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  1. Politics
12 May 2011

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

By Mark Watson

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.

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