The Autobiography
by Barry Davies
Headline, £8.99
Reviewed by Harry Pearson
From WSC 251 January 2008 

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“The Tiber had flowed into the Olympic Stadium and its colour was red.” This description of the 1977 European Cup final could, I think it fair to say, have come from only one man: Barry Davies. It bears all the veteran BBC commentator’s distinctive tics: portentousness and classical allusion are married in a sentence that at first reading seems to make no sense, but which after careful study is discovered to make absolutely no sense whatsoever. That to many people a red Tiber will conjure up images not of Rome and Liverpool, but of Enoch Powell is the collateral damage of his bombast.

Like many readers of WSC I have grown up with Davies. I heard his famous “Lee… Interesting, very interesting!” when it was first broadcast, and used to imitate his crazed croaking of “Just look at his face!” that followed for the amusement of my classmates, substituting the word “arse” for added mirth. Even 11‑year‑olds recognised it instantly as a piece of high-grade lunacy, one that perfectly suited the times.

Since then I have listened to Davies commentaries on everything from ice dancing to opening ceremonies, via hockey, rowing, gymnastics and tennis. I even caught him by accident one night giving an overview of the Royal Tournament. Though he was an able host of the excellent Maestro, it hasn’t, all in all, been a happy experience. “I’ve always proffered the thought that one man’s commentator is another man’s irritation,” Davies observes during this lightning tour through his career. I am the other man; that Barry chooses to use the word “proffered” is a ­succinct summary of the reason.

Davies proffers his thought in reference to himself and John Motson. A portion of the book – certainly the one that has drawn most attention – is taken up with the battle that raged between him and the florid-faced fact-botherer over who got the top games. While not averse to blowing up the media bally­hoo that apparently surrounded this situation (Do you remember it? No, me neither), Barry is keen to play the phlegmatic English gent about his rivalry with the man who kept getting the FA Cup final ahead of him. However, every once in a while a little hiss of resentment leaks out – “I left [Niall Sloane’s] office knowing that, whatever I offered to football commentary, it would never be enough.”

Having previously reviewed both of John Motson’s diaries for these pages I have to say I find myself unexpectedly siding with Motty. His escapades searching for pyjamas for his son, Frederick, and a new sheepskin for himself, while simultaneously name-checking all his favourite eateries, are a feast of comic fun in the style of Diary of a Nobody or The Eliza Stories. Davies is nowhere near as endearingly Pooterish, though he shares one thing with his BBC colleague – a startling lack of self-awareness. It’s as if spending so much of their life focusing on what other people are doing has left them with no time to take a look in the mirror.

This is most clear when Barry describes his own commentary style. “Laid-back” is the term he uses more than once. Is that a fitting description for a man best known for pronouncements such as “Cometh the hour and still not cometh the man”, and sententious outbursts of headmasterly condemnation (the latter most usually reserved for Italians who, as he screeched after the Azzurri’s defeat to South Korea in 2002 “deserve to lose because they just will not learn”)?

Not a great read, then, though on the bright side at least he doesn’t repeat that pun about Nicky Butt.

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