Obituary: Brian Johnston

Anthony Hayward
Sunday 18 September 2011 10:04

Brian Alexander Johnston, broadcaster and writer: born Little Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire 24 June 1912; MC 1945; OBE 1983, CBE 1991; books include Let's Go Somewhere 1952, Armchair Cricket 1957, Stumped for a Tale 1965, The Wit of Cricket 1968, All About Cricket 1972, It's Been a Lot of Fun 1974, It's a Funny Game . . . 1978, Rain Stops Play 1979, Chatterboxes 1983, Now Here's a Funny Thing 1984, Guide to Cricket 1986, It's Been a Piece of Cake 1989, Down Your Way 1990, The Tale of Billy Bouncer 1990, Views from the Boundary 1990, Forty-Five Summers 1991, Someone Who Was 1992; married 1948 Pauline Tozer (three sons, two daughters); died London 5 January 1994.

AS WELL as being the voice of cricket on BBC television and radio for almost half a century, Brian Johnston was one of the most versatile general broadcasters of his age, writes Anthony Hayward.

Born in Hertfordshire in 1912, Johnston gained his love of cricket at Temple Grove School, Eastbourne. He failed to make the team at Eton, whose coach was the former Yorkshire and England all- rounder George Hirst, but captained the second XI. Like his father, who died in a drowning accident when Brian was just 10, he went on to New College, Oxford. He gained a degree in History, before going into the family coffee business in the City of London.

However, Johnston found he was not cut out for such work and gained a passion for variety theatre, trooping along to the music-halls to watch Billy Bennett, Max Miller, Flanagan and Allen, and the bandleader Jack Hylton, and watching the famous Aldwych farces starring Ralph Lynn and Tom Walls. While working for the coffee company's agents in Hamburg, he was taken to hear Goebbels's famous 'guns or butter' speech at a large Nazi Party gathering. Following another stint in the City, he left for Brazil to see how the coffee was grown and it was in Santos that he began acting, starring in a production of The Ghost Train, and compering variety shows.

After 18 months in Brazil, Johnston was struck down by acute peripheral neuritis, a paralysis of the arms and legs, which required six weeks' recuperation. Once he could walk again, he returned to Britain and, after six months' convalesence, was appointed assistant manager in the London office of the family firm.

When war broke out, Johnston served in the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, seeing it as a way out of the coffee business. As a technical adjutant with the tank division, he took part in the Normandy landings, the advance into Belgium to liberate Brussels, and the crossing of the Rhine into Germany. At the end of the war, the battalion was turned back into infantry and Johnston was promoted to the rank of major and awarded the MC.

During the hostilities, he had met two BBC reporters, Stewart Macpherson and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, at a dinner party. By chance, after being demobbed, he was to see them again at another dinner party and Macpherson arranged an interview tor him with Seymour de Lotbiniere, the BBC's head of outside broadcasts and an Old Etonian. In January 1946, after some tests, Johnston was taken on.

His first BBC broadcast was a live report on an unexploded bomb that was being blown up at the bottom of the lake in St James's Park in central London. Describing the explosion and its after-effects, the nervous reporter became very excited and signed off by promising listeners to bring them a 'bigger and better bomb next week'.

Working in outside broadcasts brought Johnston work that combined his two loves of theatre and cricket. When BBC television restarted after the war, Ian Orr-Ewing - who had previously played cricket with Johnston - asked him to take the microphone for cricket commentaries, beginning in the summer of 1946. Up to that point, only four Tests had ever been televised, and everyone involved was learning as they went along. Over the next 24 years, Johnston became synonymous with televised cricket, not only commentating, but also becoming the BBC's first cricket correspondent, in 1963. In the days of Television Newsreel, he would dub commentaries on cricket film and such was his stature that he also played a commentator in Terence Rattigan's play The Final Test, commissioned by BBC television for the Festival of Britain celebrations in 1951.

Although BBC television had first call on Johnston for cricket coverage, he was employed by BBC radio and presented many programmes for it. Many of these were broadcasts of hit West End shows such as Me and My Girl, Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel and The King and I. He also visited music-halls to select acts suitable for broadcasting in a series called Round the Halls - they included Arthur Askey, Max Bygraves and Frankie Howerd - and he introduced and produced Work's Wonders, a variety show put on by factory workers.

From 1948, he presented a spot called 'Let's Go Somewhere' in the live, popular Saturday-evening radio show In Town Tonight, doing stunts such as broadcasting alone at night from among the effigies in Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors and crouching in a pit between the rails outside Victoria station as a train roared overhead. This lasted for four years and followed his previous stint in the show as presenter of a feature called 'On the Job', in which he interviewed people at work.

Johnston was involved in dozens of other radio programmes: chairing the quizzes What's It All About?, Sporting Chance (which he also hosted on television) and its successor, Treble Chance; conducting interviews for the quiz Spot the Headline; and presenting the birthday spot 'Many Happy Returns' for Today (also standing in for Jack De Manio when he fell ill), and series such as Meet a Sportsman, Married to Fame (talking to the wives of celebrities and the children's programmes Dog's Chance and All Your Own.

On television, Johnston was part of the commentary teams for the funeral of George VI, the Queen's Coronation, the royal weddings of Princess Margaret, Princess Anne (to Captain Mark Phillips) and the Prince of Wales, and the Miss World contest, as well as reporting for Sportsview and taking part in the children's quiz show Ask Your Dad. He was also in the feature film Derby Day (1952) as a commentator on the racecourse at Epsom.

After retiring as an employee of the BBC in 1972, at the age of 60, Johnston was immediately back working for them as a freelance, continuing commentary on cricket as a member of the Test Match Special team, taking over as host of the popular radio series Down Your Way (1972-87) and more recently chairing Radio 4's cricket quiz Trivia Test Match.

On television, Johnston presented some programmes in the ITV series An Invitation to Remember (1987-89), in which show-business veterans reminisced about their careers. On one programme the actor and director Lionel Jeffries revealed that his apparently upstanding Salvation Army officer father was, in fact, a child and wife-beater. Such revelations were given to a broadcaster who never harried his guests and possessed a gentle manner that made people want to open up to him.

Johnston, who won the Pye Radio Sports Personality of the Year Award, in 1981, and the Sony Radio Personality of the Year Award, in 1983, was the author of 17 books, including Forty-Five Summers (1991), his reminiscences of 264 Test matches as seen from the commentary box.

(Photograph omitted)

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