A familiar voice still gently swears by the maxim 'Less is more'

Time, gentleman, please, as 36 years of calm in the commentary box are brought to a close
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The Independent Online

It is not only in the Wimbledon events like the traditionally titled "gentlemen's singles" that the tournament produces gentlemen, as well as gentle men. This year will mark the retirement from the BBC commentary box of John Barrett, whose calm, knowledgeable tones, honed alongside the incomparable Dan Maskell, have been drifting into the living rooms of the land for 36 years.

Now Barrett, a former Davis Cup player and captain, is handing over to the younger, and possibly brasher, generation of TV talkers. In his 50th year as a member of the All England Club, he says he would like to enjoy the tournament "in a social way", pointing out: "I get so many friends coming from overseas every year, and I never get to see them. I think I have done my share, and we have some very good young broadcasters - Chris Bailey, John Lloyd - so there are no gaps."

There is also John McEnroe, whose style is the antithesis of the Barrett method. "He is a wonderful breath of fresh air," says Barrett. "His insight is excellent and he is very up-to- date with all that's going on in the tennis world. He is up to the minute and describes it very well. He talks a little bit too much, but not so much nowadays."

The last sentence is delivered so gently that it could not possibly be classed as reproving, though excess gabbiness was anathema to Maskell.

"Dan was a marvellous example of less is more, and I soon realised that was what the viewers preferred too. The letters, and we get plenty of them, all say don't talk so much, even though we talk relatively little.

"We used to have a golden rule - never get between the viewer and the action. And I'm sure that's right in any sporting context. There is nothing more irritating to the viewers than to have their flow of concentration interrupted by irrelevant words. I try to be a minimalist.

"Another mistake a lot of broadcasters make is forgetting that we can all see the pictures. It's no good saying, 'That was a great backhand'; we can all see that. But why was it a great backhand? Explain the reason, add something to the coverage, that's the secret. Not too much explanation, though."

Also anathema to Barrett is the excessive use of statistics. "Nowadays we get a plethora of them thrown at us. If used judiciously they can augment the coverage, but the danger is that because it's there you use it too much, confusing the viewer with too much information. We are less guilty of that at the Beeb than anybody else I have worked with."

Those stations he has also worked with amount to most of the tennis-playing nations, and Barrett prides himself on being the only broadcaster who has worked for all three commercial stations in Australia. He intends to carry on, too. "I am not giving up broadcasting," he explained, "I am just giving up Wimbledon, because I want to enjoy it in a different way."

Barrett got into commentating while playing at the Bourne-mouth tournament, once a highlight of the British tennis calendar. "The BBC asked if I would like to do a bit of trial commentary. They seemed to think it was all right, so the following May I had a call from Slim Wilkinson, then the producer for the Beeb's coverage for Wimbledon, asking if I would like to join the commentary [team] for the 1971 Championships. I've been doing it ever since."

He does not think it is necessary for a good commentator to have been a top player, "but it helps if you have experienced the pain and anguish of matches in big situations, to understand all that a player goes through on court. You know that feeling when the elbow freezes and you can't get the ball over the net."

His favourite Wimbledon is no surprise. "It's the one everybody talks about, the 1980 final between Bjorn Borg and McEnroe. The unbelievable quality of the shot-making in that fourth-set tie-break is what everyone talks about, and will for ever, because it was quite remarkable. Also the 1977 semi-final between Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis was memorable for the number of winners hit. Most tennis matches are lost rather than won, so the ones with more winners than losers stand out like a beacon."

His most embarrassing mom-ent came when Martina Navrat-ilova was bidding to exceed Elizabeth Ryan's total of 19 Wimbledon titles (all in doubles) and match Billie Jean King's 20. "Elizabeth had said that if Martina got to the women's doubles final she would come along to watch, although she was ill. I was broadcasting with Dan and saw two elderly ladies appear in the members' stand at the opposite end to the broadcasting box.

"I told the producer I had just spotted Elizabeth Ryan and was ordered to prepare something to say at the next change of ends. So I did this heart-rending tale about this great American with 19 doubles titles to her name leaving her sick bed to see if her record would be taken.

"Next thing I knew, the producer was on again. 'You've blown it this time, old boy,' he said. 'Elizabeth Ryan has just been on the phone from her home on Wimbledon Common, where she is watching the match on TV.' So I had to apologise and grovel at the next change of ends to the brave Elizabeth listening to the coverage."