As the last of the summer sun gives way to early autumn, you might forgive cricket enthusiasts a whiff of melancholy. The season is after all in its death throes, with just Saturday’s One-day Cup final between Warwickshire and Surrey and the last rites to be read to the County Championship.
But Henry Blofeld, whose unmistakable voice has again helped fans of Test Match Special chart their way through a busy fixture list, is in fine spirits. At almost 77, his contagious enthusiasm is undimmed.
“I haven’t got to the point where I wonder if I’m going to be alive this time next year but I dare say that will start soon,” he says and laughs throatily. “I keep my fingers crossed. But no, I don’t think there’s much melancholy. I’m the sort of person who looks ahead. There’s no point looking back.”
Blowers – as he’s known to listeners – won’t be heading to Lord’s to commentate on Saturday’s one-day final.
Instead he’ll be preparing to embark on a theatre tour with former England spinner Graeme Swann before heading for India to commentate on two of England’s winter Test matches in Mumbai and Madras.
These days limited-overs cricket seems to be off limits for Blofeld – at least as far as the BBC is concerned, and he’s sad about that. He hasn’t commentated on an ODI since last summer.
“I always rather wish I was there, but I think they feel perhaps that I’m a bit too old, don’t you? They don’t ask me now and they’ve got so many newcomers, they don’t want an old fart like me.”
RT readers may beg to differ. In June they voted Blofeld among their top ten best voices on radio. Certainly, there isn’t a richer, more extravagant voice in a British commentary box. Full of “my dear old things” and references to passing buses, his is the last voice of a bygone age.
“It’s a very unselfconscious voice,” he says as we chat in his Chelsea living room, dishevelled with memorabilia, photographs and cricket cartoons.
“My dear old thing, I’ve never had an elocution lesson in my life. This is the way I talk. My father had a wonderful speaking voice, my brother, who was a High Court judge for 35 years, he had a very good speaking voice.”
Even at his most charming, he isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – as he concedes. “I either drive people mad or they love me. Probably, marginally, it’s about 55 per cent love and 45 per cent hate, but I don’t know.
“I talk about helicopters, aeroplanes, buses and pigeons, but it doesn’t get in the way of the cricket, which some people would like to think. I’m probably as good a giver of the score as anyone.”
Commentating about cricket isn’t only a question of the cricket; it’s so much else besides, which is what makes Test Match Special the programme it is and it’s why, of all the millions that listen, the BBC will tell you that 53 per cent are ladies. It’s very inclusive.”
The game, of course, has changed since Blofeld joined TMS in 1972. It’s now embraced women, both on the field and in the commentary box, where the likes of Alison Mitchell regularly commentate and ex-pros such as Ebony Rainford-Brent provide the expert views. But Blofeld is a champion of progress.
“If a woman is a good commentator then I think it’s marvellous that she should be there, and she will bring something very different and important to it because, let us remember, ladies are playing much more pungent, purposeful, successful and worthwhile cricket than they ever were. Ladies’ cricket is really quite a formidable game now and it’s absolutely right they should be represented.”
Blofeld has been married three times. As we talk, his third wife arrives home. Valeria has a pink fringe and hails from Zimbabwe.
“She’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he declares. “She’s the kindest girl. We have great fun. She comes everywhere with me.” She was, he says, “very big news in the fashion world” and now organises his tours.
“I’m frightfully silly. I’ve never saved money. If I have anything in my bank account, I rush out and ring up Valeria and say, ‘We must go and have the most marvellous dinner,’ and we go out and drink the most expensive wine. Then I feel broke for a few days but I still do that and I love it.”
Blofeld’s brother inherited the family estate in Norfolk, thanks to the laws of primogeniture. Did that bother him? “Not at all, you can’t break up these estates. My dear old thing… you’re being naive about this. I knew it was going to John and I’ve no complaints.
“I thank God it did. I wouldn’t have wanted to look after an estate all my life. I couldn’t think of anything worse.”
Blofeld’s childhood was “fairly feudal” and, while it wasn’t quite Downton Abbey, there were servants. “Yes, lots of them.” His family, he thinks, arrived from Finland in the 11th century and he gestures to a picture of the ancestral mansion on the wall.
“We’ve lived at Hofton since 1520.” Despite his privileged upbringing, he assures me that he treats everyone as equals. “Absolutely – all the staff at home were the greatest possible fun. The fact they happened to call me Master Henry was just the way it was at that time.”
James Bond’s nemesis Blofeld was named after his father, who had been an acquaintance of Ian Fleming at school.
“My mother tended to regard Ernst Stavro as part of the castle not normally shown to visitors,” he says, but his father exchanged several good-humoured letters with the author at the time.
Like his father, Blowers went to Eton, where he was an accomplished cricketer, scoring a century at Lord’s in his mid-teens for Public Schools against the Combined Services, but he was run over by a bus at 17 and was unconscious for almost a month.
He was never the same player again, although he did go on to win a Blue at Cambridge and hit another hundred at Lord’s, this time against the MCC. Meanwhile he didn’t pass a single exam and his academic failure, not helped perhaps by the blow to the head, contributed to his being sent down after two years. But Cambridge’s loss was sport commentary gain.
Reflecting on the summer’s Test series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan, he says, “We’re quite good, but I don’t think we’re the best side – we’re three batsmen short. We need an opening batsman to go in with Alastair Cook and need a four and a five – James Vince and Gary Ballance simply aren’t up to it. And we need a really good spin bowler.”
It’s a blunt assessment but he’s not particularly partisan. “I really don’t mind whether England win or not. I love seeing good cricket and it was a wonderful summer.”
And it’s not quite over yet. Much like Blowers himself. “The only bad thing about life now is the arithmetic, which runs out quite soon,” he says. “I want to go on as long as I possibly can. I’d love another four or five years – if God and the BBC are willing.”
Listen to the Royal London One-day Cup: Warwickshire v Surrey on Saturday at 10:15am on Radio 4 LW