Robin Scott-Elliot: Part Del Boy, part John Motson... the great Eddie Waring
View From The Sofa: Mr Rugby League, BBC4
Monday 13 September 2010
A great chunk of the BBC is soon to move to The North, as it's known at the corporation, which possibly explains the series of programmes on BBC4 about The North. On Saturday there was one about a man eating tripe in Bolton – once the move is complete will they start making programmes about eating jellied eels in East Ham?
The programmes are clearly part of the relocation package for employees. No one watches BBC4, so why not use it as an internal information channel – here is where you are going to live, this is what they look like and it rains a lot so don't forget your galoshes, although there are several reputable stockists in the Greater Manchester area. Last week BBC4 hosted a rugby league night, the north's very own sport. This is dangerous territory for this column. The last time it featured here was the World Cup, which, I suggested, was a bit rubbish and only slightly more worldly than baseball's World Series. "You are a prat," was one of the more considered responses from readers in The North.
Eddie Waring spent his career, according to his supporters, trying to push the league gospel – one that was shipping regular worshippers by the 1970s – into more new worlds than the Pilgrim Fathers. Today the sport seems in good health. But whether Waring, who spectacularly divided opinion among league fans, would be satisfied with where it is now is open to debate, and it is one that English cricket should keep a wary eye on.
As a non-northerner with no background affinity to the sport, I watched rugby league most weekends in the days when it was a Grandstand staple, happily entranced by the likes of Henderson Gill, Ellery Hanley and Martin Offiah – to the casual viewer then, black players were a much more common sight in league than union, which league supporters would no doubt see as another reason why their utilitarian sport has always been superior to its stuck-up cousin. But once a sport disappears from terrestrial TV there is a price to pay, no matter the hefty rights fees on offer from Sky.
There is still some league on the BBC, and some cricket on terrestrial TV too, but its paucity threatens a damaging impact on the future of both sports. That is what David Davies's ill-fated report into sport on TV took anxious note of, before it was shouted down by vested interest and a new government anxious not to upset influential supporters.
Waring would have no doubt battered down the door to be heard by Davies's panel because he was a man who adored his sport, and because he was an absolute show pony. His story was also a sad one. He died in a psychiatric hospital with his mind destroyed by Alzheimer's, the disease having first gripped him while he was still commentating. His final appearance on Grandstand, interviewed by a concerned David Coleman – not an emotion often displayed by Coleman – was painful viewing.
Waring came across as part Del Boy, part John Motson. No one can doubt a real and lasting love for league. As an outsider, and there were times in this programme where non-northwesterners can only have felt just that, it was difficult to see why he was such a divisive figure. A flamboyant character who held court in the Queens Hotel in Leeds, he enjoyed being the centre of attention. But he was also a first-rate, entertaining commentator of the time, who conveyed a sense of perspective that has disappeared from so much coverage of sport.
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