James Alexander Gordon was the radio presenter who with such distinctive timbre and intonation brought the classified football results to listeners on BBC Radio 2 and Radio 5 Live who for 40 years.
For two generations of fans he and David Coleman (Independent obituary, 22 December 2013) were the most recognisable voices of football on the BBC.
“The voice of the football results” was born in Edinburgh in 1936. He contracted polio at six months old, which meant much of his early life was spent undergoing treatment for the condition, and he remained in leg supports until his teenage years.
“I spent a long, long time in hospital, and I would listen to the radio, the old Home Service, for hours,” he recalled, “but I never, ever thought in those days that I would actually get involved with radio myself.”
His early career saw him work in the music business, firstly as a pianist on cruise liners and later, in the Sixties, promoting acts that included James Last and Bert Kaempfert. “You heard all this stuff about drugs and wild parties, but I never saw a thing,” he recalled. “I wasn’t into all that media celebrity stuff, but I suppose I was a bit naive at times, looking back. Jimi Hendrix came into the office one day and said to me, ‘Have you got any shit, man?’ I was completely baffled, and only later found out what he meant. I was a Condor man, myself.”
He joined the BBC in 1972 as an announcer and newsreader, presenting on programmes including Newsbeat on Radio 1. Reading the football results was a task previously given to staff announcers on a temporary basis. Until 1973 it had been frequently the voice of John Webster bringing the news of the day’s games to eager fans.
The weekly five minutes for which he became best known came about by chance. “I landed the job reading the classified football results because I was a staff announcer,” he said. “I had just read the news at 4 o’clock and the presentation editor came in and said, ‘James, nip over to the sports room and read the classified football results.’ Was I nervous? Not really nervous. I was excited at the prospect of doing this.”
His earlier work influenced his delivery. “I trained as a musician and I think music had a lot to do with the way I read them,” he said. “I looked at these names and thought, unkindly, five minutes of that could be very boring for the listener. I thought it would be nice to make it a little different, with a bit of excitement...” Elsewhere he commented, “I play the clarinet and the piano, and I thought, ‘How can I make this like a song?’ I just gave it a bit of a lilt.”
Explaining the reasoning for the up-and-down intonation which became his trademark, he said, “If Arsenal have lost, well, I’m sorry for them. If Manchester United have won, I’m happy for them. So, it would go something like this: Arsenal 1, Manchester United [in a higher tone] 2, and so on.”
Management was initially unsure about his innovative presenting style but fan letters made it clear that Gordon should stay. He was especially popular with football pools players, who appreciated the additional confirmation of the result that his intonation provided. He remained in the role for the next 40 years.
Gordon’s most famous fan was Eric Morecambe, who always greeted him with an invented tongue-twister score. “Eric never called me James,” he recalled fondly. “Whenever I saw him over a 20-year period he would say ‘East Fife 4 Forfar 5’. I’ve got a tape of that.” After Morecambe’s funeral Gordon received a tribute from the comedian’s wife, Joan, saying that she would have liked to have heard him read that imaginary result. “It was quite sweet,” he remembered.
JAG, as he was known to friends and colleagues, took redundancy from the BBC in the early 1990s and worked as a freelancer, doing voice-overs for advertisements and corporate videos as well as continuing his BBC role. Last year he voiced the scores for the play Jumpers For Goalposts, written by Tom Wells. Wells spoke of the group’s discussions on who should read the results. Their unanimous wish, he said, was “...to get James Alexander Gordon to do it. And then he did!”
Gordon retired from radio in July last year following surgery to remove his larynx, after he was diagnosed with cancer. “It’s with great sorrow that I have to give up the most exciting part of my career, the classified football results,” he said at the time. “They have been my life.” He said he was proud to have “served the very best of BBC Radio Sport, albeit in a small way with the classifieds, and I know that the great team will continue to present the best in radio sport coverage.”
His replacement was Charlotte Green, who described being chosen to read the classified football scores as “a huge honour” and made history as the first woman to take the role.
“James ... turned the classified football results on BBC radio into a national institution,” said Richard Burgess, Head of BBC Radio Sport, paying tribute. “He was also a true gentleman, who was loved and admired by his colleagues. He took enormous pride in his work and I know he was greatly touched by all the tributes he received upon his retirement last year.”
James Alexander Gordon: pianist, music promoter and broadcaster: born Edinburgh 10 February 1936; twice married (first marriage dissolved; one son); died Reading 18 August 2014.
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