“It was an extraordinary send-off. Surreal. Do you know, in a funny way, I was almost embarrassed.”
Henry Blofeld: cricket commentator, bon viveur and natural-born performer shakes his head in happy disbelief at the farewell ovation he got from an adoring Lord’s last summer on the occasion of his last Test Match Special. He looks around the sitting room of his London home – a room that, like Blofeld, is warm, fun, eccentric, and stuffed to bursting with memories, images, stories and larks from a life well lived – and, just for a second, appears to be lost for words at the outpouring of affection.
Not for more than a second, though. He’s soon off on a whistle-stop series of uproarious anecdotes, impressions and reminiscences about his life in radio as a TMS regular since 1972 and his plans now that he has hung up the BBC commentary microphone. He explains that his forthcoming nationwide tour, 78 Retired, is something of a misnomer: “I’ve been having all sorts of adventures that I am eager to tell everyone about, and I’m just not the sort of person who can tolerate inactivity so I cannot wait to get on the road”. He is very much looking forward to spilling the beans on cricket, life, the universe and everything.
From brilliance as a young cricketer that was curtailed by being run over by a bus (his frequent references to the vehicles on commentary suggest he holds no grudge) to Ian Fleming adopting the Blofeld family name for James Bond’s arch-nemesis, Blofeld has always lived the life less ordinary, and has made even the grimmest England batting collapses bearable.
It seems unthinkable to have TMS without Blofeld but, as he points out: “TMS, like everything, is evolving. The commentators today are excellent, so professional, but I suppose when I began there was a little more room for the strong individual characters, the willing enthusiastic amateurs. In the old days, the BBC wasn’t oppressed by the fog of political correctness.”
One such unique character was Blofeld’s great pal Brian Johnston. “I remember him in Madras, England were touring. Johnners was the most fastidious of eaters, boring, boring, boring. Awful food he had. But of course, being the man he was, he kept getting asked out for dinner by everyone.
“I ran into him on the first morning of the Test match and I have never seen anyone look ill-er in my life. I said to him, ‘Johnners is it really as bad as it looks?’ ‘Oh Blowers, it is worse,’ he said. ‘Last night I invented a new curry. It is called the Boycott Curry. You got the runs just the same but they come a great deal more slowly’.”
The ultra-professional scrutinised BBC of today might not have been so forgiving of another legend of the TMS box. John Arlott’s name comes up and Blofeld recalls the 1975 Lord’s Test when Arlott “was taken for lunch by his publisher, which meant that what was normally a two-bottle affair became a four, probably five, maybe even six-bottle affair, especially because the publisher was paying.”
On returning to the ground, “feeling distinctly mellow”, Arlott was straight into the radio hot seat. Blofeld recalls: “After five minutes he had the greatest bit of good fortune a commentator has ever had: the first streaker at Lord’s. A young, rotund merchant seaman clad only in short socks and trainers and called, as it turned out, Michael Angelow – truthfully – came galloping out from the Tavern. A blond policeman eventually caught up with him and got his helmet over the offending weapon.”
When Blofeld started on TMS, he says, he was instructed to remember that it was a unique programme, and that while the job was in part about cricket commentary it was even more about “providing company” for the listener.
There is no better company than Henry Blofeld, and the radio’s loss is the theatre’s gain. So if you enjoyed these unforgettable tales from Henry’s time on TMS, there are plenty more to be told on tour. Come and join in the fun.
Henry Blofeld is touring the UK with brand new live show, 78 Retired. For tickets and more information visit www.henryblofeld.co.uk.