Saturday, 3 July 2010

John Inverdale and Alison Booker

Last week John Inverdale made his second visit to BBC Surrey since I started working there. Although he lives in Kingston (just outside our patch, and despite what anyone tells you, including many residents, NOT in Surrey), John is also Chairman of Rugby at Esher RFC. Esher are the most successful rugby club in our patch, and last season were promoted back to the Championship in stunning style, winning every game but one.

I approached John at the Sony Awards in May and asked if he would like to drop by BBC Surrey in the run-up to Wimbledon, to talk about Oxshott Andy's chances of winning the championship and Esher's plans now they were promoted. He asked if we'd like to have him in on the Monday Wimbledon started. I jumped at the chance.

John actually ended up coming in a day later than planned, but it was still great to get half an hour of his time on a day when he would be working long into the evening, presenting live television.

Why am I telling you this? Well, John Inverdale is the reason I work in radio. Many years ago during a summer break from university I was watching Wimbledon at home on TV. The match being shown was a little dull, so I wandered into the kitchen where the (then) BBC Radio Five was on.

Having picked a match, TV is more-or-less bound to stick with it to its conclusion, but radio can abandon a tedious error-fest, ping out to commentators and their co-hosts at the other courts, bring in some interesting studio guests, range off into the furthest reaches of the grounds to get a flavour of the non-tennis side of the tournament, all the while keeping you informed of every single significant score as it happens.

That kind of style has almost come about out of necessity - tennis doesn't lend itself to radio commentary (the time between each stroke is too short to describe it), so unless it's a really big match where listeners are hanging on the outcome of every shot, the presenter has to tell the story of the whole tournament as it is at that exact moment. And John Inverdale did it in a way that seemed almost magical. He kept his eye on the scores and would link fluently to the court commentators, who all seemed to be as articulate, warm and well-informed as he was.

John injected interest into meandering conversations, let them flow when they deserved it and asked exactly the right question of whoever he was talking to at the time. The light bulb went on and I decided there and then that I was going to try and make a career in the media as a radio presenter.

A few years later, in 1997, John won Broadcaster of the Year at the Sony Awards. I was there (a young, wet-behind-the-ears wannabe, working, I think, as a general gopher for the Radio Academy) and was absolutely thrilled that the radio industry rated him as much as I did.

After a long night, I was trying to find my way out of the Grosvenor House Hotel when I bumped into John and his wife, possibly as refreshed as I was, clutching his Sony, and trying to do the same. I blurted out that he was my inspiration and how glad I was for him. He thanked me, shook my hand and gave off one of the happiest grins I'd seen in a long time, before his wife dragged him out to their waiting car.

Nine years later I started presenting at 5live and although John and I had the odd chat on air, I never met him, because he would be on location at whatever sporting event he was covering and I would be in the studio.

When he first dropped in on my show at BBC Surrey, it was during my first week on air so it didn't seem appropriate to say anything, but when he came in last Tuesday I introduced him adding something like "and purely for the purposes of embarrassing him, John is the reason I decided to become a broadcaster, so everything about this show is entirely his fault."

Given he was there to talk about Wimbledon, it felt right to do it. As I expected, a set up like that quickly led to a discussion about how many Wimbeldons he'd covered (25) from when it was on Radio 2, then Radio 5, then 5live and his subsequent shift into television.

A dear ex-colleague of mine, Alison Booker, died of cancer on Thursday. Ali was the best broadcaster at the first BBC radio station I worked at - BBC Oxford. We lost touch, but thanks to Twitter and Facebook, regained it. She lived with her disease for years and wrote a very droll blog about it. Just over two weeks ago she won a major radio award for her cancer diaries. She was too ill to attend the ceremony, but was ambushed on tape with the news at Sobell House hospice. In her impromptu acceptance speech, she thanked her tumours "for making it all possible".

People like Ali and John are the benchmarks for the sort of presenter I want to become. I've got a long way to go, but I'm grateful for the way they've influenced my life, as broadcasters and unwitting mentors.

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