Revel in radio's `empire of the senses'

50 Years of Sports Report

edited by Audrey Adams (CollinsWillow, hardback, pounds 9.99)

"Radio," in the elegant phrase of the BBC's Football Correspondent, Mike Ingham, "was an empire of the senses." One could quibble with the past tense, but the imagery is exquisite. Before television became omnipresent, the wireless brought vivid and colourful sporting pictures into our living rooms. The sound medium continues to fire the imagination in a way beyond its vulgar sibling. And no one does it better than Sports Report.

For half a century, the programme has been as much a part of the Saturday ritual as the match itself. Presenters, from Raymond Glendenning through Eamonn Andrews to Des Lynam, have come and gone, but some things remain constant: a signature tune that is at once promising and portentous, James Alexander Gordon's wonderfully measured reading of the results and the relentless rhythm and excellence of the reports.

This book covers the whole range of sports it features, but therein lies a problem. Sports Report has always been football-driven - many of us only heard it fortnightly in the days before transistors because we were heading away from our team's ground on alternate Saturdays - yet only a handful of the 36 essays reflect the game's centrality. Those by Trevor Bailey, Fred Trueman, Jonathan Agnew and Christine Janes are only tenuously related to broadcasting, let alone the programme.

That said, there is some richly evocative and entertaining writing. Ingham and Pat Murphy communicate with particular skill the pressures and pleasures of contributing to Sports Report, the latter giving a revealing and amusing insight into the perils of interviewing a whisky-fuelled Brian Clough live.

Alan Green offers a typically idiosyncratic insight into the unglamorous aspects of reporting, recalling a commentary in Moscow from a single-decker bus, while the Barbara Cartland of Maine Road, Stuart Hall, provides a brilliantly kitsch self-parody based on a visit to Barnsley.

The most engaging pieces are those which draw on the author's experience. Alan Parry recalls his debut on the programme and the moment Lynam went over to Oxford for his 60 seconds' worth: "I was frozen with fear. For me this was like playing up front for Liverpool and if I got it wrong I might never be picked again."

Manchester United, whose birth as a great sporting institution also began in 1948 with their first trophy under Matt Busby, are the subject of a fascinating article by Jimmy Armfield which avoids the cricket writers' nostalgia trap. In it he reveals how he nearly joined the Babes months before the Munich disaster.

It is impossible to read Cliff Morgan, Michael Parkinson, Bryon Butler and Don Mosey - the transcript of his affectionate eulogy to Brian Johnston - without hearing their distinctive voices (in fact, the book is also available on tape). That is especially true of the shortest piece here, the report the late Peter Jones delivered, live and unscripted, on the Hillsborough tragedy. Sports Report is justly famous for its mind pictures. On that day they held a most terrible beauty.

Phil Shaw