Clavane gives an up and under to Waring’s story

SJA member ANTHONY CLAVANE is treading the boards again, this time having written a play about a sports commentator who did much to develop and promote rugby league

There was a time, back in the golden age of broadcasting, when television commentators, like dog owners and their dogs, resembled the sports they commentated on. There was Brian Johnston’s public-school banter on Test Match Special, Murray Walker’s voice – which actually sounded like a Formula One car – and Dan Maskell’s quaint turns of phrase, which reflected a strawberries-and-cream view of English tennis.

And then there was Eddie Waring.

This working class lad from Dewsbury rose to become one of the most famous, and impersonated, men in Britain. Sadly, a younger generation might not have heard of him, but to my age group – born in the 1960s – he was a national institution. Equally sadly, a small minority of northerners thought he should be in one.

Playing the joker? Eddie Waring divided opinion, giving Anthony Clavane inspiration for a play being performed next week
Playing the joker? Eddie Waring divided opinion, giving Anthony Clavane inspiration for a play being performed next week

Eddie was the voice of rugby league. Or “a-rug-ger-bee league” as he called it. And this was a big problem for the thousands of people who signed a petition calling for the BBC to sack him back in the late 1970s. To these northern fundamentalists he was betraying the “People’s Game” by turning it into a music-hall comedy. “Up and under” and “early bath” were examples of his far-too-jocular catchphrases – but it was his larking about on It’s A Knockout that really got their goat.

Which is why I decided to call the play I wrote about Eddie and his legacy – on at West Yorkshire Playhouse next week – Playing The Joker. The northern fundamentalists who signed that petition, which the BBC ignored, thought his larking about had set the game back years. They believed that rugby league was a cultural expression of the true England – ie, the industrial North – and were, to put it mildly, a bit on the chippy side.

The truth was that Waring was something of a pioneer, helping to drive through the changes that propelled rugby league into the national consciousness. Arguably, without his vision there would have been no Super League, nor indeed the global jamboree that the current very entertaining World Cup is turning out to be. And he was a sharp operator: a canny, deal-making entrepreneur who virtually ran the sport from his base at the Queens Hotel in Leeds.

Northern Union, as it was called on its formation in 1895, was the product of a very English revolution, a rebellion against the southern-based, gentleman amateurs who objected to working class players being financially compensated for missing their Saturday morning shifts.

From the inter-war years, when a Bradford crowd sang On Ilkley Moor Ba Tat rather than God Save The Queen before a match between Great Britain and Australia, to the coal strike of 1984-1985, when players who were blacklegs were jeered by their own supporters, it provided, according to Colin Welland, the north’s “cultural adrenalin”.

But this brilliant rugby league World Cup, in which 14 nations have taken part, shows it is becoming more of a global entertainment. Which was always Eddie’s aim. Although he is something of a forgotten figure these days, this metamorphosis wouldn’t have taken place without his pioneering actitvities.

As he says in the play: “I want this game to have glamour, prestige, exposure and power. I want it to have a bright and glittering future. I want razzmatazz, fireworks, booming pop songs and dancing girls.” And, he might have added, plays that examine Yorkshireness, revenge, revolution – and why trilby hats went out of fashion.

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