Keith Macklin: Broadcaster and journalist known for his rugby league commentaries
Friday 07 August 2009
For over half a century, Keith Macklin's voice was one of the most instantly recognisable and most avidly listened-to in broadcasting in the north of England. Although he was primarily associated with his favourite game of rugby league, that was not where his wide-ranging talents began or ended.
Blessed with one of those invaluable radio voices that made him always sound warm, relaxed and authoritative, even if he had only been introduced to the subject matter half an hour before picking up the microphone, Keith could turn his hand to most things.
Over the course of his career, he not only covered Leeds United's glory years for Yorkshire TV, Blackburn Rovers' rise for Red Rose Radio, cricket, crown green bowls and an Olympics, but also the tragedies at Abbeystead and Lockerbie. Such was the versatility of one of the great broadcasters of his generation that he sounded equally at home across that spectrum.
It is, however, for his long association with rugby league that he will be best remembered. It was a game into which he was pretty much born. In his autobiography, A Two Horse Town: 50 Years in Broadcasting, he recalls his father taking him from their home in Rainhill to Knowsley Road, home of St Helens, for the first time in 1938.
His first job was as a copy typist for the now defunct Liverpool Express, who he eventually persuaded to let him cover his first rugby league match – Liverpool City vs Bramley at Knotty Ash.
After national service, he worked for the Warrington Guardian and the North-West Evening Mail in Barrow, with whose local team Macklin went to Wembley in a working capacity for the first time in 1955. It was the first in more than half a century of cup finals which he covered.
It was not long before his natural medium opened up for him. He was invited to audition as a commentator for BBC North and, to his own amazement, was offered the job of covering rugby league matches, working alongside the legendary Harry Sunderland. In a minor setback that seemed major at the time, his scheduled debut match between Workington Town and Featherstone Rovers was called off because of six inches of snow on the pitch.
Not only did he soon become established in his speciality, but his all-round excellence as a calm and capable presence in the studio was recognised by his deployment as a general news front-man on television's Look North, where he replaced a young and uncomfortable Colin Welland.
When he switched to Yorkshire Television, he not only followed all Leeds United's triumphs and staffed the 1972 Olympics and the 1974 World Cup, but he was also central to the quirky appeal of Indoor League, which elevated darts and dominoes to the status of spectator sports for the first time. At his next port of call, Border Television, he broke new ground by fronting the first programme devoted to the two, still warring, codes of rugby.
An even more unexpected departure was a stint as PR chief for Warrington New Town, a commitment that still left him free to make his first trip to Australia for a rugby league tour, which he covered for the BBC, in 1972. His prominence in the game was also underlined by his role as main interviewer in the Rugby League's series of roadshows, which toured the north of England during the 1970s.
He also became the first specialist on the game for a publication which had never previously felt the need for one. As the correspondent for The Times, Macklin had his own way of working. After several tours to Australia, it was pointed out to him that, due to the time difference, his previews of Test matches had been appearing after the games had been played.
He handled this revelation with his customary unflappability. "My readers," he said airily, "do not worry unduly about details like that."
Despite that scrupulously laid-back approach, he deserves to be remembered as a major writer on the game, and especially for two groundbreaking books, The Story of Rugby League and The Rugby League Game. Another important marker in his career was his long involvement with Red Rose Radio, a commercial station serving Lancashire, to which he was founding father, sports guru and guiding influence.
Until a year or two ago, he was still covering rugby league with his old élan for Radio Manchester, but, ironically for someone who had so much in his distinguished career of which he was entitled to feel proud, he became depressed after the re-telling of his life story.
His life away from the microphone was not always easy; the illness and premature death of his daughter, Tracy, had a profound effect upon him. It did not prevent him, however, from being a sonorous Methodist lay preacher, as well as a memorable broadcaster on all manner of more earthly pursuits.
Keith Macklin, broadcaster and journalist: born Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire 19 January 1931; married Sheila (two daughters, one deceased); died Blackburn, Lancashire 31 July 2009.
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