By JON RYAN, former sports editor Sunday Telegraph and Mail on Sunday and a close friend of Nigel Starmer-Smith
The figure lying in the cot bed is still recognisable. His face is gaunt and there are no words and he is unable to walk. But it is still Nigel Starmer-Smith.
The staff at the home just outside Oxford know that he was once one of the best-known voices at the BBC even though many are too young to remember him in his heyday.
I go and visit him when Covid restrictions allow and hold his hand and talk to him hoping that at least some of my words permeate through the wall of dementia that has cruelly engulfed him. I can still hear that distinctive voice.
I first got to know Nigel when we bought their house in Oxfordshire. He was an iconic figure – former England player, Oxford blue, Harlequin and an instantly recognisable commentator.
Over the years we became good friends of the Starmer-Smith family. Our children were roughly the same ages as Charlotte, Charlie and Julian and we took family skiing holidays together and trips to the French Var.
All seemed idyllic in their world. Nigel was a rugby commentator first but toured the world for the BBC to Olympics, Commonwealth games and became a regular at Wimbledon in the ‘off’ season . His wife Ros, who sadly died of cancer in July, went with him and often the children as well.
Then two tragedies struck . In 1991 their 16 year old daughter Charlotte died of a rare blood disorder. Ten years later at the age of 19 their youngest child Julian died of non-Hodgkin’s T-Cell Lymphona.
Then around five years ago or so Nigel first showed signs of dementia, a disease that had affected his brother.
Slowly the voice that could commentate for 80 minutes of an international at Twickenham became halting and confused. He was still fit and we managed one last ski trip together. When I asked if he fancied it his eyes lit up: “Yes, that white stuff…the hills…holiday….” . It was a tragi-comic week but great fun.
Now he is in the home, a once dazzling scrum-half unable to walk and his so familiar tones silenced.
But his son Charlie wrote a remarkable song Spotlight to explain his feelings about his father, it was played on Radio5’s Now That’s What I Call Lockdown and was heard by a record producer who got Charlie into Abbey Road studios and last Friday the song was released and by the weekend was number 7 in the charts.
A short film was made to go with it and is available on the BBC site here
The song, with all proceeds going to dementia charities, can be downloaded here
It’s a remarkable tribute from a son to his father and an opportunity to raise money to fight this dreadful disease.