Johnners and Mick Jagger, Blowers and Hugh Cornwell – the BBC’s Jonathan Agnew has seen it all on Test Match Special, Radio 4’s institution which is 50 years old today
It will be very much a case of business as usual when we celebrate Test Match Special‘s 50th birthday at Headingley today. Peter Baxter, the producer, will be the first to arrive in the dilapidated commentary box that must have been around for as long as the programme itself. A sweating Bill Frindall will stagger in with bags stuffed with folders, books and various scorer’s paraphernalia, and Vic Marks will appear in a shirt that has probably never been ironed. Christopher Martin-Jenkins will be late.
Headingley is where it all started for me 16 years ago. I had never commentated on a cricket match before when I clambered up the steps of the rugby stand and opened the door to find Brian Johnston meticulously examining an already-impressive collection of cakes (he really did take it very seriously). I should have felt much more nervous than I did, but having been a professional cricketer for the previous 14 years I had hardly ever listened to Test Match Special. I certainly have no memory of John Arlott.
Sacrilegious? Maybe. Naive? Possibly. But at least I wasn’t burdened by a sense of awe or trepidation that might otherwise have rendered me speechless or, worse still, a gibbering idiot.
The programme has evolved a great deal since those days. Letters have been replaced by a constant stream of email, which, because we broadcast online, comes in from all over the world. When England play either India or Pakistan, the volume of traffic from expats in America easily matches that from the subcontinent. The TMS blog is among the most active within the BBC and the cakes, biscuits, toffees – and pork pies – keep coming. Again, all of this reflects a depth of contact with the audience that TV simply cannot equal.
The cricket is the platform on which the programme is built and nothing should interfere with the basic discipline of actually describing what is going on. But Test Match Special has become much more diverse than just a cricket commentary. Through working on this amazing programme I have interviewed Nelson Mandela and, as close as makes no difference, been told to “sod off” by Mother Teresa.
Elsewhere, a surreal lunch followed my Saturday chat at Edgbaston with Jane Rossington (formerly Jill in Crossroads) when we sat in the indoor school and talked cricket with Mick Jagger, who had just recorded the following week’s interview. And an equally unlikely combination was created when Henry Blofeld’s guest for A View from the Boundary was none other than the Beast of Bolsover, Dennis Skinner. They got on brilliantly and the ability of TMS to unite people through the common love of cricket was never better illustrated than when Hugh Cornwell, of The Stranglers, sang “Golden Brown” while strumming Mike Selvey’s guitar.
After 41 years at the helm, Peter Baxter retires at the end of this series and we all owe him a resounding vote of thanks. As always with live broadcasting, things can become a little fraught, but in my time on Test Match Special I’ve never heard him publicly criticise any member of the team, or do anything that has in any way reduced a contributor’s capacity to express himself freely. That ability to encourage individuals to relax, be themselves and to interact with the listener has been Peter’s overriding contribution to Test Match Special, and those of us who work on the programme join millions of radio lovers in hoping that this remains his legacy.
This is an edited version of an article published in The Observer. Click here to read the full article, and enter a competition to win a copy of Peter Baxter’s book, 50 Not Out