Julian Wilson’s death marks the end of an era

NORMAN GILLER on the ending of a 100-year dynasty of sports journalists

When Julian Wilson, the former BBC television racing correspondent, died on Sunday, there came to an end a three-generation dynasty of sports journalists.

Wilson was 73, and had been ill with prostate cancer for some time.

Julian Wilson
Julian Wilson

He was the son of Daily Mirror sports columnist Peter “The Man They Can’t Gag” Wilson.

Less well-known was that Peter Wilson’s father had been a Times sub-editor and sports freelance writer from early in the last century who did well enough from his journalistic earnings to send his son to Harrow. Julian followed the same educational path during the years when his father was, arguably, the best-known sportswriter in the world, specialising in tennis and boxing.

Wilson claimed to have been introduced to racing, and betting, at the age of nine by an aunt, and he pursued his interests while at Harrow, where one of his contemporaries was John McCririck. After leaving school, Wilson joined the Daily Mirror racing desk, but he always had his sights on broadcasting.

In 1965, he got his chance, making the final six for an audition from more than 800 applicants, and was summoned to Newbury for a paddock commentary, calling a race, and a piece to camera. The BBC’s commentator, Peter O’Sullevan,  watched the auditions and described Wilson as “the pale young applicant whose lips moved as silently as a novice monk while he rehearsed his scene-set in the corner seat of a first-class carriage”.

If O’Sullevan was “the voice of racing”, then over the next 30 years, Wilson would become the face of the sport, although in doing so, the somewhat patrician Old Harrovian unwittingly reinforced the class-conscious nature of the game. Rarely did Wilson get the chance he craved, to take over the commentator’s microphone.

But when he did, such as in providing commentary “out in the country” on the 1973 Crisp v Red Rum Grand National by Becher’s Brook, as one tribute to Wilson said this week, he was able to provide what “remains an indelible element of the soundtrack of racing history”.

Wilson was on the BBC staff from 1966 until a bad-tempered retirement in 1997, grumbling that he had been betrayed because he was passed over as successor to O’Sullevan.

I spent nearly 10 years with my desk just feet away from Peter O’Sullevan’s in the old Daily Express office in Fleet Street, so we had many conversations, and he said of Julian: “He has his father’s way with words, but is something of a blinkered person who likes things done his way. I once told him I was thinking of retiring and he got the wrong end of the stick.

“I meant from my newspaper work, and from then on he felt I was keeping him out of the commentary box. But it was all a misunderstanding. It hurt when he wrote that I had betrayed him.”

Julian – nicknamed “Wiz” – detested what he saw as the dumbing down of racing on television, and he wrote: “For us in my time at the BBC, racing was serious. We weren’t interested in the gimmicks, people dressed up in purple suits, schoolboy humour, interviewing the best dressed women and children.”

Nor did he get on with his father, and when Peter Wilson wrote his 200,000-word autobiography, he could not find room for a sentence on his son.

Few people could match Julian’s knowledge of horseflesh and the racing formbook, and he became a successful owner, trainer and breeder. He kept on writing, continually firing barbed criticism at the modern racing game. Here is an example from his poison pen:

“There are times when the British Horseracing Authority, rulers of racing, must feel as isolated and beleaguered in their ivory tower as did the garrison at Rorke’s Drift in 1879. Students of the Anglo-Zulu war will recall that 139 gallant British soldiers defended the mission station heroically against 4,000 to 5,000 ferocious Zulu warriors. The incessant battery of commercial opportunists, predators, critics and legislators that threaten the financial health of British racing may be less substantial in terms of numbers, but their strategy and technique are light years ahead of the brave Zulus … Racing is being driven by commercial realities that are not in the interest of the sport or its supporters.”

That was typical Julian, who never ever took prisoners with his trenchant views.

He was a peerless professional, who did not suffer fools but earned respect with his omniscient knowledge and high energy.

The Wilsons would not be gagged.


Thu May 15: SJA members’ Race Day at York