hasn't got an engine, I'm not interested. I'm incapable of remembering the minor things of life, like going to the shops and getting something, if it hasn't got an engine noise attached to it!
“But I'm working at my hobby. Most people, when they finish their working life, look forward to developing their stamp collection or whatever. Well, I'm doing that.”
Words and image from 'Motorsport Network'.