JONATHAN MCEVOY: Murray Walker's art form bellow illuminated F1

JONATHAN MCEVOY: Murray Walker’s pants-on-fire bellow was an art form that illuminated Formula One… at the end of his ‘bloody marvellous’ life, a chapter closes in the microphone business

  • Legendary broadcaster Murray Walker passed away at the age of 97 on Saturday
  • Walker was one of the most recognisable figures and voices in motorsport
  • Legends of Formula One and sport have paid tribute to the ‘special’ Walker
  • Walker’s passing brings a chapter of the microphone business to a close 

One of the most famous and most imitated voices in the history of British television fell silent yesterday. Murray Walker died aged 97 and a chapter closed in the art of the microphone business.

Of course, his pants-on-fire bellow was the soundtrack that illuminated Formula One as it planted itself in the imagination of the nation.

But he meant something more than that in the whole story of TV sports broadcasting — one of those pioneers like David Coleman, Peter O’Sullevan (his personal favourite), Bill McLaren, Dan Maskell, Peter Alliss and Richie Benaud. 

Murray Walker, one of the finest British sporting broadcaster, passed away at the age of 97

Walker (right) was one of the most recognisable faces and voices in Formula One history

It was an age before a multiplicity of channels blurred things, a time when the splendid instrument of the voice itself was a central part of the job in a way it is not quite today.

Like O’Sullevan and the others, Walker could convey drama by lowering his register, for all his high-octane excitement and the odd malapropism that were part of his legend. His autobiography, ‘Unless I Am Very Much Mistaken,’ sold like hot cakes.

When he was being treated for cancer — which turned out to be not as serious as he feared nearly a decade ago — he told me: ‘I have had a bloody marvellous life doing what I wanted to do — travelling the world with fast-moving, high-stepping, ambitious, capable people.’

Last night those individuals lined up to pay their respects. Bernie Ecclestone led the way, telling The Mail on Sunday: ‘Murray was something a little bit special.

‘When you look at the history of Formula One he is up there a million times over. His partnership in the commentary box with James Hunt was something else — the perfect combination. You couldn’t have got two better people.

Bernie Ecclestone (right) told the Mail on Sunday that Walker (left) was a ‘special’ character 

‘He made what people called cock-ups but he could get away with them. It was as if he prepared them. He didn’t but people knew he was so knowledgeable about the sport they would forgive him anything. He worked hard and would prepare so diligently for every broadcast.

‘The last time I saw him was at the RAC, the Pall Mall club, in London, where they named the TV room after him. We had a joke and sat together at the dinner that accompanied the event. And when I last spoke to him he was in very good form, pin sharp. I just hope that when he left us he was not in pain.

‘Formula One owes him a great deal and he will be celebrated for all time.’

Walker was infamous for his mistakes as well as his genius, branded ‘Murrayisms’ by the public

Three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart said: ‘There will never be another Murray Walker. He is one of those people that will remembered for ever — and not too many commentators could expect that after their life.

‘It is a great loss. We are all at a certain age where we are seeing friends and colleagues slip away, which is very sad, but in the case of Murray he will never be forgotten.’

Martin Brundle, who commentated alongside Walker in the final years of his career, wrote on Twitter: ‘Rest In Peace, Murray Walker. Wonderful man in every respect. National treasure, communication genius, Formula One legend.’

David Croft, the current lead commentator on Sky Sports’ F1 coverage posted a tweet, saying: ‘A gentleman and a legend in every sense of the word. It was an honour to know you, a delight to spend time in your company and inspiring to listen and learn from you. THE voice of Formula One and always will be. Thank you xx.’

Some of the biggest names in Formula One and sports broadcasting paid tribute to Walker

FIA president Jean Todt said: ‘Very sad to learn that Murray Walker has passed away. He was the voice of Formula One. All the FIA family pays tribute to him. My thoughts are with his loved ones.’

Born in Birmingham, after graduating from Sandhurst, Walker was an officer in the Royal Scots Greys in the Second World War, commanding a Sherman tank, fighting in the Battle of the Reichswald and arriving at Belsen shortly after the concentration camp had been liberated.

He recalled: ‘I first went to the TT motorcycle races in the Isle of Man when I was two in my mother’s arms. My dad, God bless him, was racing. There have been 200 deaths there since it began in 1907.

Captain Murray Walker had a career in the military before broadcasting (pictured, crossing the Rhine in 1945)

‘The great riders of their day were all uncles to me. They would come down to breakfast in their leathers. But then some were killed. So my attitude to death is different from a lot of people.’

His first broadcast came in 1948 — the Shelsley Walsh hill climb and then the 1949 Easter Monday Goodwood race before the broadcast of the British Grand Prix on radio the same year, along with Max Robertson, at Stowe corner.

He and his father were the first dad-and-son commentary combination on the Beeb, reporting the TT race. From 1962, Walker become the BBC’s chief motorcycling commentator. Motorcycling — in which he raced as a young man — was his greatest love, before he became the corporation’s top F1 man from the 1978 season onwards, dovetailing his broadcasting duties with a front-rank career in advertising.

His most famous commentating partnership was with Hunt, the debonair, brilliant, opinionated and hell-raising 1976 Formula One world champion. Walker said of his friend: ‘A more endearing, charming, delightful bloke you would never hope to meet. And a more rude, truculent, overbearing chap you would never hope to meet.

The commentator formed a superb on-air partnership with F1 champion James Hunt (right)

In quotes: Murray Walker’s best moments 

 ‘There’s nothing wrong with the car except that it’s on fire.’

‘The lead car is unique except for the one behind it, which is identical.’

‘And now, excuse me while I interrupt myself.’

‘I should imagine that the conditions in the cockpit are totally unimaginable.’

‘Even in five years time, he will still be four years younger than Damon Hill.’

‘He can’t decide whether to leave his visor half open or half closed.’

‘There are seven winners of the Monaco grand prix on the starting line today, and four of them are Michael Schumacher.’

‘Now we have exactly the same situation as at the beginning of the race, only exactly opposite.’

‘You might think, that’s not cricket, and it’s not, it’s motor racing.’

‘If is a very long word in Formula One. In fact, if is F1 spelled backwards.’ 

‘He probably had too much sex and I didn’t have enough!’ 

After Hunt, whose premature death ended one of TV sport’s greatest double acts, he teamed up successfully with Jonathan Palmer and Brundle, with the BBC first and later ITV. One of his most famous commentaries concerned Damon Hill, who won the title in 1996, emulating his dad Graham.

‘I have to stop because I have a lump in my throat,’ Walker said, as only Murray could.

Last night Damon Hill said: ‘Murray has been with me my whole life and I don’t think anybody thought this day would come, but sadly it has. Maybe old soldiers never die?

‘His legacy and his memory is so strong and what he gave to so many F1 fans and the great number of people he affected, well, he became bigger than the sport, so we have a lot to be thankful to Murray for. The shocking moments and the dramatic ones all have Murray’s reaction to them and he made those stick in your mind for ever. And he allowed himself not to be the know-it-all commentator but the fan who, at times, got over excited.’

I always found my friend Murray a joy to speak to on my visits to his home in the New Forest. He would tell me how Melbourne was his favourite race. ‘You turn on the taps there and they work — everything works there,’ he told me before my first circumnavigation of the world. He also counted the great and much lamented Sir Stirling Moss as a great buddy.

Formula One is in mourning today. But more than the sense of sadness, we celebrate, as he would wish, a life well lived. 

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