Farewell, Whispering Ted, the man who taught me that less is more

Unless you're Osama Bin Laden, it hasn't been a great time to die of late, if you wanted the press to report it to the nation. The royal wedding and the leader of al-Qaeda muscled everything else not just out of the headlines but out of the news altogether. Riots in Uganda, killer storms across the US -- none of it stood a chance of a mention. Nothing else mattered: a 100-foot monster could have knocked over the Eiffel Tower and it would have been lucky to get into the "And finally . . ." section.

In the middle of all this, not many people will have noticed the quiet death at 90 of a very quiet hero of mine: the former BBC snooker commentator Ted Lowe. Before I was unfortunately sidetracked by a career as a comedian and author, my boyhood dream was to be a sports commentator and Lowe was one of my role models. These days, sports coverage is as glossy and overproduced as all other forms of entertainment, and commentary can be a rather self-conscious art form.

Quips on cue

Commentators are armed with dozens of facts about each player and team, which they throw in with apparent nonchalance, often on the most spurious pretext ("The free-kick is going to be taken by Gomez . . . Gomez, of course, is the great-grandson of the man who invented the typewriter and he'll be trying to type the word 'goal' here"). There is a tendency to waffle, to sentimentalise and to deliver obviously prepared spiels. A stadium becomes "this great Viking fortress of the north-east"; players are "gladiators"; a last-minute goal is a "knife in the heart" of the losing team. Even in sports more sedate than football, there is a pressure on commentators to augment the drama.

Lowe, who became a household name on the TV programme Pot Black, came from an earlier age. Pot Black was a humble show that only came to prominence because television bosses realised that snooker, with all its different balls, was ideal for the new era of colour broadcasting. Even as it briefly became a national phenomenon in the 1980s, when the world championship final could draw as many as 15 million viewers, he continued to call the games as if he were speaking to more like 15.

Lowe had two main characteristics as a commentator that set him apart from most of today's. First, he had a husky voice that at times was only just audible, which earned him the nickname "Whispering Ted". On top of this, for long periods of the game, he was quite content not to say anything at all. Even at moments of high intensity, his patter was so minimal that anyone joining the game midway through might have imagined that he had forgotten to turn up.

While commentating on the Steve Davis-Dennis Taylor final in 1985, snooker's most celebrated game, he had the honour of describing the legendary moment when Davis missed the black ball that would have given him victory. As the ball refused to go into the pocket and the nation stopped breathing, Lowe simply said, in a tone of wonderment: "No!" As a piece of zen broadcasting, condensing the greatest possible meaning into the fewest possible syllables, this will never be beaten.

At other times, he would allow a muttered "Well, well, well" or "Goodness me" to describe equally fraught moments. Once, he simply chuckled wryly at a perfect shot. The viewers had seen all they needed to see. What was there to add?

Watch and wait

All of this meant that listening to Lowe commentating was a bit like watching a game with your grandfather in an armchair in the corner. This intimacy is the effect so craved by broadcasters but so hard for the modern commentator to achieve. There's a lesson in his minimalism, not just for commentators but for everyone trying to command attention in the noisy world that we all now operate in.

Most of us flatter ourselves that we observe the "less is more" principle because we can turn a witty phrase in a 140-character tweet, but then we somewhat undermine ourselves by tweeting 23 times before lunch. The ideal Twitter user would tweet only once a year and enjoy the almost unbearable suspense in between. Quality, not quantity, is more precious than ever in a world of ceaseless communication.

That's why, from now on, in honour of Lowe and his brilliant economy, I will be changing my column from fortnightly to once every 20 years. The next one will appear in 2031. I know it's a long way off, but just imagine how exciting it's going to be after a wait like that. It certainly worked for the royal family.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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A third runway at Heathrow will disproportionately benefit the super rich

The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000.

The story goes that expanding Heathrow is a clear-cut policy decision, essential for international trade, jobs and growth. The disruption for those that live around the airport can be mitigated, but ultimately must be suffered for the greater good.

But almost every part of this story is misleading or false. Far from guaranteeing post-Brexit prosperity, a new runway will primarily benefit wealthy frequent flyers taking multiple holidays every year, with local residents and taxpayers picking up the tab.

Expanding Heathrow is not about boosting international trade. The UK is only marginally reliant on air freight to trade with the rest of the world. Total air freight traffic in the UK is actually lower now than it was in 1995, and most UK trade is with Europe, of which only 0.1 per cent goes by air. Internationally, as much as 90 per cent of trade in goods goes by ship because transporting by plane is far too expensive. And in any case our most successful exports are in services, which don’t require transportation. So the idea that UK plc simply cannot trade without an expansion at Heathrow is a gross exaggeration.

Any talk of wider economic benefits is also highly dubious. The Department for Transport’s forecasts show that the great majority of growth in flights will come from leisure passengers. Our tourism deficit is already gaping, with more money pouring out of the country from holidaymakers than comes in from foreign tourists. What’s worse is that this deficit worsens regional disparities since money gets sucked out of all parts of the country but foreign tourists mostly pour money back into London. As for jobs, government estimates suggest that investing in rail would create more employment.

As for the public purse, the aviation sector is undeniably bad for our Treasury. Flights are currently exempt from VAT and fuel duty – a tax subsidy worth as much as £10bn. If these exemptions were removed each return flight would be about £100 more expensive. This is a wasteful and regressive situation that not only forfeits badly needed public funds but also stimulates the demand for flights even further. Heathrow expansion itself will directly lead to significant new public sector costs, including the cost of upgrading Heathrow’s connecting infrastructure, increased pressure on the NHS from pollution-related disease, and the time and money that will have to be ploughed into a decade of legal battles.

So you have to wonder: where is this greater public good that local residents are asked to make such a sacrifice for?

And we must not forget the other sacrifice we’re making: commitment to our fair share of global climate change mitigation. Building more runways creates more flights, just as building more roads has been found to increase traffic. With no clean alternatives to flying, the only way to meet our climate targets is to do less of it.

The real reason for expanding Heathrow is to cater for the huge expected increase in leisure flying, which will come from a small and relatively rich part of the population. At present it’s estimated that 70 per cent of flights are taken by 15 per cent of the population; and 57 per cent of us took no flights abroad at all in 2013. The mean income of leisure passengers at Heathrow in 2014 was £61,000, which is nearly three times the UK median income.

This is in stark contrast to the communities that live directly around airports that are constantly subjected to dirty air and noise pollution. In the case of London City Airport, Newham – already one of London’s most deprived boroughs – suffers air and noise pollution in return for few local jobs, while its benefits are felt almost entirely by wealthy business travellers.

Something needs to change. At the New Economics Foundation we’re arguing for a frequent flyer levy that would give each person one tax-free return flight every year. After that it would introduce a charge that gets bigger with each extra flight, cracking down on those that use their wealth to abuse the system by taking many flights every year. This is based on a simple principle: those who fly more should pay more.

A frequent flyer levy would open up the benefits of air travel, reducing costs for those struggling to afford one family holiday a year, while allowing us to meet our climate targets and eliminate the need for any new runways. It would also generate millions for the public purse in an efficient and progressive way.

We have to take back control over an airports system that is riding roughshod over communities and our environment, with little perceivable benefit except for a small group of frequent flyers.

Stephen Devlin is a senior economist at the New Economics Foundation.