SHOW PEOPLE / Never say dry, John: John Inverdale

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The Independent Culture
JOHN INVERDALE has his feet up on the desk at one end of the long, bustling engine-room that is the centre of BBC Radio's unrivalled sports service. A voice from the other end summons him to a distant microphone. 'I'll be with them in two minutes,' he shouts, oozing the calm self-assurance that is the sine qua non of the smoothest sports presenters. 'Can they play a record and I'll be with them?' If he could choose, it would be a track by Steely Dan; his two-year-old daughter Josie is named after one of their songs.

Yesterday Cheltenham, tomorrow Twickenham, today a brief and unscripted piece for British Forces Broadcasting Service. He picks up a schedule for the next day's Sport on 5, a four-and-a-half- hour programme that is to radio what Grandstand is to television. He dons headphones and chats to a disembodied voice about the weekend's sporting attractions. He doesn't put on airs on air. But he does predict a huge win for England against Wales - conclusive proof that though he may look and sound like someone who never puts a foot wrong, he's not perfect.

If you were to sew a reductive label on to Inverdale's yellow sweatshirt, it would say 'The next Desmond Lynam'. But even the doyen of sports presenters has never done what Inverdale will attempt tomorrow during the launch of Radio 5 Live. 'Nationwide' is the drive-time section of the new news and sports network, replacing the music-and-sport chat show that Inverdale has presented, brilliantly, since the autumn.

He may be smooth but he's also an enthusiast - the acceptable voice of Radio Bloke, as Radio 5 has come to be known. The station has been seducing listeners while serving out its notice, and much of the credit belongs to Inverdale. 'We're playing well at the moment, and yet we've been dismissed.' Or not. In the idealistic new Birtian enterprise, Inverdale is still waving the flag for the old school.

You wouldn't quite tune in to hear him read the telephone directory, but his is still the most chirpy and interesting of the younger voices on radio. He's easy listening, but with none of the naff connotations. As he's easy to look at too, this passionate advocate of radio is bound to end up on television - although not for the moment. 'Nobody has asked yet.'

Inverdale happily admits to a scanty knowledge of fiscal policy, so tomorrow afternoon you are liable to hear a conversation about EC voting quotas the like of which you have never heard before. Except possibly in the pub. 'I think there's a danger sometimes of being far too esoteric and high-faluting. There's often an assumption that the listening public understands too much about news stories. I firmly believe that if we walked out into Oxford Street now, showed a hundred people a map of Europe and asked them where Srebrenica was, it would be like Spot the Ball.'

The son of a naval surgeon, Inverdale was born 36 years ago in Plymouth and passed through most naval outposts at home and abroad. He went to Clifton College in Bristol and then Southampton University before taking a job on the Lincolnshire Echo, where he wrote up 'flower shows, obituaries and parish councils'.

Encouraged by friends and colleagues who thought that someone who couldn't stop talking shouldn't be writing for a living, he applied for a job with the BBC's new local station, Radio Lincolnshire. His first shift was the best possible preparation for all the subsequent moments when he has been left high and dry on air with nothing to say.

'I'd been told that if the teleprinter machine made a couple of blips you might just pass a cursory eye over it; if it made a series of blips, then you probably ought to go and have a look some time in the next five minutes; and if it started making an appalling noise as if it was about to internally combust, then you'd better go and have a look at it forthwith. After everybody else had cleared out, this teleprinter just started going crazy. I thought I'd put the paper in wrong and it was just making a stupid noise, but when it said British forces have gone into Port Stanley, I thought bloody hell, what do I do? I was on that phone saying, 'Quick, bail me out]' '

In 1987 he arrived at Broadcasting House to do sporting bits and pieces on Derek Jameson's morning show. Then Radio 5 started and he landed a job on what he calls 'one of the two best shows on radio'. Sport on 5 (the other one, he says, is Today) offered the perfect forum for his genial, deceptively casual skills. Yet after the FA Cup Final in May he gives up the show to concentrate on presenting the news for people who don't know their EC milk subsidies from their AC Milan substitutes.

You just know he won't put a foot wrong. 'After all these years I'm happy that if 87 consecutive outside broadcasts fail to materialise, I'll flannel on about something. There's always something to say, even if it's absolute banal rubbish, because you've absolutely got to keep talking. That's the job.'

Radio 5 Live goes on air tomorrow. 'John Inverdale Nationwide' is at 4-7pm.

(Photographs omitted)