Henry Blofeld exclusive interview
Henry Blofeld, whose memoir is to be serialised this week in The Daily Telegraph, tells Oliver Brown the story behind his vivid wardrobe and why the time was right to end his 47-year career in cricket commentary
Why it was the right time to end my 47-year career in cricket commentary
It is tempting, when trying to distil the essence of Henry Blofeld’s 47-year broadcasting career, to reach for the words of John Le Mesurier. As the endearingly cut-glass Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s
Army, Le Mesurier displayed a grasp of the wit and whimsy of British life that was no mere thespian affectation. “Well,” he is reputed to have said on his deathbed in 1983, “it’s all been rather lovely.”
The salutes to Blofeld, now that he has called his last over, have been touched by the same fondness. The loss of his lush brushstrokes from the airwaves, usually inspired by birdlife on the outfield or a passing red bus, leaves a void in a commentary world fighting against the tyranny of uniformity.
Rare, indeed, is the radio man who, upon hanging up his microphone, can bask in the acclaim of 25,000 at Lord’s. Rare, too, is one who does so wearing a pink shirt set off by a lime-green jacket, like the cross-section of a watermelon.
“Vic Marks was telling listeners that I reminded him of a cross between Winston Churchill and Dame
Edna,” Blofeld says.
“What was especially touching was that all the England team came on to the balcony. I kept thinking, ‘This can’t be for me’.”
Experience had taught him to be wary. Blofeld remembers how, when carried away by the grand theatre of Stuart Broad taking eight Australian wickets for 15 runs at Trent Bridge two summers ago, he had misconstrued his Test
Match Special colleagues’ applause as a kind gesture. “Graeme Swann had to explain to me, ‘No, Blowers, we weren’t clapping you, we were clapping Broad’.”
We meet in an airy fifth-floor boardroom at his publishers by the Thames. The scene outside – London buses swishing along Victoria Embankment, a few flocks of seagulls wheeling across the water – is one to which Blofeld could do rich justice. Alas, there is a finality to his retirement. He will not be travelling to Australia for the Ashes in any capacity, he says, lest he be perceived as clinging on to past glories. “I’m not going to hover around the edges. I think I should stay away from this one.” The moment Blofeld walks in, he lives up to his billing, both in the polish of his perfect elocution and in the vividness of his sartorial colour palette.
Today’s ensemble is such a riot of dark pinks and purples that one half-wonders if it is inspired by his private wine collection. It turns out that his wife, Valeria, is more of a guiding hand. The two of them met before his 70th birthday at the Royal Albert Hall, where she initially mistook him, by his cultivated politesse, as a conductor. She is, he once acknowledged, “the only girl I’ve met who loves what I do”.
“I’ve always loved colours, but I sometimes haven’t got the confidence to wear them,” Blofeld says. “Valeria, who was big news in the fashion industry, will say, ‘Come on, of course you can’. We have been together for 10 years, and I’m dressed like a drunken rainbow more often than not, but it has been great fun.”
A view has long endured among Blofeld’s detractors that he is playing up to an image, that his signature tics on radio – the voice, fruitier than a bowl of punch, the air of gentle bewilderment, the disquisitions about the wingspan of pigeons
– are all part of the act. He is adamant, though, that he has always remained utterly true to himself. “I can promise you, there has never been a phrase I feel I have had to produce. Once you have mulled it
over in your mind 28 times, it rattles with a hollowness. I like to think everything I have done has been pretty spontaneous.”
There is an art, increasingly a lost one, to what Blofeld does. He describes in his soon-to-be-published memoir, Over and Out – which is serialised in The Daily
Telegraph from tomorrow – how he learnt at the feet of men like John Arlott and Brian Johnston about the laughter and lyricism so intrinsic to the TMS magic.
But he was tentative at first about playing too many shots of his own. “It was Peter Baxter, the producer for 34 years, who said to me one evening in the early Seventies: ‘Blowers, you can go over the boundary a bit more if you want.’ It’s like looking at a picture. You look mostly at the middle. But if it wasn’t for the trees or the grass, then the mountain, then the frame, it wouldn’t be a composite image, would it? That is what I feel I want to convey to my listeners.”
His listeners adore him for it. That much is evident from the recent deluge of affection that has left him feeling “really rather embarrassed”. For if nothing else,
TMS is, as its creator Robert Hudson put it, a source of company. “It’s a wonderful description,” Blofeld says. “I am trying to tell a story as it unfolds, to create a setting.
“People say very kindly that I have a way of talking that makes it sound as if I am speaking to them personally. It’s not something you can contrive – you either have it or you don’t. When I hear myself, mind, I think I sound like a pompous prat. I switch off any recording immediately.”
Blofeld recognised early that he had a gift for evoking the distinct tableaux of the world’s greatest cricket grounds, reading widely to refine his craft. He especially loved the writing of Trinidad’s CLR James, who portrayed the Lord’s pavilion in Beyond the Boundary as “somewhere between Canterbury Cathedral and Mount Olympus”.
“That’s just about spot on,” Blofeld agrees. “There is something vaguely ecclesiastical about Lord’s, not least when you are in the Long Room.”
Few have ever matched Blofeld for filling a Test’s longueurs. Where Richie Benaud enjoyed the luxury on television of silence, often taking a full five minutes after “Morning, everyone” to utter his next sentence, Blofeld would forge a connection with his audience by language alone, specialising in the joys of anecdote and observation.
“This is terribly important, because someone told me that 52 per cent of our audience were ladies. Well now, if they are wandering around doing the housework, they want a comfortable voice, one they can smile with. They don’t want to know the intricacies of leg-break or outswing, do they?”
We should stress at this point that he also has many female listeners not in the midst of domestic drudgery. Then again, Blofeld has seldom been one for bowing to political correctness. He perceives it as a scourge, having once fiercely defended the presence of a large golliwog in his Chelsea living room.
He is not exactly temperate, either, when considering whether all-rounder Ben Stokes, arrested on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm outside a Bristol nightclub, should travel to Australia. “The Australians will love him if he has a criminal record, won’t they? They’ll regard him as one of their own.”
At 78, Blofeld is of a vintage where it is unlikely to curb his idiosyncrasies. Rather than softening his Old Etonian background, he revels in it with pride. We discuss, for example, what he is reading as he and Valeria prepare to decamp to the sunshine of Menorca.
“There is this book about Michael Kidson, a very eccentric former history master of mine at Eton. He was a genius – he made complicated boys learn. I’m also reading one by Ivor Bryce, perhaps Ian Fleming’s greatest friend. It’s called You Only Live Once.” Blofeld’s father, Thomas, was at school with Fleming, and the James Bond creator named his most notorious villain after his former classmate. Such is the exotic web he weaves. No level of fame, power or privilege has proved beyond the reach of the TMS booth.
In 2001, he, Baxter and the late Christopher Martin-jenkins received a visit from the Queen at Lord’s, where she presented them with a fruit cake.
Blofeld is certain he has chosen the right moment to bid his adieus. For all that he is steeped in a love of the sport, the odd mistake had started to creep in, which he ascribes strictly to failing faculties rather than a lack of care.
“I made a bad one in India on the last tour,” he says. “I have macular degeneration in one eye. The leg-spinner, Amit Mishra, was bowling to Liam Dawson, and I saw nothing. But there was a roar that told me Dawson was out. I saw two fielders jumping around and I took a punt, saying he had been caught at short-extra cover. And Sunil Gavaskar, my great friend, said: ‘No, Henry, he was bowled.’ I thought, ‘Oh dear, you can’t do that very often.’ It played on my mind quite a lot.”
He is acutely aware that Martin-jenkins, a beloved contemporary, never had the luxury of retiring, dying from lymphoma in 2013, aged 67. Nor did his peerless predecessor Johnston, who passed away from a heart attack in 1994, prompting then prime minister John Major to say: “Summers simply won’t be the same without him.”
Blofeld is in much too fine fettle to contemplate an equivalent epitaph, but he does argue that the greatest compliment one can pay to a radio commentator is to say: “You made me feel as if I was there.”
As the public emotion for his farewell proves, it is one that he has richly earned.
‘My producer said to me, Blowers, you can go over the boundary a bit more if you want’
Splash of colour: Henry Blofeld’s vivid wardrobe is encouraged by his wife, Valeria; (below) he salutes the Lord’s crowd after his final stint in the commentary box