The Brian Viner Interview: Des Lynam - Twinkle-eyed leader of the Cult of Des
`I get a tremendous reaction everywhere I go and it's almost too much for me, to be honest. I don't get off on it'
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Wednesday 23 June 1999
I have walked through central London with other famous people, and been aware of passers-by whispering and pointing, doing double-takes, but never calling out their names. Des is different. We think we know him because he seems to know us. "Shouldn't you be at work?" he said, as England prepared to kick off against Tunisia on a bright afternoon a year ago. Armchairs everywhere instantly seemed that little bit more comfortable.
Lynam dealt graciously with the attention on our stroll through Soho, but wishes it would go away. A year on, we are back in his agent's office over the Cafe Royal. "I get a tremendous reaction everywhere I go," he says, "and it's almost too much for me, to be honest. I don't get off on it." He had better gird his loins for plenty more, though, because for the next 12 days he will again loom large in the nation's front rooms, as the presenter of the BBC's Wimbledon coverage. Uncontroversially, he thinks Sampras will win, "but I'd love to see Henman do it, God knows".
Lynam is also rooting for the unseeded Boris Becker. "I'm a great admirer. I thought he was a man when he was 17 and he's certainly a man now. Do you remember when he won it twice, and the following year was knocked out in the third round? He said: `I lost a tennis match, nobody died.' And I thought, that'll do for me. To come out with a quote like that at 19 years old."
Becker's sense of perspective appealed to Lynam because he has a highly- developed one of his own. He isn't sure when the Cult of Des began, but thinks it may date back to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when he found himself working with a kindred spirit, the Grandstand editor John Philips.
"We had the same approach and, instead of selling the Olympics, we slightly underplayed it. We didn't demean the great events, but we made jokes about the synchronised swimming or whatever. And we were on the air until two in the morning, so by midnight we were getting more relaxed. I had my feet up on the desk. Crazy, really. But I think it was about then that people thought: `This boy's not so bad'."
Not everyone liked the laid-back style. A retired major-general wrote in to reproach Lynam for putting his hands in his pockets "when you're addressing me." Tickled, Lynam mentioned the letter on air. The major- general then wrote back, spluttering that he hadn't really meant it. Meanwhile, Lynam made the insouciant aside his trademark. "I did Cowes Week," he recalls, "and there were about 400 yachts milling round. When it came back to me I said: `Did you spot the leader?' So if I am reasonably well- liked, that's my game. I would rather put sport down when they know and I know it needs to be, rather than pretend it's something it isn't."
Which is not to say that he under-estimates the significance of sport. He's as hooked as anyone, and I am keen to know how this came about. So we go back to the beginning, in fact beyond the beginning, back to the youth of his maternal grandfather Patrick `Pako' Malone, who represented County Clare at both hurling and Gaelic football. Little Desmond was brought up in old Pako's house in Ireland because his father, although Irish, was serving with the British Army in India. "I went shooting with him, he taught me how to fish. He was the father figure, really. We were very close. He was pushing 90 when he died, and I must have been 19 or 20."
By then he was living in Brighton, his father having moved the family there just after the war. And when Des was about 10 a neighbour took him to watch Brighton and Hove Albion. "He had two young daughters, and was the sort of man who probably wished they were sons. They came too and we stood behind the North End goal. Well, they had leather balls in those days, and when you headed them you were concussed for about three days. The players were kicking up before the game when the ball flew past the goal and hit one of these little girls smack in the face, knocking her down... and out. It was a St John's Ambulance job and we all had to leave. We never even saw the game. My punchline is that it was my first experience of a woman's headache getting in the way of a lot of fun."
Despite this inauspicious debut, young Lynam plighted his troth to Brighton and Hove Albion, and still talks passionately about the players of that era, and of promotion from the old Third Division South in 1958. It is a romance that famously continues to this day, indeed, he can't bring himself to drive past the site of the old Goldstone Ground, now the home of Toys R Us. He has been invited to join the board, most recently when Brighton were in almost terminal bother, but has so far declined. "I knew," he says, "that they were trying to make me the front man, so they could make some unpopular decisions and get me to explain them to the fans. I saw that coming. But the club's in better hands now."
This scenario, being wooed by the directors of his beloved Brighton, was a very distant one in the mid-1960s, when Lynam embarked upon a career in insurance. He was, in fact, the man from the Pru, yet not very prudently let sport turn his head. Having written some articles for the Evening Argus, he approached the fledgling local radio station and was offered occasional sports reporting work.
"I got married at 23," he says, "and my wife at the time, with whom I am still on good terms, was terrific. I was a diligent boy, passed all my exams, and we had everything we needed. A nice car, a nice little house. But she supported this idea to throw it all in and be a freelance radio broadcaster. I was paid in guineas. Two guineas here, three guineas there, nothing like what I'd been earning before. I had to get rid of the car and bought a 15-year-old Volkswagen Beetle. And do you know what? I was suddenly extremely happy."
After six months he was spotted - or at any rate heard - by network radio, and invited to Broadcasting House for a voice test. At the same time he was handed 40 questions about sport and, to the astonishment of the chap in charge, got 39 right. He was duly offered a job as sports news assistant and, within another six months, was eased into the presenter's seat on Sports Report. It was 1969. Lynam was 26.
"I was so nervous, I can't tell you. It was big-time. Billy big-time. Eamonn Andrews had done it, Brian Moore, Peter Jones. And sitting alongside me was the doyen of radio producers, Angus McKay, a very strong and frightening individual, who'd discovered Eamonn Andrews." In Lynam, McKay had another Irish-born protege full of blarney. He prospered on radio, and then came the inevitable approach from telly, brokered, although Lynam can't remember why, by the racing presenter Julian Wilson.
Again, he jacked in a secure job for the unknown. And this time he reckoned he'd made a mistake. He disliked television, and believed it disliked him. He appealed to Alan Hart, the head of BBC TV Sport. "I told him I'd gone into radio to enjoy life. I had a nice flat, with an MGB outside the door. I'd paid for it. I even ate out sometimes. What could be better than that? And he said: `No, your future's in television'."
At the end of Lynam's first one-year television contract he was offered another, and the money doubled. In 1978 he presented his first Grandstand. "I was nervous, anxious, I stared at the camera, but gradually I got the hang of it." He was pretty much left to figure out the medium on his own, he says. "I'd had a lot of advice in radio. Cliff Morgan was marvellous. But television hired you as the finished article. That's changed now. Gary Lineker was coached a bit, put through some trial programmes, and now he's terrific. Sue Barker had a year at BSB and three years at Sky, and she's terrific, too. But I didn't really get to grips with it until 1981, when they gave me Sunday Grandstand."
Frank Bough then departed for breakfast television and, when David Coleman left Grandstand in 1984, the face of BBC Sport was suddenly twinkle-eyed and moustachioed. Lynam had already had a shot at commentating, in the 1980 European Championship and the 1982 World Cup. "But Motson and Davies weren't going to be dislodged then, just as they're not going to be dislodged now."
So he concentrated on presenting, and on turning unflappability into an art form. And yet it is at the BBC, of all places, that Lynam is best known for losing his rag. He was furious when the Corporation lost the rights to broadcast the FA Cup final. "I bet you," he says, "that if you sat down now with the people at the top, they would regret that we didn't punt up big for the FA Cup."
Aware of his disgruntlement at the BBC's loss of major sporting events, Sky have tried to poach Lynam, reportedly with offers of more than pounds 1m a year. "I have looked at their offers," he says. "But I have come to believe, even though I've said it flippantly in the past, that working for the BBC is not so much a job as a cause." That cause is betrayed, he believes, when Match of the Day is yanked around the schedules. "The moment it goes past 10.30pm I start fuming. There are always a thousand reasons. The schedulers have other problems, they say. At 10.50 it will suit people coming in from the pub. But I'm not interested in the schedulers' other problems. And I have a son. When young people go out on a Saturday night, by Christ they go out."
Lynam talks highly of the Match of the Day pundits, almost as highly as they talk of him. For Alan Hansen, he is broadcasting's equivalent of the peerless 1978-79 Liverpool team. But who, I wonder, are Lynam's broadcasting heroes? "Peter O'Sullevan," he says, without hesitation. "You try finding your own horse among 30 runners over six furlongs. You don't spot it until the race is over. But he had to name them all, and did so into his 80th year. He was also blessed with the most wonderful voice, the greatest voice in sports broadcasting. I was given a useful tip when I did boxing commentaries on the radio. When you get excited, don't raise the pitch, bring it down. There are one or two still around, famous names, who haven't understood that. But O'Sullevan knew instinctively to lower the voice when something dramatic happened."
Anyone else? "Well, I have to tell you, I always thought Frank Bough was a master presenter." Are they friends? "Friendly, but not friends. We have never been to each others' homes." A shame, I say, because I've heard Frank has good parties. And Lynam laughs. He didn't get where he is today by missing a cue.
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