10 Oct 2020

MURRAY WALKER AT 97

This month’s Spotlight feature focuses on one of motorsports most popular personalities. Today 10th October he celebrates his 97th birthday, so we all raise a glass and say happy birthday to Murray Walker.

Graeme Murray Walker, OBE hasn’t graced our screens on a regular basis for some years now, but he still commands huge affection and utmost respect from fans and paddock insiders alike for his achievements in popularising motorsport on television.

Much of Murray’s early life was influenced by motorsport. His father Graham was an accomplished motorcycle racer in his spare time when not working as a dispatch rider.

As a works rider for Rudge, Sunbeam and Norton, he was European Champion, and dominated the 1928 Senior TT until his bike broke on the final lap. He won the first motorcycle Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, and in winning the Ulster GP became the first man to average over 80mph in a two-wheeled road race.

In 1935, having retired from racing, Graham began working for the BBC as a radio commentator, as well as editing Motor Cycling magazine for 16 years. This work would prove to have a lasting influence on Murray.

Murray was educated as a boarder at Highgate School and was part of the mass evacuation of the school to Devon between 1939 and 1943. He along with all the other pupils were housed in seaside hotels and boarding houses which served as both dormitories and classrooms. It was also during this timed that Murray became interested in the military and rose to the rank of Company Sergeant Major of the School Corps.

Murray jokes that “If you were a teenager there were three things you aspired to: fighter aircraft, submarines, and tanks. I wore spectacles, so Spitfires were out, and I didn’t fancy being under water. So I volunteered for tanks.”

From Highgate he worked briefly at the Dunlop Rubber Company before joining the Royal Armoured Corps in 1942 based at Bovington in Dorset. At Bovington, Murray was trained in tank warfare which led him to further training at Sandhurst Military College. Today Bovington is still an active Garrison but is also home to a Tank Museum.

Following his training at Sandhurst, Murray was commissioned into the Royal Scots Greys and he went on to command a Sherman tank at the Battle of the Reichswald with the 4th Armoured Brigade.

After the war he left the Army as a Captain and embarked on a brief career in motorcycle racing following in his father’s footsteps. He has always joked when asked why he didn’t continue racing, that it was a simple decision as he just wasn’t good enough. This was not entirely true as he had achieved some success in trial riding including taking a gold at the International Six Days Trial and winning a first-class award at the Scottish Six Days Trial.

In 1948, he got his first break in commentating when his father Graham had to pull out of a radio commentary job. With the PA announcer at the track standing in for his father, Murray was given the chance to take on the trackside PA announcing job. Following his performance that day the BBC auditioned him at the next Goodwood meeting in 1949. He passed the audition with what was to become his trademark enthusiasm and the following month he was given his first live broadcast and the British Grand Prix.

As his commentating career was taking off, he stuck with his “day job” back at Dunlop working in their advertising department. He was soon to be picked up by McCann Erickson, and then the Masius agency where he worked on accounts including British Rail, Vauxhall, and Mars, and was partly responsible for coming up with some well-known advertising strap lines like “A Mars a day helps you work rest and play”, “Trill makes budgies bounce with health”, and “Opal Fruits, made to make your mouth water.” He is also credited with the naming of the late 1960s Vauxhall Ventora, following the car’s original proposed name being rejected by General Motors. He did not retire from advertising until the age of 59, long after he had gained fame as a commentator.

In 1949 he also got his first TV commentary opportunity and he worked closely with his father Graham for 13 years on most of the motorcycle events including the Isle of Man TT until Graham’s death in 1962, when he took over the reigns as the BBC’s chief motorcycling commentator.

During these years he became friends with many of the legendary names in motorcycling such as John Surtees and Mike Hailwood. This was no accident as he knew the sport inside out and coupled to his enthusiasm for motorsport he became a liked a trusted friend to many future legends such as Barry Sheen, Graham and Damon Hill, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, and many many more.

In the 70’s he commentated for the BBC on pretty much all motorsport formulae, as well as other sports including weightlifting.  He was also asked by other broadcasters to commentate on motorsport overseas such as the Macau Grand Prix with Hong Kong TV.

In 1978 the BBC launched a highlights show for each Grand Prix and Murray became the BBC’s full-time Formula 1 commentator while still working in advertising. However, it was clear his passion for motorsport would win through and at the age of 59 he left advertising for good.

From 1980 to 1993 the BBC partnered Murray with 1976 World Champion James Hunt. It was an unlikely pairing but one that proved successful and by 1990 most races were broadcast live by the BBC. Murray recalls from their first race commentary together at Monaco in 1980, “There were no commentary boxes then: just two folding chairs out on the pavement behind the Armco and a flickering little TV monitor, ear-pieces in, cars lined up, no sign of James. With two minutes to go he shambles up, barefoot, jagged jeans shorts, dirty T-shirt, half-drunk, bottle of rose in his hand. Slumps into the chair and takes a swig from the bottle…but the amazing thing is, the broadcast went all right. Because, of course, James was a brilliant choice.”

As a team Murray would provide his animated descriptions of the action, while Hunt would bring expert knowledge, insider insights, and strong opinions. Initially they did not get on but over time the duo became friends until Hunt’s death from a heart attack at just 49 years old. The format and team approach they developed went on to become the industry standard format for motorsport commentary.

After Hunt died, Murray was joined by former F1 driver Jonathan Palmer for 3 years and there were also guest appearances from former world champions such as Jackie Stewart, himself an established commentator in the US, and also Alan Jones.

In 1997 UK coverage of Formula 1 switched channel following the BBC failing to outbid ITV for the broadcasting rights. Murray followed, ending his 49-year relationship with the BBC in 1998. He was joined at ITV by a new partner Martin Brundle, who remained by his side in the commentary box until his retirement, and openly states he is the best he has ever worked with.

By 2000, Murray now 77 years old, was beginning to feel the strain of travel and commentary every 2 weeks, so met with ITV bosses to tell them he had decided to retire. He agreed with the Head of ITV Sport, Brian Barwick a timetable for his retirement and he announced his intention to retire in December 2000.

His final full-time Formula One television commentary was the 2001 United States Grand Prix and he was awarded an original brick from “The Brickyard” by Indianapolis track president Tony George.

Murray has received various accolades over the years. He was appointed an OBE in the 1996 Birthday Honours for services to broadcasting and to motor sports and in November 1997, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Bournemouth University. He also received an honorary doctorate from the Middlesex University in 2005.

Other awards from his piers include winner of the Gregor Grant Award from the motor racing magazine Autosport in 1993 and in 2000, he won the Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award, and was named the recipient of the BAFTA Special Award for Contribution to Television in 2002.

Since retiring he has kept busy, writing his autobiography, Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken, published in 2002, as well being a team ambassador for Honda F1 racing in 2006. He’s also returned to the mic periodically to commentate for BBC radio, take part in Radio 5 Live’s 606 programme, and has also leant his voice to the children’s TV show Roary The Racing Car.

In May 2013, while on holiday, he had a fall, breaking his pelvis and during treatment it was discovered he had the early stages of lymphatic system cancer. Since then he’s battled on and in 2015 returned to BBC2 to present a new show called Formula 1 Rewind looking back at some of the BBC’s archives. He’s also presented features for Channel 4’s F1 output.

So as we wish Murray a happy 97th birthday and a continued happy retirement it’s a celebration of an immense career in broadcasting full of animated enthusiasm, an authoritative voice, and comical blunders. His commentary voice has been likened to high pitched engine notes at high revs, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Happy birthday Muzzer!

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ianhucklesby

Editor-in-Residence, JDC Promotions Media Centre