JAG, the man who has read the results for nearly 30 years
On Saturday a few weeks ago, a nation held its breath. For a moment, it seemed as if one of our national treasures - the unflappable, the inimitable, James Alexander Gordon - was going to stumble as he read out the football results. But then, phew, he recovered, and on he sailed. I touched wood, prayed that it was only a minor cough, a passing itch, not something nasty. How awful it will be when James Alexander Gordon reads out for the last time the immortal words:
"Forfar Athletic . . . Four.
East Fife . . . Five."
Mere words on mere paper cannot possibly hint at the subtones, the undercurrents, that he puts into his reading of the results. We know and love his inflections so well that we tell ourselves we know where they are going, can guess what comes next.
These days, most of us are aware of the main scores well before James Alexander Gordon clears his throat at 5pm. So many radio programmes do ball-by-ball reports, so many round-ups, so many people on mobile phones. My friend Ian, who sits beside me at Arsenal, has a transistor radio earplug in one ear and his mobile ready at the other. While watching the game in front of him, he nudges me with news I don't want to hear: "Spurs are one down", usually followed by "Spurs are two down".
In the early days of Sports Report, which means 52 years ago, the nation relied totally on its reading of the football results. The march "Out of the Blue" must be one of the most recognised signature tunes in the English-speaking world. OK, apart from in the US. I still shiver in anticipation when it strikes up, then smile in pleasure at the thought that, out there, at this very moment, I am bonding with millions of my fellow fans, all of us waiting for James Alexander Gordon.
When I was a boy in the Fifties, my father would demand absolute silence the moment the first note was heard. No one could move or breathe until all the results had been read. As the eldest child, I had the pencil, the Daily Express folded with the fixtures and a copy of my dad's treble-chance predictions.
It was my job to catch every score, correctly, then to check if we had become millionaires. One mistake, and I was for it. My father was an invalid during most of my formative years, marooned in bed with multiple sclerosis. Even at the end, when he was dying, we still went through the same five o'clock ritual every Saturday.
In my mind, James Alexander Gordon was reading the results. Michael Palin, in a new book called British Greats, writes about his memories of Sports Report and gives the impression that he, too, heard James Alexander Gordon reading the results, back in the Fifties. Surely some mistake. That would make him about a hundred years old. We must have imagined it, believing that JAG - great initials - has been with us for ever. So I decided to ring him, inquire about his cough, try to find out who he is, get the facts behind the voice.
He lives near Reading, and retired from the BBC staff ten years ago. As a freelance, he still comes in each Saturday to read the results. He's never missed a day through ill health since he first started in 1972. No, not 1952. But, all the same, well done James.
Quite a young chap, in fact: not 65 till February. He comes from Scotland, born in Edinburgh - as his accent suggests - but his real name is not James Alexander Gordon. Just as Tony Blair, another honey-tongued, Edinburgh-born person, should not really be called Tony Blair, so JAG should not be JAG. In James's case, he was the one adopted. (In Tony's, it was his dad.)
James knows his real surname, but won't reveal it. "I had a lovely childhood, with lovely adoptive parents. I wouldn't like anyone to step out of the woodwork after all these years.
"When I was a boy, I used to listen, with my old dad, to Sports Report. He was always complaining that the results were read out too quickly. I am supposed to have said: 'I'll read them one day.'"
This didn't happen for a long time. He went into music first, playing the piano and clarinet, then into music publishing. One day, he had to write a little piece about music for the radio. When he handed it in, they told him to read it out.
"By an amazing bit of luck, the then head of presentation, Jimmy Kingsbury, heard me and asked me to meet him. 'Your accent is Scottish?' he said. Which was well spotted. He said they were wanting to change the image of the BBC by getting different accents. They hadn't got a Scottish one yet, on the national network. Would I like to apply?"
James got the job and did newsreading, trailers, the weather forecast. One day in 1972, he was told to do the football.
"When I first did the weather forecast, I made a point of finding out where all these places were. I wanted to understand what I was reading, and so be able to communicate better.
"With the football, I decided I would communicate better if I was in sympathy with the listener. So, for example, if Arsenal have lost, I always try to put some sympathy into my voice when I say: 'Arsenal . . . one.' I'm then more upbeat when I say: 'Manchester United . . . two.' If it's a draw, then I don't alter my inflection. My voice is the same for both sides. You may think this is completely batty . . ."
Not at all, I said, fascinating stuff, almost forgetting to ask him about his cold. "Oh, I didn't have a cold. Something went wrong with the air conditioning in the studio. Kind people from all over the country have been sending me cough sweets ever since . . ."
And quite right, too.
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