The monday interview: Dickie Davies
There is an old yarn in radio circles - almost certainly apocryphal - about a local radio DJ conducting a phone-in quiz. The answer to one question is Murray Walker, but the DJ has a slow housewife on the line who can't get it. Despite prompting ("he's a sports commentator ... on the telly ... household name"), the question remains unanswered. In exasperation, he gives away a banker of a clue: "His first name is something you suck on." "Oh, right - why didn't you say so," says the woman. "It's Dickie Davies."

Frank Bough did his best by getting tied up in paid company, Des Lynam tried hard with a close encounter with a trans-sexual, but of Britain's television sports anchormen, it is only Dickie Davies who has had an urban myth created in his memory. And the really funny thing is, it would never have happened if it wasn't for Jimmy Hill.

"I was always Richard Davies," says the man now known solely as Dickie. "Always Richard, and Rich to my wife - or 'eh, you', ha ha. When Jimmy joined World of Sport, he asked me if I didn't think it was a bit pompous to call myself Richard. I never thought about calling myself anything other than Richard, but he suggested Dickie. I wasn't sure, and my wife was against it, but I said, 'OK, if you think so'. It was an instant success - easier to say, friendly, cabbies would shout 'eh, Dickie' when they wouldn't dream of saying 'eh, Richard'. As soon as I changed the name, the whole thing took off - the housewives' favourite, all that stuff." Well, not quite.

For nearly two decades, Dickie Davies was a regular guest in the living- rooms of the nation. His unflappable presence at the helm of ITV's World of Sport was a constant in the rhythm of the week. Never once did he fluff his lines, stumble, or miss news coming through his ear-piece of a last- minute equaliser by Doncaster Rovers. Now in his sixties and recovering from a stroke, he appears to have lost none of his charm or ability to recall information.

Wandering through the lounge of his Hampshire local, he meets and greets regulars with a warmth that is clearly not a fiction: "George, hello. Marjory well? Good. Jerry! Hello, old thing. The dog better? Good.

"Marvellous pub, this," he says, taking his place at an age-battered table, clutching the lime juice and soda that the barman, without needing to be asked, has lined up for him. "The lease is owned by the Haughton Fishing Club, the most aristocratic fishing club in the world."

Is he a member?

"Nah, you have to be a duke to be a member," he laughs. "I'm serious. Well, practically. Anyway, I don't fish. Too much of a tear-arse for something as slow as fishing. And - whisper it round here - I don't think I could do anything that involved killing something. I've been in their club room upstairs. Shouldn't have been, I think I'm the only non-member to go in there."

If only one non-member has been allowed into the rod-wielding toffs' inner sanctum, it was no surprise it was Dickie Davies. He is a man of such easy affability and instant trustworthiness that you'd let him in anywhere. Had he not stumbled into television and found his metier, he would have made a devastating door-to-door insurance salesman.

As became characteristic of his career, though, Dickie didn't push to get into television. It just sort of happened. He was head purser on the Queen Mary ("a kind of glorified redcoat"), organising the entertainments. "I was a useless sailor - never got used to it, always sick," he says, switching as easily between anecdotes as he did between race meetings. "I wanted to do it because I wanted to go to New York. That was where the suits were, the one-button, two-button drapes. I found a one-button drape in what was known as the Suicide Shop on Third Avenue. Bought it for $6. Beautiful suit, didn't want to ask its history, though."

Always a fine dresser, Dickie. That's how we remember him - in his tuxedo presenting the boxing from Vegas, cool in his crisp suit in the World of Sport studio as sweaty men with clipboards ran around behind him. The day he meets the Independent, he's kitted out in blazer and slacksAlan Partridge would kill for.

One day, between calling the bingo and introducing the Queen Mary male voice choir ("God, they were dreadful"), a passenger told the snappily dressed Davies he was so good on a microphone he ought to be on television.

"All I knew about television," he says, "was falling asleep in front of it on leave. I remember once snoozing in front of Eamonn Andrews doing This Is Your Life and my mum said, 'Son, you look so tired - why don't you get a nice job like his?' The sad irony is that she died before Eamonn got me on This Is Your Life."

Despite his ignorance, his potential was spotted the moment he presented himself for the audition the perceptive passenger had arranged. After spells as an announcer, a newscaster, and presenting a local news magazine (edited, bizarrely enough, by film director John Boorman), he found himself taking his mother's advice and understudying for Eamonn Andrews himself.

"Eamonn was brought over from the BBC for a vast salary to front World of Sport, a new rival to Grandstand. It was pounds 40,000 a year - in 1963," he says, rolling his eyes. "A hell of a lot in 1963, remember. Fortune. Anyway, he worked nine months and had three months off in summer. I got the chance to screen-test as his holiday relief.

"When Eamonn looked at the first line-up, it was swimming from the lido in Porthcawl, wrestling from Newport, racing from Catterick and snooker from the National Liberal Club in London. 'What an international extravaganza that is,' he said. We were a joke.

"At the BBC, David Coleman said, 'We'll have them off the air in six months.' We had no contracts, and no resources to bid for them, and we couldn't fight the BBC on anything except news. We had these silly vignettes from America we called International Sports Special One - things like log-rolling and cliff-diving from Acapulco. But the funny thing was, with this apparently laughable line-up, we got the audience."

Maybe it was something to do with the presenter. In 1968, Eamonn Andrews left to spend more time with his paying-in books, and Davies took over full-time and began to call himself Dickie. At almost the same moment, an odd badger streak of white appeared in the middle of his otherwise immaculate quiff. The combination was, apparently, sufficient to send the knees of many of the nation's housewives into a jelly-like state for four hours every Saturday afternoon.

"Isn't it strange, that housewives bit?" he says, in a tone which suggests that, 25 years on from his heyday, he remains as perplexed as ever by his reputation. "I had this white streak, not dyed, absolutely genuine, and it became a kind of trait. For some strange reason, it caught on. It didn't work for Norman Lamont, but it worked for me."

It was perhaps not that permanent an item. World of Sport came to an end in 1984, a sad, wizened thing, starved by under-investment. "I sensed it was going to finish," he recalls, "so I thought, 'Should I get out now, or go down with it?' Sailor's instinct - I went down with it."

He continued doing bits and pieces of sport for ITV - the boxing, the snooker - but the hole on a Saturday afternoon was a big one to fill. "I had definite withdrawal symptoms. I was home on Saturday afternoons ..." he can hardly bring himself to say it, "watching Grandstand. The tragedy is that ITV doesn't know whether it wants to do sport or not. There isn't the commitment that there is at Sky or BBC. The viewer doesn't know what ITV sport is. What is it? Do you know? No, you don't."

Davies eventually severed all links with ITV in 1990 and was working for the radio station Classic FM as sports editor when he faced, perhaps for the first time in his career, a problem that would knock even the smoothest of operators off their stride.

"I was doing six bulletins a day, six days a week," he says. "I was getting up at 4.30am, as well. One day, I was in the studio they'd put in for me at home and I suddenly found it difficult to enunciate. I was slurring, then I couldn't speak. It was absolutely terrifying. I called the doctor, who took my blood pressure - it was 230 over 130. It was a stroke."

Luckily, there was no brain damage. None the less, Davies had to spend hours in therapy, learning to do again the one thing that had always come so easily to him - talking. "There were all these exercises - aah, ooh, eeh," he says, running through them again. "It came back slowly. I still don't feel I'm talking as I used to, but others think it's all right."

Indeed, apart from the odd slur, and the occasional impulse to dab at a speck of saliva at the side of his mouth, Davies looks remarkably like the man we all remember. Except for one thing. The white stripe has spread to occupy the whole of his head. The badger has gone back to its set. "Yup," he says, smoothing his still luxuriant, if now completely bleached, barnet. "How will people recognise me?"

After five months' rest, the "tear-arse" was desperate to put his face about again, and is now back on our screens fronting a shamelessly nostalgic show on satellite called Sky Gold.

"Basically, we take an old match and watch it with a couple of the participants - we got Bobby Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer to look at the 1966 World Cup final and comment on it with me. God, think about it. What a privileged job - to sit and watch the 1966 World Cup final with Charlton and Beckenbauer." He looks at the ceiling as if, even 30 years on, he still can't come to grips with his luck.

"I'm not doing too much, though - I want to spend time with my horses," he adds. "I've taken to carriage-driving. Bloody hard. With riding, you have three points of control - the reins, your body on the saddle and your legs. With driving, there's only the reins. And your voice."

He then goes through a little pantomime, in his grand old aristocratic local, of a man carriage-driving with me as his horses. "Woe-oh," he sing- songs at me. "Gall-op! Trrr-ot! And you know what? They respond. They recognise the authority in your voice."

As he sings, I find myself involuntarily raising the knees in a trotting direction. His horses are right. Recognising the authority in his voice - as a summation of Dickie Davies' career, it couldn't be bettered.

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