Sport on TV: Arlott recalls golden days of wine, wisdom and song
Sunday 18 December 2011
John Arlott In Conversation With Mike Brearley (BBC4, Wednesday) was not so much a blast from the past as a gentle burr, like a bumblebee on a summer's day. These are the highlights of a series of fireside chats in 1984 between cricket's greatest commentator and its most cerebral captain. But as Brearley points out in quoting another of the game's great wordsmiths, C L R James: "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" Arlott was one of the few "renaissance" men of post-war Britain. Arlott knew a lot, basically.
Most famous for his ability to paint a picture using only his unforgettable Hampshire accent, the big man who died 20 years ago last week was also a poet, journalist, writer of hymns, wine connoisseur and Liberal party candidate. He was "a man of many parts, generous to a fault", according to Brearley. Yet while he may sound like a dilettante, flitting from one hobby to another without ever doing a day's proper work, he was quite the opposite. Born without privileges, he was a force of nature – as his accent would accentuate.
His huge, rubicund face fills the screen and you can almost feel the intensity of his mind as well as almost taste the bouquet of French wine on his breath. Here is a man who worked in an asylum and was a policeman for a decade before cricket claimed him. He was a close friend of John Betjeman, and the man who brought Basil D'Oliveira to England, thereby playing a major role in the ultimate dismantling of apartheid.
It took him six years to find "Dolly" a club to play for in the English leagues, and this drive may also have been inspired by the deprivations of his own background. His family's poverty is never far from the florid surface. The contrast between him and Brearley could hardly be greater, and not just Arlott's ruddy jowls against his interlocutor's thin, grey features. Arlott walked out of his geography exam halfway through to watch Reading in the FA Cup, while the Cambridge-educated Brearley went on to pursue a career as a psychoanalyst. So this meeting of minds was an ideal preparation for Brearley's future consultations.
For two of the game's fascinating personalities, the talk is often stilted despite the obvious mutual respect. But once the Beaujolais started flowing, the words came tumbling out. "For me it was in through the eyes and out through the mouth," said Arlott. "With a process in between," added Brearley. But perhaps the thought processes weren't as important to Arlott as they were to him. That easy felicity could provide a flowing cover drive in the imagination far better than Brearley could produce on the pitch.
* As Blue Peter (BBC1, Tuesday) is reduced to one show per week, perhaps it has finally decided to tell the nation's youth how lucky they are. Helen Skelton's latest adventure for Sport Relief is to hike, kite-ski and cycle to the South Pole. She visits Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who explains how he lost the tops of all his fingers on one hand within three seconds. Double-sided sticky tape wouldn't fix that. Then we hear of the failure and unimaginable suffering of Captain's Scott's mission 100 years ago. But there was no familiar reminder "don't try this at home" or instructions for parents to leave the room – with the words "I may be some time".
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