Profile: Man for a big occasion: Desmond Lynman - The ubiquitous TV presenter has to juggle his sporting life. Giles Smith asks how he does it

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The Independent Online
PEOPLE shout his name out in the street and have done for a while now. 'Oi, Desmond]' they shout. 'Desmond Lynam]' And since earlier this year, when he presented the series How Do They Do That?, they've had a catchphrase to shout, too. 'Desmond]' complete strangers will say. 'How do they do that?' Or, as a London taxi-driver recently greeted him: ' 'Ere, Desmond] How do they wossname?' '

You must get this kind of thing a lot, if you're on the television. And Lynam is on the television a lot. As the BBC's implausibly cool sports host, he has become the man for the big occasion. This week he becomes the man for two big occasions, fronting the BBC's daytime Wimbledon coverage and then, at those points when the World Cup glows particularly hot, driving north to Television Centre to lead the programmes from the studio there. In this, you might think he risked over-exposure, but the question doesn't really arise in Lynam's case. It's a rare thing with television presenters, but we can't get enough of him - the calm, the wit, the sign-offs, those frequent moments, watching him, when one sits back and says: that Desmond Lynam - how does he wossname?

On Friday, less than six hours before he is due to go live on air with the first World Cup programme of the series, Lynam comes to a phone at the BBC. You imagine, in the circumstances, a background of flying scripts and panicked technicians, of flap and gibber. But Lynam talks casually in the manner of someone speaking from a deep sofa. Nope, he hasn't even seen the studio set at this point. 'Been on holiday for a couple of weeks, actually. Then to Orlando to see Jack Charlton.' His colleague Bob Wilson says: 'There's nothing hurried about Desmond. I have never known him to be hurried.'

'The tag people tend to use for him is 'laid back',' says Brian Barwick, who is the editor of the BBC's football coverage. 'I'm not sure that's quite fair on him. He knows his stuff. When Ben Johnson was disqualified in Seoul, Desmond broke the news off some wire copy and was absolutely aware of its significance.'

Lynam is in his early fifties. Before he was on the television, he was on the radio, working for Sports Report and Sport on Two through the Seventies. And before that, he sold insurance in Brighton, at which time he probably didn't imagine he would end up being recognised in the street and paid in the region of pounds 250,000 per year. He was, though, confident enough even then to give up a salary and a company car and go freelance on the local radio station.

He did sports reports, but he also turned in skits and impressions (Heath, Wilson) for a satirical show, How Lunchtime it Is. In 1977, after his time on Radio 2, he went on the Friday sports slot on Nationwide, moved up to Grandstand in 1979, then Match of the Day and Sportsnight. And from there it was but a short step to the ultimate broadcasters' accolade: a Top 20 Tie Wearers in Britain nomination from the British Guild of Tiemakers, 1992. ('No, I don't know who chooses them,' Barwick says. 'But it's not me.')

Those sports jobs are probably about as challenging as live television gets. What we see is Lynam, sublimely untroubled. What we don't see is the furious energy all around him, the producer rapping in his ear. 'Desmond is the duck on the surface,' Barwick says, 'we're the legs flapping like mad underneath.' Mistakes, you would imagine, would come easily, yet Lynam's entries into Colemanballs are few and rather boring - pieces of nitpicking, frankly. Nothing, as Bob Wilson gamely pointed out, to match his own marvellous scramble: 'He's pissed a fatness test.'

Wilson, who declares Lynam 'an original thinker, one of the superstars', also credits him with rescuing the former Arsenal goalkeeper's self-confidence by telling him, when he was at a low ebb, that he had something Lynam could never have: he could talk with the authority of the sportsman, as someone who had been there.

But Lynam, for his part, is relaxed and humorous in a way in which sports presenters frequently aren't, which has brought him a broad audience, including women, some of them, certainly, on the 'Dishy Des' ticket, but others who uncomplicatedly enjoy his perspective. Part of the charm is those little unforced gestures of complicity with the viewer at home, the sentences which start: 'Tell you what . . .' or 'Don't know about you . . .' It's Lynam's habit to strip out the prepositions, the connectives, get straight to the point. At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, there was an occasion when he had to close a show mid-evening while alerting us to further coverage later that night. It was easy to imagine how most presenters would have handled this: 'Join us again here in just under an hour and a half,' perhaps or, 'We'll return with more when coverage resumes after the news.' Lynam said, 'Back in 80,' and left it at that.

There was one time things didn't run so smoothly - the occasion when Lynam went blank during the last World Cup in Italy. Lynam himself later christened the incident, 'See Naples and dry.' He had a link to do, nothing too tricky, down by the side of the pitch and he'd already been tossed one unexpected task during this broadcast and had got through that fine, but this time the camera came on and Lynam stood there and began to open his mouth and for the first significant time in his career, nothing happened.

In the common run of things, there would be nothing remarkable about this. Indeed, watching Sky Sports for any length of time will virtually inure you to the big dry-up, the major blank-out, these being events which happen there pretty well every hour, on the hour. But this was Desmond Lynam doing what Desmond Lynam never does. 'Everyone was so shocked because it was Desmond,' says Wilson, who was the man at the other end that day in the London studio, waiting to be cued in. 'Desmond was mortified afterwards.'

Somehow now, in a disaster, you would back Lynam to make something of it, rather than plaster over it. According to Barwick: 'He has mastered the approach where, if you are in trouble, let the public in on it. True, he's broadcasting in an era when things don't break down so much. But things like the Grand National still do.'

On Sportsnight, the load is possibly lighter, the only thing likely to break down being relations between the football panellists, the England coach Terry Venables and the arch moralist Jimmy Hill. Many wonder about the true extent of their animosity.

'I get asked about this a lot,' Lynam says. 'Footballers especially. It's the first thing they want to know: what are Hill and Venables really like? At first, I thought it was for the cameras. I don't think so now. It's not a ham act. They're diametrically opposed in their football views. Venables is stubborn, in the nicest possible way. Hill is powerful, wants to budge other people's opinions. They're friendly, though. We'll all have a drink afterwards.'

Lynam himself has been known to tease the hapless Hill. During a recent broadcast from Wembley, there was a pitch parade honouring the 1966 World Cup winning side and as the cameras picked up Stiles, Charlton and the rest, Lynam asked Hill where he was on that great day. Hill described his seat and said: 'I was employed even then by the BBC - though in a very minor capacity, of course.' At which point, Lynam slid in: 'You're still in a minor capacity, Jimmy.'

'Jimmy does to some extent play the role of villain of the piece. And I do mock him, but I do it pretty gently because I think he's a an honourable man. I know about his private life and he's a courageous person, with football utterly in his heart.'

Lynam claims that he does get hate mail. 'Just the odd one. Often unsigned. On lined paper. Then there are the eight-page letters in great detail about issues, about what should be done with football, or whatever. They take a bit of reading.'

And women? 'Get a few letters from the ladies. Never know who they are and what they are, but one or two I correspond with regularly and have done for years because they send me these intelligent, well-written letters about what they've seen, what's going on.'

He has carefully guarded his off-screen life from the press, but we know he lives in Chiswick with his wife Rose and without a satellite dish: 'not because I'm against it. Though I do think people should be able to see the main events and it concerns me that they may be deprived of them.

'The reason I don't have cable is because I could sit all day and gape at television, and I think it's better, on the whole, that I don't' This is sound thinking, though many of us will be ignoring it over the next month and blaming Desmond Lynam afterwards.

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