Already that single word has raised the blood pressure of several readers.

If you are on medication, don’t read on. For the rest of you...

The early days of snooker commentary on the BBC were done by Ted Lowe, who was involved in the sport through running Leicester Square Hall in the post war years where much snooker was played.

Ted would commentate from the audience. In those days, the referee didn’t ask the spectators to turn down their earpieces, they just told Ted to shush it a bit.

This is the reason he was given the ‘whispering’ nickname that helped make him into one of the best known television voices of the 1980s.

It was Ted who commentated on Pot Black. Quite right too, it was his idea.

But when the BBC began daily live coverage of the World Championship in 1978 it was clear he would not be able to commentate on two tables simultaneously all day long.

So it was that those other BBC stalwarts, Jack Karnehm and Clive Everton, became full time members of the team.

In Clive’s case this was something of a shock. The BBC’s executive producer of the time sidled up to him in the press room on the first morning and asked him if he would be interested in doing some commentary. Clive confirmed he would and asked when he would be needed.

The producer consulted his watch and said, “in about 20 minutes.”

The BBC had some legends of the game in the experts’ chair – the roles were clearly defined back then as ‘commentator’ and ‘summariser’ – including John Pulman, John Spencer and Rex Williams.

Pulman and Williams would set sail for ITV when they came into the fold, alongside the likes of Mark Wildman and Ray Edmonds.

Dennis Taylor was also a big part of the ITV team before he was world champion. Famously, at the Yamaha Organs International he and Pulman commentated on a frame the saw the highest break equalled.

Taylor remarked that the player in question would share the prize. Pulman, a dryly amusing character with a voice as rich as velvet, replied deadpan: “Yes, Dennis, but what can you do with half an organ?”

The 80s saw snooker commentary very much being in the background, with the action taking centre stage. So it was that when Ted Lowe collapsed in the box at the Wembley Masters - and his co-commentator Williams put down his mic to send for help – not a word was uttered on air for around 15 minutes.

The BBC did not receive a single enquiry or complaint. Food very much for thought.

Times change and so does television. Sky Sports were the brash new kids on the block and their early snooker coverage was innovative and brought voices like Phil Yates and Jim Wych to the fore.

The BBC’s sports coverage changed too and former players came to be relied on much more, even in the roles traditionally occupied by journalist/broadcasters.

Taylor joined the BBC team in the early 90s, John Virgo has been there since the mid 80s and Willie Thorne has come to the fore during the last decade.

Three great characters of the game who, like all commentators, have their fans as well as their detractors.

The BBC today also use the warm and witty Terry Griffiths, always likeable Ken Doherty and Neal Foulds who many, myself included, rate very highly as an excellent analyst.

Who is to say who makes a good commentator? It’s entirely subjective.

Jim Meadowcroft once told me that he wasn’t supposed to be commentating with Lowe on the denouement of the famous Taylor/Davis final in 1985 but that the executive producer had decided he had done so well in the early part of the session that he could carry on.

Doubtless, on another day another producer would have given the gig to Spencer or Virgo.

If you look at the absolute masters of television sports commentary - I'm thinking Richie Benaud on cricket or the BBC's multi-purpose Barry Davies - it wasn't just that they knew when to speak. Just as importantly they knew when not to speak.

This came from having a solid broadcasting training. Yes, Benaud was a great cricketer but before he uttered a word of commentary for the BBC he was sent on an intensive course.

Players are frequently entertaining and incisive but Clive (magazine loyalties aside) remains the master at encapsulating the moment because he comes from a journalistic background where words count.

For example, when Stephen Hendry made his 147 at the Crucible in 2009, Clive said: “Marvellous champion, marvellous moment, one of many in a marvellous career.”

It was clear, cogent and perfectly put the break into context without recourse to a string of cliches.

Some people enjoy this approach, some don’t. Some people hate the way certain voices sound, others warm to them. Some want more talk, many want less. Some think the players in the box are out of touch, some think they are brilliant. Some turn the sound down, some enjoy (almost) every minute.

The truth is, commentators seem to raise the ire of viewers the minute they open their mouths.

It’s a job many viewers are certain they could do better themselves (not realising the technical challenges involved, not least people talking in your ear, timing remarks to go into commercial breaks and coping with all manner of hidden behind the scenes disasters).

And it’s also a job that is regarded with far greater importance than it really deserves. We all recall great matches and frames. But how many can honestly remember who was calling them?

Perhaps it’s worth reflecting that for all the many, many, many hours of snooker commentary there has been, most of it is long forgotten.

One phrase remains memorable. It was uttered by Karnehm as Cliff Thorburn stood over the last black of his 147 at the Crucible in 1983.

Karnehm merely said, “Good luck, mate.” It was perfect. It set up the drama of the moment and articulated the thoughts of all those watching.

Most viewers would agree that a commentator should add to the action with useful analysis, information or anecdote.

But nobody will ever agree to what extent the various characters behind the microphones get this right or wrong.



Im not sure whether some commentators are rubbish or whether its an individual appreciation thing.

Virgo and Thorne can be annoying with their smug "I know all" attitude.

Have you ever noticed when they advocate a shot and the player takes on a different shot and misses, they flitter him with criticism, but if the player is successful theres not a peek from them.

That white line drives me to distraction too. Dennis, you can put it up for every shot if you want but take it off before the cueball is struck, PLEASE.

During the last World Championship I found myself moving to Eurosport when I could avoid the constant wittering of Mike Hallett.

I think Virgo and Thorne have a desire to become stars themselves, but the jewel in the crown for me is Foulds.

I love watching snooker when he is on, he never talks unless he says something relevant, he knows his stuff and he doesn't use cliches.

Ken Doherty is a great player with a great personality but he doesn't cut it for me as a commentator.

How the BBC think hes a better choice than Clive Everton is beyond me.

Im glad I don't have to pay the licence fee.

Ray said...

I have been playing and watching sport for for over 50 years and am still playing snooker. Just as Stephen Hendry is the greatest snooker player that ever lived these are the greatest sport commentators: John Arlott;Sir Peter O'Sullevan;Peter Alliss;Bill McClaren and last but not least Clive Everton.
So the BBC wanted to attract a younger audience did they? Don't make me laugh. They'll be sacking David Dimbleby, David Attenborough and Peter Alliss next.... I don't think so. Even the numpties at the BBC know the difference between a Mini and a Rolls Royce.
Fast forwarding these ex-players one after another and leaving Clive marginalised is utter stupidity. If you measured the quality of their commentary skills in playing terms most would struggle to pot 2 balls in succession. (Dave, no aspersions cast at you because your journalistic skills assist your commentary.) However the fact remains that Clive is the doyenne of snooker commentary and the sooner he is brought back the better. BBC when I think I'm wrong I change my mind - what do you do?

RichP said...

I really think it's down to personal preference, i'm not a big fan of Clive's commentary - I think he's too dated, kind of heading back to the 80's where it was expected, things have changed for the better now. I also agree that Neal Foulds is very good and one of the few ex-players that cuts the mustard. Willie is one i've grown to like. His arrogance in terms of what shot should and shouldn't be played is quite funny and strangely appealing but I guess that's my personal preference coming through. I think for the most part the BBC have got it right although Ken and Dennis's contributions are questionable.

MattWilson said...

I agree with both the above comments. Clive is the maestro of snooker commentary and I personally would rather listen to muted snooker than hear Thorne, Virgo, Taylor et Al rant on about how "a player in the top 8 would never miss that shot" or "that's the difference between the qualifiers and the top 8 in the world".

Dave, I don't expect you to comment on this post, but I had to say something about three people you have missed off the blog who have recently come to the fore with their commentary alongside yourself on Eurosport - Mike Hallett, Mike Smith and Joe Johnson. They are possibly the three worst commentators I have ever heard. Hallett with his constant "mmmmmmm's" when a player misses an easy ball, Smith with his "well, well, well's" and r-r-r-rolling r's and Johnson just babbling on about nothing particularly relevant... I cannot stand it! When Smith and Hallett are on, it's just painful so I always turn the sound down to avoid irritation. Luckily, you normally commentate with JJ so it is a little easier on the ears, but in general the three of them severely detratc from the viewing pleasure on Eurosport.

But most importantly, I WISH WISH WISH Clive was back on the Beeb permanently. But I feel there's probably more chance of being bitten by a daffodil...


Anonymous said...

i know its to everyones choice of who they like and why, but i have been on a personal crusade to count the amount of times mike hallet gets something correct and so far after over a couple of years he is wrong much more often than he is right.

Anonymous said...

"Players are frequently entertaining and incisive but Clive (magazine loyalties aside) remains the master at encapsulating the moment because he comes from a journalistic background where words count."

Absolutely spot on. And this applies to every sport where former stars are fast-tracked into a commentating/reporting role. But then I am biased.

Anonymous said...

Willie's over the top style would be bearable if he was commentating with someone - preferably a broadcaster/journalist - who can temper it rather than someone else with a massive ego.

At the moment most BBC commentary is just a competition.

David Caulfield said...

The BBC commentators nowadays talk too much and I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that it is not knowing when to speak, but knowing when not to speak that is the real art form.

There are no(regular)commentators on the BBC snooker coverage now that have journalistic experience. With this trend growing - both in broadcasting and print - and for someone who is about to do a masters in journalism, I find that very disconcerting.

SupremeSnooker.com said...

Ted Lowe gave an interview to a BBC local radio station not so long ago where he said something very interesting about commentators. He said: “In my day, we were promoting the players. Today, commentators are promoting themselves.”

Let me make it clear that I have nothing whatsoever against any of the BBC commentators as human beings. However, I have to agree with Ted’s comments. The BBC has in snooker, and in many other sports, sacrificed journalistic expertise to make way for lots of retired stars. In athletics, they sidelined Stuart Storey. In racing, they removed Jonathan Powell and replaced him with John Parrott (again, nothing against him as a person). In snooker, Clive Everton has been sidelined when he clearly still has a lot to offer. If anything, I actually think he’s improved slightly over the years.

Snooker commentary works best in my opinion when you have someone with journalistic pedigree alongside a retired player with a brain. Too often on the BBC, we have to put up with commentators who just don’t know when to shut up and let the action do the talking.

Commentators undoubtedly speak more than they did in the 1980s (I’m sure Clive would agree with this) and I do think they said a bit too little back then. The tide began to turn in the mid-90s when the BBC reacted to Sky’s approach. That’s how I interpret it anyway.

Bearing in mind I’m only 26 and have to rely on archive footage to make a judgement on 80s snooker, my favourite commentators are Clive Everton, Mark Wildman, Phil Yates, Ray Edmonds and David Hendon. My favourite summarisers are Neal Foulds, Mike Hallett and Dominic Dale. I enjoyed hearing Michael McMullan during the Championship League, and hope we hear more of him in the future.

Willie Thorne was certainly a part of the BBC’s team from the mid-late 80s. I have a picture of the 1987 commentary team in a snooker book I own and Willie is there. He was also part of Sky’s commentary team from the early days and worked for ITV when they came back into snooker in the late 90s/ early 2000s, as well as working on their Liverpool Victoria Charity Challenge coverage during the years in the 90s in which they covered no other snooker.

In the early years of Sky, their snooker coverage was shown on the original incarnation of Eurosport, which Sky owned along with the European Broadcasting Union. The 1991 Mita World Masters, presented by Dickie Davies (who had left ITV by this stage) was a particularly innovative event. The original Sky commentator wasn’t Phil Yates, but Mike Watterson, who was there for about five years. He usually commentated alongside Jim Wych or Willie Thorne. When Mike left of his own accord, Phil came in.

We didn’t have Sky in our house during the early years and I’m too young to remember or appreciate Mike Watterson’s commentaries anyway, but he certainly has the right sort of voice for commentary and I’m sure he was good.

I, for one, much prefer Sky’s snooker coverage to the BBC’s these days. It’s good to hear either Clive or Phil alongside an intelligent ex-player. It makes a change from the wall-to-wall prattle we so often have to put up with from the celebrity-obsessed BBC coverage.



Greg P said...

The people who complained about Clive getting demoted are just boring old people who need to get with the times and stuff. Can't they tell how scintillating Ken Doherty's voice is? I pity these people, clinging onto the past...

The BBC made the right move bringing in "recognisable" names. I remember the atmosphere at Wembley the first time Ken Doherty stepped into the box, it made the premiere of a Twilight movie look like a bingo hall in Eastbourne on a Thursday night!

Anonymous said...

Wildman and Edmonds were both excellent summarisers. Clive is the best still active commentator we have - spot on Dave about knowing when to be silent - at times at the Crucible Virgo and Thorne were virtually bickering and constantly these days we miss what is going on in the play as various former players repeat their standard few phrases. Keep them as summarisers and give us some commentators who can use a diversity of expression. These ex players all have entertaining personalities and voices but if they are going to commentate please give them some training. Steve Davis is rarely in the box but when he or Foulds or Griffiths is in we dont get constantly talked at!- credit to them.

Anonymous said...

The problem is if it did change back to when the BBC did sport properly it would be so jarring that a lot of people wouldn't like it.

The truth is television and the world generally has dumbed down. 'Celebrity' and 'characters' are now the order of the day, not broadcasters who do their job professionally and without fuss.

Anyone who witnessed the tedious, self aggrandizing Eggheads programmes during the World Championship will know it's all about 'banter' and 'having a laugh.'

Not for me or people with brains it isn't. It's about snooker. All that interests me is the action and I would like to watch it with the commentary enhancing what is happening rather than a ceaseless stream of drivel about Strictly Come Dancing and the morning's golf match or obviously wrong information and poor frame wrap-ups from ex-players who lack the sufficient broadcasting talent.

Ted Lowe got a lot of stick and wouldn't last five minutes today but at least he treated the viewers with respect and knew when to shut up. Times have changed and not for the better.

Dave H said...

Marcus - slight correction. Phil started for Sky at the World Masters. He was brought in half way through because it was clear the person doing most of it (a football commentator) wasn't up to it.

Luckily for Phil, his audition consisted of a frame he'd already watched live so he was able to anticipate what was about to happen.

Anonymous said...

Snooker © The Fine Art Method
A secrete is wasted if not shared
Dear Dave
How are you lad! As a TV commentator Dave should you not always have ready words in the defence of “Fellow Experts when ridiculed? I think they all work well considering snooker is still in its infancy in coaching and has limitations on comment because of copyright laws.

Please be aware “Fellow Blogs” that nearly all BBC commentators and coaches have been warned from straying from the standard expression “Don’t forget to follow through” and “Keep your Head still”

It is worth recording Dave that commentators of the future will be able to explain “Exactly” why a shot is missed and become an onboard teacher for millions of viewers.

For instance (One © detail) more shots are missed by “Being Careful” than being careless; but the knowledge is copyright therefore not for commercial use.

For the record snooker players have had thirty or forty years to record some thing new and claim copyright material but why bother the game was awash with Tobacco money. Mr Hey You

jamie brannon said...

How does anyone actually get into snooker broadcasting or journalism?

I once asked Clive Everton this and he said it was very difficult.

Anonymous said...

Its a virtual closed shop Jamie.

jamie brannon said...

It seems other than Dave, to be a regular commentator you need to have been an ex-player, although I can't remember Mike Smith as a player.

Dave H said...

There's no one route into it. It's mainly chance and luck.

Anonymous said...

Please tell me you're not thinking about it Jamie!
All we'll get is - Ronnie is great, Selby and Ebdon are slow, Robertson is a poor world champion when compared to Ronnie etc etc.

jamie brannon said...

It's something I wouldn't mind trying, but like Dave says it is more difficult than people realise.

I have just completed a music journalism and broadcasting degree. However, there was not as much broadcasting as I would have liked. The little that we did was very enjoyable, particularly doing a radio show on football.

I have not done commentary primarily it was a course about music, but I am going to see if their are any qualifications or a chance to gain experience sports broadcasting as that is my bigger passion.

With football, I know you can offer yourself to hospital radio. For sports like snooker, darts and tennis that doesn't seem a viable option.

I would be totally impartial when commentating, I wouldn't start shouting - come on Ronnie! midway through a broadcast. When I say Selby and Ebdon are slow, I mean in comparison to the average. Robertson is not a poor champion, but I don't believe he played his best at the Crucible.

Quite a good read Snooker Scene this month. The Crucible notebook was good. It would be a good to see a reflective analysis on John Parrott retiring either in the magazine or on here. I know it's not that big a deal as Parrott has long since been a threat, but he was a major player for 15-odd years.

SupremeSnooker.com said...

Hi Jamie,

I'm a trained journalist who would like to do some commentary if the opportunity arose. However, I'm not basing my entire career around it because there's a fair chance I'll just never be asked. It really is down to chance and luck, largely.

Look at the evidence:
Clive Everton was in the right place at the right time, and was only given 20 minutes' notice.

Phil Yates was in the right place at the right time. He was a print journalist (I believe Clive helped him get involved in snooker). If that football commentator at the 1991 Mita World Masters was up to the job, Phil may never have been asked.

Mike Watterson, who commentated with Sky during the early years, was essentially a businessman and entrepreneur who had some success as an amateur snooker player. He did a huge amount in creating the professional tour as we know it today, but strictly speaking he was neither a world-class player nor a journalist. He was, however, a good friend of Trevor East, who was a senior executive at Sky for many years, and this helped him get the job.

You get my drift, there is no 'obvious' route into it.

I'd advise you to volunteer your services for your local radio station on a Saturday afternoon. Offer to help out for a period. Just don't offer your services to BBC Wales. As I found out to my cost, they only like you if you're from West Wales and speak Welsh as your first language. Being any good comes a distant second to this requirement. Believe me, I know.

Good luck!