24 August ~ The broadcaster James Alexander Gordon died this week. He had read the football results on BBC radio for 40 years before retiring last year. In WSC 60 (February 1992) Harry Pearson met him – and even discovered what he wore when doing his job
For over 18 years now, James Alexander Gordon has read the classified football results on Sports Report. His voice, with its immaculate enunciation and sternly stressed syllables, is as much a part of British Saturday tea-time as the jaunty rumpity-tum-tee-tum music which precedes it, Battenberg cake and meat paste sandwiches.
And what a voice it is! Clear, resonant, with a slight hint of tweedy Edinburgh burr. An authoritative voice. The sort that might belong to a headmaster in a 1930s film – you half expect that one day he will break off midway through Hereford United v Aldershot and snap: "Will the boy at the back kindly stop fidgeting. Yes, Pettigrew, I do mean you. Report to my study immediately after this assembly."
With this thought firmly lodged in my cranium I pictured him as a cross between Robert Donat and Father in the Janet and John books. A trilby permanently atop his Brylcreemed head, a pipe between his lips; ever ready to fix a model aeroplane or dash off a quick half-century for the Old Boys XI. I visualised a scene at the James Alexander Gordon residence (an Edwardian villa in the vicinity of Ascot); over a breakfast table laden with porridge, girdle scones, marmalade and Arbroath smokies, his wife (played by Flora Robson) asks: "How would you like your tea, dear?" And he replies: "Spoonfuls of sugar, one. Milk, nil." A perfect vignette of measured intonation.
It will surprise no one to learn that in the ordinary course of things James Alexander Gordon (I can't think of him as just "James"; even "Mr Alexander Gordon" seems a tad too flippant) does not quite speak like that. His voice, shorn of deliberate inflection, is still sonorous, if slightly more Scottish. Indeed it was this regionality rather than his clarity which earned him his first break in broadcasting. "Radio Two was just starting up then," he says, "and they wanted to get away from the stuffy old BBC style. They decided they wanted a Scotsman on the network." James Alexander Gordon, working as a researcher in those days, "just happened to be in the right place at the right time". He was taken on for a week's trial and has been there ever since. It says something for the pace of social change that an organisation which once regarded James Alexander Gordon as a radical departure now gives Danny Baker the freedom of the airwaves.
It was in 1973 that James Alexander Gordon first began using his cultured tones to disseminate joy, misery and the numb agony which is a 0-0 home draw against Barnsley across the nation. "Jimmy Kingsbury, the presentation editor, was reading them in those days. One afternoon he said to me, 'I think you should do the scores.' I looked at him and thought, 'You must be mad. I can't do that.'"
However, Kingsbury's temporary bout of insanity served to rekindle a youthful dream. "As a boy I remember listening to John Webster, the greatest of them all, I suppose, reading the results, and thinking to myself, 'Good heavens! Isn't he lucky to do that!'" Soon he was in the presentation editor's office doing some serious training. Kingsbury offered a piece of advice which was to shape the James Alexander Gordon style: "He said I should bear in mind as I was reading that the person listening to me should know what the score was going to be before I gave it to them. So that if it was 4-1, they would know without hearing the numbers." The result? That dreadful moment of limbo when you know your team have lost but haven't quite had it confirmed – the football fan's equivalent of MIA. James Alexander Gordon is unrepentant about injecting this little ounce of misery into the collapsing arteries of our faith: "Of course you've got the fanatical punter," he says, "but also you've maybe got a little old lady sitting in a house somewhere in Durham checking off her coupon. And if I read the scores clearly and with the correct inflection that will help her."
With the scores coming in only moments before he reads them, James Alexander Gordon doesn't get a chance to rehearse. He glances briefly through the fixtures to check that there aren't any obscure teams (Sunderland, for example) featured, whose names he is unsure how to pronounce, but apart from that it's totally spontaneous. "The secret," he says, "is to be right away from everything. I look at the result, then say it. Look at it, then say it. That way you get a rhythm going. It's if your rhythm gets broken that you run into problems." And all the while he's concentrating on his inflection. Concentrating so hard, in fact, that the results don't register with him at all. "Often after I've read the scores, one of the commissionaires will come up and ask, 'How did so-and-so get on?' and I have to tell them I don't know." A mental facility which will be the envy of many fans.
After 18 years in the hot-seat, James Alexander Gordon feels that he's got the reading down to a "reasonably fine art". As a result he receives many requests for tapes, not just from aspiring broadcasters, but also, somewhat bizarrely, from a University of Linguistics in Scandinavia which uses them to teach Swedes English. The thought of row upon row of blonde adolescents parroting "Brechin City, 0. Alloa Athletic, 2" is one perhaps best not dwelt upon. However, it does go some way to explaining why Glasgow is mentioned with such reverence on Abba's Super Trouper.
"I suppose it's the ambition of most broadcasters to read the results on a national network," James Alexander Gordon says, though he isn't aware of anybody specific waiting on the subs bench to rush to the mike should laryngitis, or whatever the announcer's equivalent of a groin strain is, strike him down. At 55 he's still at the top of his game, but perhaps any WSC readers hoping to take over from him should start training right away. You could do no better than to begin introducing strong inflections into workaday speech and listening to the master himself every Saturday by simply "Tuning into Radio, 5. To see if your team won." Which would have the added advantage of providing a crap joke ending for this article, too. Well, you know.