Squaring Up for Radio Commentary

The Radio Times grid for the Arsenal v Sheffield United football match
The Radio Times grid for the Arsenal v Sheffield United football match

by Ray Setterfield

January 15, 1927 — The BBC’s first running sports commentary was broadcast on this day when Teddy Wakelam occupied a wooden box at the top of the South Terrace at Twickenham and told radio listeners what was happening in the England v Wales Five Nations rugby match.

There was no television in those days but the BBC came up with a simple but ingenious scheme that allowed listeners to follow the action.

The Radio Times magazine printed a reference grid that divided the pitch into numbered sectors. While Wakelam described what was going on, his background partner, C.A. Lewis, announced in which sectors the events were taking place. It is believed this is how the expression “Back to Square One” originated.

A notice pinned to the commentary box wall read “Don’t swear” – presumably a warning to Wakelam not to get carried away. Not that Captain Henry Blythe Thornhill "Teddy" Wakelam (born 1893), former Harlequins captain, would ever dream of doing such a thing.

A week after Twickenham he was at Arsenal’s Highbury stadium to cover their league match against Sheffield United – the first football commentary on British radio. Again, the successful grid system was put to use.

Wakelam went on to become the voice of British sport broadcasting, covering cricket, tennis and even the Boat Race as well as Rugby and football.

When the BBC first broached the possibility of radio coverage at Wimbledon early in 1927, it received a less than enthusiastic reply from the All England Club’s secretary, Maj. D.T.R. Larcombe:

“Sir, I note your enquiry and my committee will advise you of their decision on the matter in due course.”

Even when live ‘trials’ were agreed upon, Wimbledon insisted that Wakelam be accompanied at the microphone by an All England member, Col. R.H. Brand, to ensure, according to Frank Keating in The Spectator, that the new-fangled gimmick would not lower the tone.
Wakelam’s sporting broadcasts were hugely popular, leading to his television debut in 1938.

He was not, though, the first radio commentator of a rugby match. That honour goes to New Zealander Allan Allardyce who described a charity match at Christchurch on 29 May, 1926.

Allardyce was a pioneer of sports broadcasting, covering everything from boxing to hockey and horse racing. It is said that he reported on one 1926 race meeting from the top of a haystack to avoid getting in the way of spectators.

That’s the sort of attitude that would have been applauded by Captain Teddy Wakelam, a sporting gentleman until his death in 1963 at the age of 70.

Published: November 29, 2016

Articles on Events in January