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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Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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