Henry Blofeld: why now is the right time to leave Test Match Special
As Test Match Special reaches 60 not out, the legendary cricket commentator presenter retires — but why?
When it was announced that Test Match Special’s Henry Blofeld was retiring after 45 years in the commentary box, ex-England captain and TMS regular Michael Vaughan said, “All pigeons are going to have a minute’s silence at 11am.”
“Dear Michael,” says Henry Blofeld three days later, sitting in his small back garden in Chelsea, west London, wearing a panama hat and still basking in the outpouring of affection that has met the decision to end his radio career.
Vaughan was alluding to a distinctive broadcasting style that finds as much to comment on around the ground as it does on the pitch. The style is based, says Blofeld, on “going over the boundary” and beyond the actual play.
“I paint the whole thing,” he says. “If you don’t tell listeners where you are and what you can see, they’re not going to say, ‘You made me feel as if I was there.’ That’s why I talk about pigeons.”
Blofeld has been talking about pigeons since 1972, when he first joined John Arlott and Brian Johnston in the commentary box. Arlott was famously well-fuelled and of a literary bent, Johnners a sniggering Old Etonian offering good-humoured observations on the vicissitudes of life and the game. Blofeld, soon christened Blowers – as Jonathan Agnew would become Aggers – borrowed from both men but also pioneered the art of not talking about the match he was being paid to watch.
As well as pigeons, Blofeld’s flights of fancy have included seagulls, hats, newspapers caught in the wind and passing buses. But none of it, he insists, has been at the expense of a game he has loved since childhood.
“You’re totally absorbed in it,” he says. “But when you get down to the slow bits, lots of maiden overs, say, then a commentator’s got to remember that he’s not only there to tell an unfolding story, his job is as an entertainer as well.”
But now he is calling time, and the Third Test against the West Indies in September will be his last. “I don’t feel as sharp as I was,” he says. “When you get to my age, your senses get slightly rougher at the edges. I’ve always been critical of myself, I don’t like making mistakes; I don’t want to let the commentary team down. They’ve got a lot of good young people – well, they aren’t that young, but they’re new and they’re doing it jolly well. I’ve done my dash, I’ve been there 45 years, more than anyone, I’m going to put my cue in the rack.”
Although he artfully employs old-world slang, habitually calling prince and pauper alike “dear old thing”, Blowers isn’t completely affable, snapping “you don’t understand” when I fail to get his drift. But he has earned the right to be short – Blofeld is our last link with legends such as Arlott and Johnston, men who found poetry in a game Blofeld describes as “balletic, with great beauty in an artistic sense, and great character”.
He might have been a great cricketer himself. Blofeld kept wicket for Eton but was nearly killed when, aged 17, he was hit by a bus and left in a coma for 28 days. “When you’re 17, it’s not as profound as if it were later, is it?” he says.
“You’re young, you get up and get on with it. I played cricket very well before the accident but if I’d had a career playing cricket, maybe I wouldn’t ever have done what I have done.”
Blofeld nearly died again in 1999 when he had a heart attack and was given the last rites, but he doesn’t seem to regard these setbacks as terribly serious. “The past is gone,” he says. “I never ever look back.”
Like Johnners, Blofeld has a schoolboy’s unwillingness to take anything too seriously, and the unmistakable Eton drawl to go with it. He came sixth in the Radio Times best male voice for radio poll in 2016 yet, now 77 and by his own admission “the last of the old farts”, Blofeld feels obliged to defend his elongated vowels.
“You may ask why do I speak in the way I do,” he says. “I speak in the way I do because my family do. Everyone did at school and so one naturally did and I’ve never talked any other way.”
After I say everyone I know loves his voice, he suggests it isn’t the public but the BBC that might have a problem with it.
“If I came along now, what would people think of me? They might take a view and think: ‘This chap’s not right at all.’ I’ve got a voice now that I think is against me, but because of long usage, I’m there. Even more pertinently, if Brian Johnston or John Arlott came along now as young men, what would people think? Arlott had a wonderful voice but would he fit in with 5 Live? I don’t know.”
Does Blofeld really feel his voice provokes anti-toff feeling? “I think there’s a certain disadvantage, probably. I understand that. It’s a changing world.” Has anyone at the BBC ever said that? “No one’s ever said it to me. But one isn’t entirely stupid. You look, you see: how many people around talk in the same way I do?”
Has he been told to tone it down? “No one’s going to say that to me at my age, are they? Good heavens!”
TMS has felt slightly out of kilter with its setting since it moved to 5 Live in 2002. “What came out was new Test Match Special as opposed to old Test Match Special,” says Blofeld of the change. “We’ve been steered into the ways of 5 Live. I don’t think you get the same strongly individual commentators you once did.”
Blofeld’s family were Norfolk landowners, and his brother a High Court judge. His air of patrician amateurism mask a fierce dedication to his craft, but isn’t naturally at home in the blokeish milieu that Michael Vaughan best represents.
“In the old days, it used to be commentary, and summarisers came in at the end of the over or when a wicket fell or something important happened that needed explaining,” he says. “Nowadays, there’s an awful lot more of the summariser chipping in.”
Even though his role as a commentator has changed, he says leaving was his decision. “I didn’t tell anyone. The BBC read it in the papers last Friday when I announced it.”
Still, the head of radio and digital at BBC Sport, Ben Gallop, just happened to be down from Manchester on the same day to take him out for a valedictory lunch at the pub around the corner. “I thought that was tremendous,” he says. “It was so nice. I was really touched by that.”
Has anyone asked him to stay? “I wouldn’t make that decision then go back on it, that’s not my nature. I’ve said I won’t work for TMS any more because I don’t think I’m as good as I was. I don’t want to let the show down and I just feel the time has come.”
Blofeld left TMS before; he went to BSkyB television in 1991 for money (“My bank manager made that decision for me”). It didn’t go well. “I’m not a good television commentator,” he says. “I don’t obey the rules, I talk off-picture – if something funny happens over there, I can’t resist.”
Now, 26 years later, Sky has the TV rights to England’s Test matches. “Kids can’t watch it unless they’ve got Sky,” he says. “This is very sad. But that is one of the great things about Test Match Special, we are the only free-to-air live cricket. Obviously [the Sky deal] increased our audience considerably and it’s why the BBC have no real interest into going back into televising cricket because they know they’ve got us. I think it’s why the cricket authorities like us.”
Will it always be that way? “Rupert Murdoch bought TalkSport and who knows what will happen to its rights in the future? Rupert has more money than – well, I was going to say what’s good for him, but you know what I mean.”
Despite this, he is characteristically upbeat about the future of the game. “I personally don’t see cricket in any great danger,” he says. “A lot of money’s coming into the game because of one-day cricket, that’s true, but Test cricket in England is more popular than it’s ever been.”
And what about your own innings, Blowers? “Me? I’m jolly happy with what I’ve done actually.” Right on cue a pigeon lands on the garden fence and coos. “Ah,” he says. “Here’s my pigeon, and it’s a rather splendid one.”
Test Match Special is on Sat, Sun, Mon, Wed, Fri from 10.30am Radio 4 LW/5 Live Sports Extra