"We didn't have a conventional holiday for 20 years. I'm not saying this looking for sympathy; that would never cross my mind. As far as I was concerned, I was on holiday all the time."
Journalist, broadcaster, bona fide national treasure, Murray Walker remains the voice of motor racing for an entire generation. Now 10 years into his retirement, he's just as flat-out as ever. "I've got nothing against golf," he says, "except when it interrupts Formula 1..."
Whatever you may say - and a lot has been said about Murray Walker OBE during his 53 years at the motorsport microphone - the man is a legend, up there in the pantheon of great sporting commentators such as Sir Peter O'Sullevan (horse racing), John Arlott (cricket), Eddie Waring (rugby league) and Bill McLaren (rugby union). Each had a distinctive voice and unique style that automatically linked them to their respective sport. And each had detractors who felt they could do it better.
The critics (in the minority, it has to be said) didn't know what they were talking about - in every sense of the expression. I speak from experience, having bumbled along as the lead commentator for BBC Radio 5 Live's F1 coverage for a few years.
More at home as the summariser (the know-it-all, who chips in with observations when he feels like it), I found the task of having to talk continuously a daunting and difficult process, particularly during the years of Michael Schumacher leading most races for 90 minutes, with nothing of note occurring in between. It was so bad, I'd pray for an away goal at Old Trafford to bring 30 seconds' respite as we handed over for a football update.
My admiration for Murray Walker, already at a respectable level, reached new heights during those times and I was only too happy to hand over to David Croft when he joined 5 Live as the lead commentator.
Walker interrupted his retirement to commentate on the 2007 European GP © LAT
An added benefit of having 'Crofty' on board was his elevation to fatherhood, which meant he had to miss the 2007 European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. I don't say that because I wanted rid of the dad-to-be - far from it - but because, in a moment of inspired genius, our producer, Jason Swales, persuaded Murray to return to his roots and pick up the radio microphone as Crofty's substitute, five years after he had retired.
When Jason played the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac's The Chain (for so many years the introductory music to the BBC's Formula 1 coverage, at that point unheard since 1996) as an introduction, I don't mind telling you that I had a lump my throat. For a couple of hours each day, I was to have the privilege of sitting in on a masterclass.
It's the voice, isn't it? Strident when necessary; deeply mellifluous at other times; bubbling with excitement and enthusiasm; a straightforward but articulate delivery - with the occasional 'Murrayism' actually contributing to a nation's affection rather than threatening it.
As I was to discover over lunch at The Montagu Arms Hotel in Beaulieu recently, Murray, 90 this October, has lost none of his ability to tell a story in that oh-so-familiar voice. Somehow, all seems right with the motor racing world when he talks about it.
Maurice Hamilton: We had to do a bit of juggling to find a convenient date, Murray. You seem to be as busy as ever.
Murray Walker: I'm as busy as I want to be. I do stuff for the BBC F1 website, for Radio 5 Live, the column in F1 Racing, after-dinner speeches and talks on cruise ships.
MH: The talking we know you can do, probably quite literally with your eyes closed. But the writing... do you enjoy that?
Walker in ITV action at the 2003 British GP © LAT
MW: I enjoy it, Maurice. But I can't just sit down and do it like you professionals can. When I think about the F1 Racing column, my first problem is: What am I going to write about?
MH: You're not alone there, Murray!
MW: I'm sure you're right. But I only do it once a month and you do it all the time. Once I've decided, I'm okay. But I go over and over and over it. What do you do when you're writing?
MH: I write the piece and then go away, do something completely different, and then come back and read it afresh. Sleep on it if there is enough time. You need to stand back at some point because you can get too close to it.
MW: Yes, that's what I find. Of course, there's a difference when I have to write to length for television. In your case, it's x number of words, whereas I have to write for x number of minutes or sometimes seconds. Saying what you want to say in the time you've got is not always easy.
I enjoy doing it and it keeps my brain active. I really think that's important for someone like me. If you have led a busy, interesting and stimulating life, then all of a sudden you stop because you're 60 - not for any other reason - and you are still healthy and mentally alert, it's an absolute killer. Literally.
MH: When you did your book, did you write it yourself?
MW: Every word. When I stopped commentating - I don't want this to sound big-headed - I had eight publishers who wanted me to do a book with them. I talked to all of them. Basically, all I had to do was to say 'no' until there was just one publisher left. And that was Harper Collins. The next decision was: do I write it, or do I have a ghost writer? I decided to have a go myself. I worked out the format. It took about a year to write - and it went very well. We've sold 560,000 copies.
Walker shares an AUTOSPORT Awards stage with Martin Brundle and Stirling Moss © LAT
MH: Blimey. That's huge! Particularly for a hardback book on a specialist subject.
MW: I know - I was amazed. I didn't think for one moment that people were going to be that interested in it.
MH: Did you have to write to a certain length or did you write until you stopped and that was it?
MW: They told me how many words they'd like. I can't remember the exact figure, but I do remember nearly falling over at the thought of having to write so many words.
MH: That was going to be my next question. Did you get to a point, say halfway through, when you count the words you've written, think about the effort that took and then realise you're only halfway through? It can be a daunting thought that tests your motivation.
MW: Yes, it can. Saying that, I had the opposite problem at times. I would send one chapter at a time to the editor, Tom Whiting. One chapter was on my time in the army. I wrote 20,000 words and sent it off. When I called and asked if it was okay, Tom said it was fine, but a bit long.
"Do you want me to cut it down a bit?" I asked.
"Yes," said Tom, "that would be good. Sharpen it up."
"Okay. How much would you like me to cut?"
"About half of it," he said. [Laughs]
MH: That's really hard to do, isn't it?
MW: It certainly is. But it's a great way to learn to be economical with words.
MH: When it comes to speaking rather than writing, do you have specific topics in your
MW: It depends on the audience. If you're doing something for Cunard, for instance, and it's a long voyage, they'll want three talks. I'll do one which I call: 'A funny thing happened to me on my way to the race track,' which is largely anecdotal. If you're doing a talk to people like this, it doesn't matter whether you are a nuclear scientist or a Belgian carpenter or an F1 commentator; they don't really want to hear a talk about whether we should have the atom bomb or whether one carpentry joint is better than another; they want you to make them laugh. And being a nuclear physicist doesn't necessarily mean you are also a stand-up comedian.
Over time, you find out that what's needed. I have a speech that I know from experience is relevant to what I'm talking about, but which makes people laugh. So if you're talking to the United Glassblowers of Sheffield, you'll start it one way, and if you're talking to the Bideford Ford dealers, you'll start it another way and probably finish it differently. But the central part of the speech stays the same.
MH: I think you retired at just the right time because the period when Schumacher was dominating was the dullest I've known. So difficult to commentate on. I really struggled.
MW: I was lucky - James Allen had to commentate on that. I commentated during 2000 and 2001, but James had the next three years at an even greater intensity than I did; it must have been very tough going.
Walker stopped full-time commentating just before Schumacher and Ferrari's absolute dominance set in © LAT
MH: Of course, things have changed a great deal. There is so much information available to commentators now.
MW: If I get the tapes out - which I don't do very often - my commentary seems to be very stilted and repetitive because - and I'm not saying this vaingloriously - I did the interviewing, I did the commentating, I did the time keeping, Mike Doodson did the lap scoring by writing down the numbers on a piece of paper as the cars went past. There were no graphics at all. You were continually saying who was fourth, fifth and sixth. Now, with so much showing on screen, the viewer knows who is in the top six.
MH: The trouble is, the viewer knows as much - if not more - than the commentator. In your day, and less so in mine, we could bluff our way...
MW: Oh yes - and did so!
MH: Do you remember coming back and doing Radio 5 Live with me in Germany in 2007?
MW: I do. I enjoyed it enormously. Not just because it was coming back and doing something I enjoyed doing, but because it was radio, which was where I cut my teeth. I was a radio commentator at the 1949 British GP. It was wonderful to go back to something that involved just talking and not relating to pictures.
MH: Yes, in the days before the Red Button, you could control it completely because, unlike now, the listener did not have information coming in from other sources. You could paint the picture but, even then, you'd get some stick.
MW: The public at large are gigantically intolerant. I often read quite vicious criticism of somebody and think: 'I wonder what you do for a living and how good you are at it? I'd like to come and see you at work and then tweet about how incompetent you are.'
MH: I tell a story about when we did that commentary together. John Inverdale was doing the link into the programme from Carnoustie, where the British Open golf was taking place...
MW: I was furious about that. We were told we would be doing continuous commentary. When I say 'we', I don't mean just me, I mean BBC Radio. The afternoon's programme was actually being controlled from Carnoustie, so they kept giving themselves priority. And that irritated me. You were talking earlier about getting into the flow of writing; as you well know, you've certainly got to get into the flow with commentating. But when you are having to listen to some chap braying on about golf - I've got nothing against golf, except when it interrupts F1. Sorry, I interrupted you!
MH: No problem. So, Inverdale eventually comes out with this flowery introduction about how he never thought he would have the privilege of welcoming an icon of sports reporting back to radio, the place where he started all those years ago and went on to be loved by the nation. All that stuff. A really great welcome back.
So, I'm waiting for you to say: 'Well, thanks for that John. It's really nice to be back on radio; quite an emotional return...' and words to that effect. But, no. As soon as Inverdale's finished, there's not so much as a "Good afternoon" or a "Thank you, John'. You shout: "Round 10! The 2007 F1 World Championship! And qualifying for the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring HAS BEGUN!" No messing about, Murray. Straight in there! I glanced at Jason [Swales, the producer] - and the pair of us just cracked up.
Since Walker retired, F1's calendar has expanded even further around the globe © LAT
MW: [Laughing] People used to ask me: 'Did you get nervous?' I'd say: 'No, I didn't get nervous but I certainly got excited.' It's a fast-moving, dramatic, colourful, dangerous sport and your job is to communicate to people sitting at home watching their televisions - or, in this case, listening to their radios - the minutiae of what is actually going on at the circuit. And if you can't get excited about what's going on, then you certainly can't expect them to. It was a passion for me and it genuinely came from the heart.
MH: I don't think anyone is in any doubt about that, Murray. So why did you stop commentating? Was it the travel schedule?
MW: That was one reason. At least half of the races are long haul. I was 78 when I stopped. I'd like to think now that I could do the job or I could do the travel - but I know I couldn't do both. I just don't have the stamina any more. Any job in F1 is taxing, both physically and mentally. You work long hours under pressure. Yes, it's enormously enjoyable and gigantically satisfying but it is also tremendously demanding.
MH: So, what was the other reason?
MW: During a race in 2000, I made a hideous and unforgivable mistake. Michael Schumacher was on pole and Rubens Barrichello was 12th or something like that. The race started and a Ferrari went off. My brain wouldn't let me accept it was Schumacher who had gone off. I said it was Barrichello and made a great song and dance about it. Then I realised it was Schumacher and, somehow, blagged my way out of it.
The next day, there was a really vicious piece in the Daily Mail: 'Time for the old fool to go' - that sort of thing. I thought: 'I don't think that's fair, but there's an element of truth in it. I got it wrong and I shouldn't have got it wrong.' I was with ITV at the time and I went to Brian Barwick, the head of sport, and said I thought it was time to stop. Brian said: "Well Murray, it's your life, your decision. I'm not going to ask you to stop, but if you feel you ought to stop then okay. But, if you are going to retire, then give yourself time so that every grand prix you go to, you will know it's the last time you will be at that particular race. And we'll give you a jolly good send-off"
And that's what happened. As a result, 2001 was an absolutely magical year for me.
MH: Do you miss it?
MW: I was at a lunch for my wife's golf club, trying to make conversation with a very grumpy bloke I was sitting next to. I said: "What do you do?" He said: "I've retired, haven't I." He said he'd been the chairman of a major committee in farming; quite an important bloke by the sound of it. So, I said: "Do you miss it?" "Miss it!" he exploded. "Of course I bloody miss it!" I feel like he did - but not so grumpy, I hope. How else are you going to feel when you are suddenly cut adrift from something that has been the central focus of your life?
Walker is a big fan of the current era of F1 © XPB
MH: Do you still watch the races?
MW: Yes, I do. I watch as much as possible. Do you think F1 is as enjoyable as it used to be, or are we looking through rose-coloured glasses?
MH: You obviously get asked that question a lot. My answer is that, along with everything else in the sporting world, F1 has changed and some parts are better and some parts are worse. For me, having been through that dreadful Schumacher period we referred to, I'm loving it now - the unpredictability.
MW: Yes, I think we're living through a golden era now. But the thing I miss is the camaraderie. You don't get the chance to chat with the drivers and everyone else because they are so busy with all the information they have to sift through.
MH: From a media point of view, there's two ways of looking at it: things are much more regulated now and, each time you talk to a driver, a minder puts a mini recorder on the table. So you've no chance of getting anything off the record. On the other hand, if you want to talk to Button or Webber or whoever, you're told by the PR people: 'You can have 10 minutes at 4.15 on Thursday'. You turn up at 4.15 on Thursday, and the driver is there, as promised.
I say that because when I started as a professional journalist in the days of James Hunt, there was no organisation and I can remember sitting for hours - and I mean hours - outside the Texaco trailer and coming away with nothing because James either forgot or couldn't be arsed because he was chatting up a woman.
MW: I once spent four hours sitting outside the Marlboro motorhome at Monaco, waiting for Ayrton Senna. This was in the days when, like you say, you would go to the driver and ask if you could do an interview. Senna had said: 'Yes, okay, after the debrief.' I knew once he'd said that, he would do it.
This was at the height of the Senna/Prost animosity and, after four hours, the motorhome door opened and Prost came out. I said: "Alain, what in God's name have you been talking about for four hours?" Alain said: "Oh, zis and zat. But you know, Murray, I do not like to be the first to leave..." And you knew why, because the moment Alain left the room, Ayrton would say: 'Okay, put more pressure in my rear tyres and adjust the front wing.'
Walker was on hand for the most bitter years of the Senna/Prost rivalry © LAT
MH: You must have talked to Senna quite a lot?
MW: I interviewed him at most grands prix. I remember doing so on the Friday at Imola in 1994. Over the winter, I had got out some tapes of Formula 3 from 1983 when Ayrton was fighting hammer and tongs for the championship with Martin Brundle. I realised I had been using the correct pronunciation then by calling him 'I-ear-ton' but had since become very sloppy, calling him 'Air-ton'. I vowed to put that right in 1994 and used 'I-ear-ton' in my commentary at the first race in Brazil. I got such a volley of abuse from the British public that I thought: 'Well, it's them or it's him - so it's going to be him' and I continued with 'I-ear-ton' in the second race in Japan. So, we're sitting down with him at the third race at Imola and I said: "Well, Air-ton, Schumacher beat you in Brazil, Schumacher beat you in Japan, you're 20 points down. What do you think about that?"
"What happened to I-ear-ton?" he said.
I said: "How on earth did you know that?" And he said: "Oh, I keep in touch with these things, Murray" - another manifestation of what an incredible bloke he was.
MH: I guess you must often get asked if you have a favourite interview - or interviewee?
MW: In Brazil sometime in the 1980s, early in the morning when the temperature was about 38C, I did a 20-minute interview with Nigel Mansell. Afterwards, the BBC engineer realised he'd forgotten to turn on the microphone. So I had to ferret out Nigel and ask if he'd mind coming back out in the heat and doing it again. He made a few comments - but we did it again. And every time thereafter, when I appeared before him, I'd get [imitates a Midlands accent] "Have you turned the microphone on, Murray?"
I got on really well with Nigel. He used to wear this Canon cap, which he was paid a lot of money to wear. When I was doing interviews, the BBC would tell the cameraman to have just Nigel's face in the frame, not the cap. Nigel isn't stupid, of course. As the interview progressed, Nigel was sliding lower and lower in his seat. By the time we had finished, he was almost under the table.
MH: You had a good rapport with the drivers; do you feel relaxed when interviewing them?
Walker interviews Mansell just after he became 1992 world champion © LAT
MW: Some more than others. People believe that you and I have unfettered access to the drivers and not only that but we're also personal mates with them, go on holiday together, have Christmas lunch in each other's homes and are deep in each other's pockets. But it's not like that. It's a professional relationship and I got on better with the British drivers - especially Nigel.
MH: The questions have to be right, don't they? And a lot can depend on where we are in the championship.
MW: You're right - and here's a good example of both. I remember doing an interview with Damon Hill towards the end of his championship year and he was as tense as a violin string. He also had to cope with Jacques Villeneuve, who was not at all bad at the mind games. I think Damon was doing six hours a day in the gym; his cheeks were sunken. When we sat down, I said: "Are you all right? You look a bit peaky."
"What did you say that for?" he exploded - and got up and stormed off. I gave him time to simmer down before going up to him and saying I'd obviously said something that had offended him but that it was unintentional and I was sorry. He said not to worry because, just before we sat down, he'd been interviewed by a foreign journalist, who had asked him: "What would you give to have your father back for just one hour?" I mean, how insensitive can you get?
MH: I want to go right back to the beginning now, to when you were working in an advertising agency and commentating at the weekends. How did that schedule work?
MW: I look back in amazement at what I did. I don't how I did it but the answer is, if in life you want to do something badly enough, you find a way to do it, don't you? This was in the 1960s, when ITV were doing what is now called motocross but was then known as scrambling. Every Friday, I would leave the office in St James's Square at 5pm and get on the tube to Cockfosters, which is at the northern extremity of the London Underground system. My wife Elizabeth would be waiting in the car, with the dog and provisions, and we would drive to Yorkshire - this was before the motorways - to somewhere like Wakefield, Ripon or Leeds, work all day Saturday for the national network and then, with the same riders on the same bikes at the same circuit, do the whole thing again on Sunday for the northern network, ABC.
When it got dark at around 4pm, we'd drive back in our Triumph Herald with the dog in the back. It makes my blood run cold to think about this, because we kept one of those gas stoves by Elizabeth's feet in the footwell; she'd heat up some stew, which I would eat on the move. On Monday morning, I was back in the office. One year, we did this for 32 weekends in succession and I loved it! Adrenaline conquers all.
1978 was Walker's first season of fully-fledged F1 TV commentary © LAT
When I got into television in 1978, I was lucky in that I was, by then, a director of the company. If I wanted to leave early on Friday, that's what I did. We didn't have a conventional holiday for 20 years. I'm not saying this looking for sympathy; that would never cross my mind. As far as I was concerned, I was on holiday all the time.
MH: The job took you to some interesting places. I know you were in the Tank Regiment in World War II and drove a tank again on TV...
MW: The BBC did an hour-long programme on my life, during which we went to the Bovington Tank Museum - the best in the world, in my view - and I drove a Sherman. They're not hard to drive; the difficult thing is getting the best out of them. You can make it go forwards or backwards or sideways, but it's about being able to position it and stop it in the right places.
MH: So, much the same as driving a F1 car - which I remember you also tried.
MW: Yes, that was when Niki Lauda and John Watson were paired at McLaren. I was at a function and Ron Dennis asked if I had ever driven an F1 car. When I said I hadn't, he said he would be in touch - and I didn't think I'd hear any more about it. But Ron is not like that.
I got a call to come to Silverstone. I got on my bike and, when I arrived, Ron gave me a duffel bag. It contained a set of Niki Lauda's overalls and two pairs of racing boots: one size 8 and one size 10, which was typical of Ron's attention to detail in that one of those sizes had to fit me.
Ron said I would be going out at lunchtime. Then people started saying they were looking forward to the lunch break. I realised then that it was a Goodyear test day and all these people I had been slagging off for years were now going to be watching me drive an F1 car for the first time!
Hunt and Walker's odd-couple partnership was legendary © LAT
James Hunt was my mentor and he said there were two things I had to know: first, I must not stall when I left the pitlane and, second, when I came back in, I must stop at the right pit.
I didn't stall the car the first time - but I did the second time round and, needless to say, that's the one the BBC always show. I was supposed to be out for two laps but I got so engrossed in getting my line right for Copse, I didn't see the pitboard with the arrow. I stayed out for eight laps, I think.
When I came in, I was feeling rather pleased with myself. I looked up and there was Ken Tyrrell standing over me. And you know what he could be like: all stern-faced with his arms folded, glaring down at me. I thought: 'No! I've stopped in the Tyrrell pit!' But I hadn't. Ken had watched me go round and he had seen the arrow go out. So he came down to McLaren and, when I stopped, he leaned into the cockpit and said: "When you're told to come in, you bloody come in! Understand?" Then that classic Tyrrell cackle.
James said to me: "Well done Murray. You've done something any F1 driver would give his eye teeth to do."
"Oh, really James? What was that?"
"You've improved your lap time by half a minute!"
MH: That was your adrenaline kicking in again. Murray, this has been wonderful. We could talk for hours.
MW: I've absolutely no doubt about that. It's been very enjoyable. Thank you.