One of the most recognised voices on the radio will no longer be heard after Norfolk-born Henry Blofeld signed off from Test Match Special for the last time. He spoke to TONY WENHAM about his life in cricket
A fond farewell to Norfolkborn cricket commentator Henry Blofeld
HE WAS just half an hour from an unlikely England cap... Henry Blofeld, that is – the distinctive RP voice of Test match cricket, the bumbling bon viveur and all-round national treasure. But don’t be fooled: some grit went into the production of this pearl.
The 1963-64 England tour of India was not going well as the dreaded Delhi belly gripped the team. On the morning of the Bombay Test, England were reduced to 10 fit men and the hapless Guardian scribe Henry Blofeld was on stand-by.
When told by the tour manager that he might play, Henry apparently replied that he would certainly play if needed, but if he scored 50 or upwards in either innings “I was damned if I would stand down for the Calcutta Test”. In the event, a debilitated Micky Stewart rose from his sick bed and took the field, denying our hero the ultimate accolade.
In fact, less than a decade earlier, Henry Blofeld was probably the best schoolboy batsman in the country, captaining Eton College, playing for Norfolk and scoring a century at Lord’s against professional opposition. Future selection for England on merit was a real possibility.
Then tragedy struck. He rode his bicycle under a bus and was unconscious for a month. “When I came back. I just wasn’t the same player,” he explained on a recent visit to Norwich, ahead of his last Test Match Special
(TMS) broadcast after 47 years during the final England-West Indies Test at Lord’s.
“While I was recovering at home, the Eton captain in absentia, I had to listen to the Harrow match score on the radio news. I blubbed.”
Henry, now 78, was still good enough to earn a cricket Blue at Cambridge (if not a final degree) and rattle the Lord’s picket fence again with another century. Despite the advantages of a privileged upbringing on the Norfolk Broads in an ancient landed family, its second son had to make a living, and the City of London called – briefly.
The incomparable PG Wodehouse is often invoked in any encounter with Henry. For fans of the Psmith and Mike stories, however, Henry’s banking days are the closest it comes; any comparison with the well-heeled idiot Bertie Wooster is erroneous, for Henry has always had to make his own way in the world.
“Existing in London on £360 a year plus luncheon vouchers was jolly difficult, especially with my extravagant tastes,” says Henry, who lists his favourite hobby as ‘drinking wine’, followed by ‘eating food’ and ‘going out’.
The former Times cricket correspondent John Woodcock eased Henry into journalism and a post at The Guardian before he was picked up by the BBC.
Henry, known by millions of TMS fans around the world for his observations on passing pigeons and buses, was educated early in the art of cricket commentary. “They said you have to paint the scene,” he explains. “You want the listeners to say: ‘You made me feel as if I was there.’”
While the old rules still apply as TMS celebrates its 60th year, the voices in the commentary box are changing – more estuary English, professional pundits and now women.
“TMS like everything else reflects society,” says Henry. “My voice is very unfashionable these days, although I like to think it is not self-conscious and has a certain humour to it. I do think the ladies should be as good as the men, and there is no question that they are.
“So I don’t think TMS will miss me. I’ve only done about five or six Tests in the last five years... In a way, I’ll be relieved. I’m the last of the old farts.”
He may have signed off from TMS but his many fans can keep up with him at the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich this month in a two-man show with former England off-spinner Graeme Swann and then next May at the Maddermarket as well as dates at Hunstanton. Oh, and there’s a new book, Over and Out, published this month.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” says a happy Henry with a handshake and (finally): “My dear old thing.”