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

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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

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