NORMAN GILLER pays sad personal tribute to another old friend
Harry Carpenter got angry with me only once in the 55 years that we knew each other.
Writing a TV sports column in the London Evening News, I nicknamed Harry “The Rainman” during a rain-ruined Wimbledon fortnight, when it seemed every time he appeared on our screens from the Centre Court it was bucketing down.
The headline, written by Sports Editor Peter “Ayatollah” Watson, screamed in 48pt Bodoni bold: “Harry the Rainman Under A Cloud at Wimbledon”.
Harry telephoned me to say: “I wish you hadn’t written that. Everybody’s blaming me for the weather, and that Rainman nickname is going to stick.”
What really upset Harry is that the story had made him seem bigger than the event, and this embarrassed the most modest man you could wish to meet. He was out of the old school of sports journalists, who liked to be factual at all times without pushing himself at the expense of his subject.
I learned a lot from Harry long before he became one of the finest television presenters and commentators of any time. He had just started at the Daily Mail as a boxing/greyhounds/all-sports reporter when I began working as Reg Gutteridge’s teaboy/copyboy/leg man on the Evening News.
The Daily Mail was then based in Northcliffe House off Fleet Street, just a short hop up the hill from New Carmelite House, home of its sister paper the Evening News.
I say “short hop” because that’s what Reggie Gutteridge used to call it. He had lost a leg in the Normandy landings and used to send me to his car to get his spare leg from the boot. “Hop down and get my leg,” he’d say, tossing me the keys to his car. I would come back to the office doing Jake the Peg long before Rolf Harris thought of it.
Harry and Reg were inseparable in those days, and it was remarkable and rewarding for me to watch them rising in tandem to become the best boxing commentators in the business â€” Harry for the BBC and Reg for ITV.
It hurts like hell that they have now, within a few months of each other, both gone to the great broadcasting house in the sky.
They often got together in the Sportswriters’ Room at the News â€” other occupants included columnist Bill McGowran, cricket correspondent E.M. (Evelyn) Wellings and chief football writer J.G. (Jack) Orange, who always had a fresh rose in his lapel. I can hear the echo of typewriters crashing in unison as I type now on my noiseless wireless-linked keyboard.
I used to get Harry and Reg a cup of tea each â€¦ they thought from the canteen, little knowing that I made it myself at a groundfloor urn that we copyboys (Faginites) kept to ourselves. Every fourpenny cup of tea we got was sheer profit. We even nicked the Typhoo tea from the canteen (If I’m arrested now, I will say it’s a fair cup, and come quietly).
Anyway, once I had served the tea I would sit listening to Harry and Reg swapping the latest boxing and greyhound gossip. They were both experts on the dogs as well as being the best-informed boxing reporters in the Street.
I rarely knew anybody as conscientious as Harry when it came to collating facts and figures. Everything that Reg used to tell him about a particular boxer or greyhound he would note down and file away. It was this attention to detail that made him such a master when he appeared before the camera, facts falling from his mouth as easily as raindrops from the sky (sorry Harry).
I once asked Harry what was his most difficult commentating job, and he told me that it was during the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston. “Ghana had a flyweight called Shittu â€” pronounced Shit-you,” he said. “I took the coward’s way out and called him Sir-hitt-oo.”
In the days when Harry had his double act going with Frank Bruno, I was Frank’s “press adviser” and used to train Frank as to what to say. He had the habit then of ending every sentence with “y’now.” His manager (and my best pal) Terry Lawless and I worked for hours getting him to break the habit.
Finally, in a eureka moment, Frank announced he had beaten it â€¦ “know wot I mean â€¦”
A catchphrase was born, and when it became “know wot I mean, ‘Arry'” in their hilarious interviews, it brought Harry a fame and feting that, at first, discomforted him. But he went along with it when it was suddenly accompanied by commercial rewards. He once told me: “It has become my golden pension. I am earning more with Frank than I have ever done from the Beeb!”
They opened shops, fetes, supermarkets, and envelopes containing big cheques.
Harry and Reg remained good pals throughout their careers, despite the rivalry of their employers. They were known as the Brit Twins at ringsides around the world, both short, wearing thick-framed glasses and with discernible London accents â€” Reg Arsenal North, Harry Crystal Palace South.
When Reg was desperately ill in hospital with a blood disorder, it was Harry who quietly drove Muhammad Ali â€” on a tour of the UK â€” for a bedside visit to see his old friend. Reg came out of a deep sleep to find Ali kneeling and praying alongside him. “I thought I’d died and bleedin’ gorn to heaven,” said Reg, in a deliberately exaggerated Cockney voice that he often used for effect.
Never one to talk publicly about his achievements, Harry admitted to me that he was fiercely and justifiably proud of his son, John, who became chief executive of a brandy company in Cognac, where HC spent most of his retirement years. Harry famously liked a glass of champagne in the mornings. “It loosens the vocal chords,” he used to say.
With a son so prominent in the wine trade, Harry naturally had a well-stocked cellar at his home in Sandwich close to the St George’s championship golf course in Kent. He spent a life time trying and failing to conquer golf, getting down to a 16 handicap at his peak, despite the coaching of his close friend Peter Alliss.
But in front of a camera he was “scratch” quality in everything he did, anchoring a range of programmes from Sportsnight, Grandstand and the Open golf and, of course, Wimbledon.
He was also closely associated with the Boat Race, and provided one of the classic Colemanballs moments: “Ah, isn’t that nice, the wife of the Cambridge President is kissing the cox of the Oxford crew.” It reads well. It sounds even better.
Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.
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