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

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser