Observing Ian Botham coming towards you in a very aggressive mood at an airport, is not a pretty site on tour, but this was one of many stories told by darling cricket commentator Henry Blofeld in a short tour of shows with his old BBC Test Match special (TMS) producer Peter Baxter who joined in the fun and storytelling at Cranleigh Arts Centre. ‘Rogues on the Road’ is a title demonstrating the many scraps these two cricketing wombats have got themselves into all over the globe, with 80 years’ experience in the commentary box between them, dealing with lost passports, misplaced visas and knifes for chocolate cake.
Once the Queen (while visiting Lords) presented the Test Match special team with a giant sponge cake on behalf of the MCC. She asked ‘if this was the whole team who was now doing the commentary?’ ‘We have an Australian in the box ma’am’ explained Peter. Her Majesty exclaimed ‘They’re awfully useful, aren’t they?’
Henry ‘My dear Old Thing’ Blofeld, better known as Blowers to cricket listeners, is easily identified by his plummy public school voice, and his idiosyncratic mention of superfluous details while setting the scene from the commentary box which includes references to red buses, seagulls, pigeons, people in colourful shirts plus extended talk on cake at tea time. All this is occasionally interrupted to describe the action. Blowers insists his job is to ‘paint a picture’ to listeners with what is happening on the pitch, then you need a summariser normally an ex professional (Boycott, Vaughan, Tufnell, the late Fred Truman) to pick out the actual detail of the game. All this, along with the banter is why millions listen, with some in their homes switching on the TV to watch with sound turned down, while tuning in to TMS.
Many of the tales didn’t centre around cricket or even Geoff Boycott, surprisingly. More the adventures are in hotels where as a young reporter Blowers accidently locked himself out of his room, stood in the corridor naked, with just a paper doyley to cover his parts, while some returning party guests through bread rolls at him (The full a longer version Blowers told New Zealand TV in 1988 below).
Peter, while in India was travelling to the next game by bus through the Asian countryside, with his fellow journalists. The vehicle stopped suddenly, surrounded by armed bandits. Thinking they were in real trouble and no one speaking Indo apart from their little Indian guide, who got off the bus and faced them, within seconds the villains disappeared. Later they asked the guide how he did it? He said calmly ‘I just told them to FUCK OFF!’
Both believed John Arlott (1914-1991) was the best cricket commentator and Brian Johnson (1912-1994) one of the most important, changing the way cricket was reported. From time to time extracts of live commentary were played to the chuckling audience, not always on que by a technical staff seemingly two paces off the beat when it came to operating the stage lighting and sound. Blowers felt Michael Atherton is one of the ‘best cricket writers around’, who has actually played the game to a high professional level. Marking him out as ‘intelligent’ and ‘interesting’ always pointing something out in his dispatches not seen by others.
Cricket in Edinburgh?
The show has been up to the Edinburgh Festival three times and still pulls an audience of grey haired Radio 4 listeners all eager to see what the guys come out with. This is not simply a show of chat or indeed interviewing. It is a theatrical experience marked by props and scenery including a map of the world backdrop which is used to pin point the many countries where the incidents and jolly jeepers stories occurred. Occasionally Baxter would pick up from a holdall an exaggerated travel bag ticket, placing it on the map, just to help anybody in the audience not knowing where India is.
The show was nicely staged with the two not using the obvious armchairs, which they did in previous performances when first put together. Instead a round bar table (stage right) with appropriate drinks and some casual seating (stage left) where the pair would wonder over, sometimes together other times alone. It was clear they had performed and got the necessary cross over drill well timed and planned.
It was only a matter of time until the two got around to mentioning the famous Brian Johnson and Aggers ‘leg over’ piece, which emphasises the fun and antics inside the commentary box from these special reporters. Peter Baxter describes the back story above in an earlier show.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.