David Vine: Commentator who helped make snooker a staple of televised sport
Tuesday 13 January 2009
The broadcasting executive Brian Wenham was credited with the invention of snooker as a staple of televised sport. He had become controller of BBC2 in 1978, a few years after the introduction of colour to our screens, and he reasoned that snooker, a game that relied entirely on colour, could best exploit the potential of the new technology. But it needed a central personality to convey the finer points and the excitement of what, on the face of it, was one of the more static indoor sports.
David Vine filled that role to perfection. One of what was then a new stamp of TV sports presenter, he combined an easy, blokeish charm with infectious enthusiasm and expertise both in the technicalities of the game and the psychology of the players – an all-important factor in a sport rife with moments of extreme tension.
Born in 1935, Vine had been with BBC Sport since 1966. He joined after six years with Westward Television, the west country ITV station. Until 1960 he had been a print journalist: leaving Barnstaple Grammar School at 18, he joined the North Devon Journal-Herald and then the Western Morning News, the Plymouth-based daily.
At the BBC, one of his first roles was as chairman of Quiz Ball, an early example of the jokey sports quiz (in this case confined to football), spawning a family of programmes that would become firm fixtures in the British TV schedules. Its longest-running successor was A Question of Sport, and Vine was its first quizmaster, occupying the chair from 1970 to 1979, when he was succeeded by David Coleman.
By then he had expanded his repertoire beyond the strictly sporting. He performed stints presenting Miss World and the Eurovision Song Contest and, more notably, It's a Knockout, a game show in which teams of amateurs representing their home towns were required to perform outlandish feats. For the show to work the presenters had to enter into the zany spirit of it: Vine and his fellow host Eddie Waring successfully rose to the challenge.
But these were essentially contrived stunts and his principal enthusiasm was for pure sport. With Ron Pickering he presented Superstars, a kind of televised decathlon in which professional sportsmen competed in a variety of disciplines. He had one dreadful moment when Kevin Keegan crashed during a bike race and cut his back badly – but luckily the footballer was not seriously injured.
When in 1977 the BBC, impressed with the success of their coverage of the previous year's Winter Olympics, introduced the weekly programme Ski Sunday, Vine was its first presenter, and he remained in the role for 20 years. Like snooker, skiing makes for repetitive TV: it requires talent and application to keep viewers interested. He also took part in the coverage of the Horse of the Year show and Wimbledon – he once memorably asked John McEnroe, "What right do you have to call anyone an incompetent fool?"
Snooker, though, was his first love. He had been introduced to the game as a youth, when he played in a hall above a tailor's shop in Barnstaple. When he retired in 2000, after covering the weightlifting contests at the Sydney Olympics, he said that the most exciting event he had witnessed was Cliff Thorburn scoring a maximum 147 points in the 1983 world championship at the Crucible in Sheffield. This was followed closely by the nail-biting final two years later when Dennis Taylor came from behind to beat Steve Davis with the last black, watched by 18.6 million viewers past midnight.
His popularity was underlined by the tenor of the many newspaper tributes that marked his retirement. "We will miss you, superstar," said The Sun, while Peter Ferguson wrote in the Daily Mail: "The Crucible will never be quite the same again. . . Vine's deep tones, honed by years of dedication to filter tips, have introduced a galaxy of the game's stars into British households for a quarter of a century, with a late-night élan that links him forever to the green baize."
The Daily Mirror's Charlie Catchpole saw him as a symbolic figure: "What is interesting about Vine – and significant about his calling it a day – is that he has always stood for an amiable, easy-going sense of decency and decorum which is in danger of disappearing from sports commentating as the pressure for ratings brings ever fiercer competition and the shrill voices of controversy and confrontation grow ever louder."
He married in 1973 and had two sons and two daughters. In 2001, not long after his retirement, he had a triple heart bypass operation. He received a Lifelong Services Award from the World Snooker Association and had also developed a curmudgeonly persona, in which he appeared to revel. He was a guest on the late-night sports show Under the Moon in 1998 when the presenter, Danny Kelly, remarked that his beloved snooker had never been the same since the players stopped snorting cocaine. Vine walked out of the studio, snapping: "I don't have to listen to this shit."
He deplored what he saw as a trend for the BBC to sideline professional presenters and journalists in favour of so-called celebrities. A year ago he publicly criticised an edition of Ski Sunday because its coverage of competitive skiing was curtailed to make room for a feature in which the chef Heston Blumenthal was being taught how to ski.
And in his last public statement, published last Saturday, he criticised the BBC for dropping the veteran Clive Everton from its snooker coverage. "As we have seen in many other sports covered by the BBC," he commented, "the trend is for celebrities, former players and star names to be invited to the job of professional journalists and trained broadcasters." We are, in other words, witnessing the terminal decline of a profession of which he was a consummate practitioner.
David Vine, broadcaster: born Newton Abbot, Devon 3 January 1935; married (two sons, two daughters); died Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire 11 January 2009.
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