The outpouring of heartfelt tributes for Murray Walker, who died this month aged 97, were both predictable and entirely justified. He was, quite simply, one of sport’s greatest TV commentators, among a golden generation of wonderful voices: David Coleman, Peter Alliss, Peter O’Sullevan, Bill McLaren, Ted Lowe, Harry Carpenter and more. Like such peers, Walker’s voice somehow captured the essence of his sport. Something to do with the “trousers on fire” delivery, as Clive James so memorably put it.
But what really made Walker special was the man himself. In person, he was just as lovely, enthusiastic, friendly and good humoured as you hoped he’d be. “Superlative”, in fact. More so than many racing ‘gods’ he’d describe as such. The tentenths voice of motorsport for ever after? Oh yes. And its beating heart and soul, too.
Man behind the mic
I was lucky enough to watch him in action on one unforgettable occasion. It was the 2007 European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring and Walker was called back from retirement to sub for BBC Radio 5 Live’s regular guy, who was away on paternity leave. An inspired decision. I didn’t need asking twice when producer Jason Swales invited me to witness the return, squeezing into the back of the cramped commentary booth behind the great man and co-commentator Maurice Hamilton.
The memory still sends a shiver. Just before it was time to broadcast, Walker – a mere 84 at the time – began limbering up, stretching his shoulders and arms as his adrenaline began to pump. Swales cued in Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain and as the staccato guitar built to its signature climax, Walker came in flat chat to proclaim: “They’re playing my tune!” Just wonderful – and we all stifled a natural instinct to cheer.
By happy chance, the race turned out to be one of utter chaos as a biblical rainstorm left a bunch of cars, including Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren, skating off into the gravel at Turn 1. Walker was on the limiter throughout, especially when Markus Winkelhock, in what turned out to be his only grand prix, briefly found himself in the lead in a Spyker (what today is an Aston Martin). Confusion reigned (or should that be rained?), but while the hapless drivers tiptoed through the puddles, Walker never lifted – until the studio back in London chose to switch from the grand prix to a tennis match at the French Open. Walker was furious. He banged the desk in a temper and huffed and puffed, as Swales gave both barrels to the studio, demanding they be put back on air. Who cares about tennis? An F1 thriller was playing out in front of us and 5 Live’s listeners were missing out on pure Murray gold. Beside him, old friend Maurice was crumpled over in stitches. You could have cut the atmosphere with a cricket stump.