SUNDAY TIMES, July 7th 2019
John McCririck called so much focus on himself that it is easy to forget what he actually did. He single-handedly changed the face of the racing game.
BM (Before McCririck), discussion of betting during racing broadcasts was confined to the reading out of results and market moves from captions on the screen. PM, the viewer was taken directly down into ‘the jungle’ (McCririck’s term for the racecourse betting ring) where their own big beast would prowl around roaring out facts, form and fantasies while waiting to pounce on any story that showed its head. Racing broadcasts will always suffer from a lack of action; at Sandown yesterday the first race took just under one minute, the featured Eclipse Stakes just over two. With McCririck, ‘lull’ no longer had a place in the lexicon.
It was in every sense a shock. In 20 years of working with him on TV, “what is McCririck actually like” was only exceeded by “have you got any decent tips” as the most frequently asked question. My standard not entirely joking response was that “the public sees the saner side of him” and if the semaphore arms, pantomime clothes, and rabble-rousing cries were part of a well-constructed act. They were also the result and salvation of what had been a mostly unhappy and unsuccessful beginning.
An undistinguished three ‘O’ Level time at Harrow followed by success starved spells as a kitchen waiter at the Dorchester and a dodgy one as back-up to a one-armed bookmaker may not look too good on the CV, but they provided the basis for the massive contradiction within McCririck which gave him both his motivation and his appeal. Here, in one ludicrous, be-ringed, striped-blazer persona was a hectoring old Harrovian playing an unrepentant man of the people. He wanted the good things in life, in excess if possible – huge cigars, dinner at the Ivy, trips to Las Vegas, cream in his coffee and always his long-suffering wife Jenny, ‘The Booby’ to serve him. But he was also on a mission. He knew how the odds were stacked against the punter and in a very real sense he made their cause his own.
This meant that you could feel the integrity behind the act. By the time John joined us on ITV in 1980 he had already reinvented himself as an extraordinary looking but relentlessly good journalist unafraid to back an unpopular cause but with the ammunition and the antennae to win major honours two years running at the British Press Awards. He was the Sporting Life’s Coursing Correspondent and then chief investigative reporter, a mad, caped figure pedalling around London with dark glasses, mutton chop whiskers and deer stalker hat on a tricycle called Hermione (He said there was a twin called Hermeseta in the garage). The more the anti-coursing protests the better as far as McCririck was concerned. He unashamedly wanted to make a name for himself. And when the racing opportunity came around, that is certainly what he did.
At times he could be insufferably bombastic and our producer Andrew Franklin used to talk of needing a ‘choke chain’ when McCririck was on air. But for all that, he was magnificent to work with, informed, energetic, amusing (most of the time) and with a belief in serving the audience which is the essence of the broadcaster’s craft. Contrary to his own much proclaimed egomania, he was actually quite a team player. Without a family of his own, and with a “bah, humbug” refusal to celebrate Christmas or birthdays or any idea now of a memorial service, he found security and solace in the Channel 4 set up. He liked the ‘Blowers’ and ‘Jonners’ chumminess of Test Match Special. “Don’t call me ‘The Noble Lord’’ moaned John Oaksey when John began to attach nicknames to everyone. Oaksey moaned in vain.
Of course, McCririck’s delight in his oddball identity did lead to some fairly unwise moves with things like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Celebrity Wife Swop’ and the unhappy saga when Channel 4 ended his contract and he sued them unsuccessfully for ageism. But then John McCririck was never going to grow old gracefully. He had become the victim of his own achievement. He had created something unique but the world had moved on.
In recent years his health had failed and a year ago a dramatic loss in weight made him a hollow, shaking shadow of his former self. I last saw him last July at Goodwood and you would not have got good odds that he would last a week. Yet not long afterwards Radio 2 was doing a piece about the ‘crack cocaine’ horrors of FOBT’s in betting shops and it was McCririck who was put up to defend them against the somewhat self-righteous imprecations of a lady from North London. Frail in health he may have been but not frail in mind. Off he went galloping his favourite hobby horses around the airwaves, “nanny state”, “land of liberty”, “nosey parker politicians.” For five minutes the lady from North London was battered under the hoofbeats and McCririck might have completely won the day if he hadn’t ended by saying he thought that President Trump “was the finest man on the planet.”
But then there was never a plate that John could not overegg. Racing should just rejoice in the fun and the interest he engendered along the way.