Voices of Football: James Alexander Gordon – The Voice of Saturday Teatime
Professional football, especially at its top end, is changing, and at an increasingly rapid rate. We’ve absorbed many of these changes as though by osmosis. Over the course of my football-watching life… three points for a win, matches being shown live on the television, automatic promotion and relegation between the Football League and non-league football, The Taylor Report, the Premier League, the Champions League, the backpass rule, Bosman, millionaire players, social media culture, VAR. The laws of the game are simultaneously more precisely defined and open to interpretation than ever before. The spirit of the game has been lost. Only victory matters.
Within such a culture, that some things remain the same is something to cling to. “Out of the Blue”, the music that introduces BBC Radio’s Sports Report at five o’clock on Saturday afternoon, is like a mug of hot chocolate. It’s an Ovaltine advert. The smell of friend onions, tobacco smoke, and beef-based drinks of dubious origin. It has a sense of permanence about it, as though it’s always been there, and for any football supporter under the age of about 80, it always has.
Sports Report was first broadcast in 1948 on the BBC Light Programme and, 73 years on, it’s still an immovable part of the BBC radio schedule, despite moving from the Light Programme to Network Three (the predecessor to Radio Three), Radio Two and Radio Five. “Out of the Blue” has been there since the very start, even though it probably sounded outdated by the time I was born, and that was almost 50 years ago. But if “Out of the Blue” is an Ovaltine advert, for 40 years it was followed by your favourite uncle sitting down and reading you the football results.
James Alexander Gordon was the voice of Saturday teatime for four decades, but he might not even have made it to adulthood. He was born in Edinburgh and was adopted after his mother died in childbirth by parents who owned a pub. He contracted polio, a disease with a 7% mortality rate prior to the introduction of a vaccine, at six years old and spent much of his childhood to the age of 15 in hospital, which left him with little to do much of the time but listen to the radio. His working life started at the piano playing on a cruise ship and when he returned to dry land he took a job in the music industry, promoting such artists as Bert Kaempfert and James Last. Despite being involved in the music industry in London during the swinging sixties, though, Gordon didn’t get himself involved in the burgeoning alternative culture of the time:
You heard all this stuff about drugs and wild parties, but I never saw a thing. I wasn’t into all that media celebrity stuff, but I suppose I was a bit naive at times, looking back. Jimi Hendrix came into the office one day and said to me, ‘Have you got any shit, man?’ I was completely baffled, and only later found out what he meant. I was a Condor man, myself.
In 1972, Jimmy Kingsbury, BBC Radio Two’s head of presentation at the time, overheard him in casual conversation and offered him first an audition and then a job, reading the news and presenting various programmes on Radio Two, as well as Newsbeat on Radio One. In September 1973, he was suddenly and unexpectedly called in to read the football results on Sports Report. It was the job that Gordon was born to do. His soft Edinburgh lilt – a mellifluous voice, soft yet extremely precise – would go on to become possibly the most recognisable voice on British radio.
His intonation of the results was all-important. Inspired by a long-standing irritation at the way in which announcers read results and his own musical upbringing, he would add an upward inflection to the name of the winning team, lowering slightly for the losing team, with equal intonation for teams that have drawn. He referred to elderly people listening in order to tick off their pools coupons, for which they didn’t need to score, only who won, who drew, and who lost, as being his influence for this technique.
In addition to this, the BBC newsrooms of the 1970s were not the same as the newsrooms of today. In the age of the internet, we can obtain the latest scores in an instant, but this certainly wasn’t the case when Gordon started working at Sports Report in 1973. Results came in by tele-printer, and the fifteen minutes or so between full-time whistles having blown across the country and the start of the results being read wasn’t very long. With only analogue connections to the outside world, some would still be coming in as he read others out. Not that you would have been in the slightest bit aware of this, if you were listening in your car or at home.
But the affection for him was very real. Gordon’s style was so different to that of his predecessor, John Webster (who’d done the job for the quarter of a century since Sports Report started in 1948), that BBC executives were initially in two minds over whether to keep in the position at all, and it was only supportive mail from listeners that persuaded them to keep him on. Those fans reached to high places, too. After the comedian Eric Morecambe died in 1984, Gordon received a tribute from the comedian’s wife, Joan, saying that she would have liked to have heard him read that imaginary result, ‘East Fife 4 Forfar 5’.
Sports Report may be the most unchanged institution in British broadcasting, outside of the Shipping Forecast. Gordon is preceded by a quick round-up of the day’s headlines, usually with a brief few seconds of a key moment from that afternoon’s commentary, and followed by match reports from the most important matches of the day. And its emotional pull is clear. For better or for worse, five o’clock can be an emotional time for the football supporter. Getting into a car and switching on Sports Report can either be an irrelevance or a consolation, depending on whether you got the result you want or not. It also helped, of course, that he was surrounded by a collection of broadcasting talent who would then bring his results with a series of often witty and idiosyncratic reports – the likes of Peter Jones, Bryon Butler and Mike Ingham, to name but three.
There was a cruel twist at the end. Gordon ended up with throat cancer, and when he had his larynx removed in 2013 his voice was too weak for him to continue to broadcast he retired, after exactly 40 years on Sports Report. He died the following year, at the age of 78. It should, of course, go without saying that Charlotte Green has been a perfectly good replacement for Gordon. She had been a Radio Four newsreader and presenter for 35 years. She carries the calm authority of a highly experienced and skilled broadcaster and, notably, the deliberate intonation of Gordon has been toned down a little. The football pools aren’t the essential part of a Saturday afternoon that they were for many years, and the quality of radio broadcasts has improved considerably, meaning that mishearing a result is far less likely than it used to be. After almost eight years in the job, Green has become as familiar a presence to us as her predecessor was.
Furthermore, it doesn’t look as though Sports Report is likely to go anywhere, either. Even in the era of instant information, there is clearly still room for a digest of the day’s sport, led by the football results on the radio at that time on a Saturday. Coming in 15 minutes after the full-time whistle blows around the country gives the feel of it still being immediate in the 21st century. Indeed, in the pre-digital era, Sports Report was about as instantaneous as such as show could be put together. Television followed suit from its lead with Final Score, first as a part of Grandstand and then as a standalone programme after the BBC axed its Saturday afternoon sport extravaganza. But despite the growth of television and the internet, Sports Report remains an immovable part of the BBC’s weekend schedule 73 years from its launch, and it still feels as relevant as ever.