Not much divides opinion dans le 51allout Chateau. The few arguments that arise generally concern the apostrophisation of plural acronyms (no), whether The Bends was better than OK Computer (no) and if it’s acceptable to use lemon-flavoured tonic water (only if all the lemons in the fridge have gone mouldy). However there is one topic that splits us right down the line and that is the blithering buffoon / charming cad that is Henry Blofeld. Quite why the manufacturers of marmite haven’t used him to voice an advertising campaign, we’re not sure. But what of the man underneath the cravat?
The BBC have an interesting online archive of Desert Island Discs. There have been 25 cricketers (using the term loosely) on the show, though sadly Luke Wright has yet to make an appearance. Tony Greig selected ‘There’ll Always Be An England’ and ‘Scotland the Brave’, presumably because Spitting Image had yet to release ‘I’ve Never Met a Nice South African’. David Gower’s book was perhaps predictably a compendium of wine, but his luxury item was Rumpole of the Bailey on video. Henry Blofeld’s selection creates no surprise however. The Eton Boating Song. Gilbert & Sullivan. Noel Coward. Bud Flanegan (with the Dad’s Army theme tune). His favourite selection was the ‘leg-over’ commentary. His book was by PG Wodehouse. Nothing quite says ‘old-Etonian’ and upper-middle class more than that.
Henry Calthorpe Blofeld was born in Norfolk in September 1939 (possibly the only event of note which occurred that month). A Miss Paterson taught him to play cricket at the independent Sunningdale School by bowling to him underarm; in his Desert Island Discs interview he speaks fondly of Nanny bowling to him on their croquet lawn. He featured for Eton against Harrow in 1955 and 1956. The same year whilst representing the Public Schools in a match against the Combined Services at Lord’s he scored 104. However, whilst still at Eton at the age of 17, he cycled into a bus from Datchet carrying Ladies from the French Institute and cracked his skull almost entirely around his head, leading to many operations and plastic surgery before finally making a recovery.
The injury may have scuppered any aspiration for a career in cricket, but Blofeld still made his way up to Cambridge and represented Norfolk in Minor Counties matches. Whilst at university, he played several first-class matches and gained his Blue in 1959. Along the way, the young wicket-keeper Blofeld caught Colin Cowdrey (who was playing for Kent), played the touring New Zealanders and scored a first-class century against an MCC team that included Denis Compton. Another notable opponent was Keith Miller, who was playing for Nottinghamshire at the time.
After a brief interlude working in the City, Blofeld started covering cricket as a freelancer for the Times in 1962 and continued to write for several different newspapers for years. He covered the 1963/64 tour of India for the Guardian, and incredibly, and not without a whiff of apocrypha, almost played for England when Mickey Stewart was ill and several players were injured – and Blofeld was considered to be the best available of those in attendance at the game. Unfortunately for Blofeld, Stewart recovered and was selected. Nonetheless, by tea on the first day, Stewart was back in hospital! Blofeld obviously never ever mentions this story…and neither does he ever mention that his father was a schoolmate of Ian Fleming and hence the family name may have been the inspiration for James Bond’s famous nemesis.
His minor county career continued for a few more years but by the late 60s he was an established journalist. In 1972 he debuted for Test Match Special and he hasn’t been far from the airwaves since (although he did spend some time commentating for Sky in their early days). In some ways, he is a stereotypical radio commentator: public school education, chummy nickname, posh accent and often sidetracked by cake and buses. However TMS has always been more varied in terms of their broadcasters than this stereotype suggests. The man they call ‘Blowers’ has vast knowledge of the game – particularly its history. Indeed he is more likely to recall a county bowler from the 1960s Derbyshire team than he is to accurately discuss the merits of, say, Pat Cummins. For many years, Blowers was integral to TMS and also to cricket in the wider public context (hence his appearance on Desert Island Discs). He became known for his excitement at seeing buses passing by the ground – usually on the Harleyford Road in Kennington – and enthusiastic counting of pigeons. This might seem quaint, or pointless, but it is a means of painting the picture for the listener.
These days however, Blowers is used less regularly – although he does still commentate on the majority of England’s home Test matches. Along the way he overcame a heart bypass operation and MRSA, drank lots of wine and toured theatres with his anecdotes. Sadly however, age seems to be catching up with him; indeed those that fall within the anti-Blofeld camp will no doubt say age caught up with him a long time ago. His commentary is littered with mistaken identities and he frequently misreads the score (and that’s when he actually remembers to attempt to give it). For all that he comes across like a charming Great Uncle, he also sounds more often than not like a caricature of his former self.
Cricket on the radio, despite modern methods of listening and interacting, remains an old-fashioned pleasure. But broadcasting – and sports commentary especially – can suffer from nostalgia and sentimentality; hence once-great icons lingering on for too long as Old Father Time catches up with them (we’re looking at you, John Motson). At his best, time spent listening to Blowers was a treat – and we suspect time in his company whilst watching a Test match at Lord’s would be a most splendid occasion – but now sadly, it can be a chore. It is time to let him enjoy a few glasses of a fruity Burgundy at his leisure, before he becomes a total embarrassment.
Though as soon as we hear Simon Mann and Michael Vaughan on duty together, we’ll be sad and no doubt miss the dear old thing.