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The Quite Remarkable David Coleman

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Carl Doran | 13:51 UK time, Wednesday, 20 April 2011

When I was very young growing up in Liverpool I always dreamed of being a sports commentator.

I was brought up in a sports mad family and idolised the legendary classic sports commentators from an early age. The king of them all was the one and only David Coleman.

He commentated on all the big events and at the time was host of A Question of Sport.

Little did I know at the time that I would soon be working with the man most people would agree to be the finest sports commentator, presenter and journalist of all time.

From the age of 10 I would record Match of the Day on an old fashioned cassette recorder with the sound turned down and I would commentate on the matches. I'd then send in my tape recordings to Clive Tyldesley and Charles Lambert, the sports editors of the two local Merseyside radio stations at the time.

I hate to think now what those commentaries sounded like! My voice had hardly broken, but great professionals and human beings that they were, Charles and Clive would write back to me every time encouraging me to keep going.

David Coleman on Sportsnight With Coleman in 1969

David Coleman on Sportsnight With Coleman in 1969

Eventually (probably tired of getting the tapes) Charles relented and took me on at BBC Radio Merseyside to help out behind the scenes on the Saturday sports programmes. I worked all the way through school, A Levels and University gaining great experience and working with some of today's biggest names.

At the end of my University degree and through the contacts I'd made at Radio Merseyside I was offered the chance to go and meet the executive producer of Question of Sport at the time, Mike Adley.

Mike was a Question of Sport legend who devoted much of his life to the programme and oversaw the golden era of the show with Coleman at the helm. I was introduced to Mike by Dave Ball, a Liverpool school teacher and a walking encyclopaedia of sport, who worked part-time as a researcher on QofS as well as with me at Radio Merseyside.

I got the job as researcher on QofS and straight away was set to be working with the legendary commentator David Coleman, the man I had idolised for so many years. I was 21 and quite wet behind the ears to be honest.

My first working day was a Sunday in Manchester with three programmes being filmed in one go. It was my first meeting with David and one I would never forget.

We were sent to his dressing room at 8am to discuss questions and I was introduced to him straight away by Dave Ball. There were no pleasantries and my vivid recollection from that first day is that I got out of the room as quick as my young legs could take me, physically shaking.

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David was the ultimate professional and at the start of the day he was only interested in making sure he had the best questions possible and more importantly that they were factually correct.

Coleman didn't know me from Adam and he wasn't about to let me jeopardise his reputation as the number one commentator and sports presenter of the era.
He dispatched me in no uncertain terms with one mission - to get a simple quick-fire football question for the One Minute round.

He baulked at my first 20 suggestions, but eventually I convinced him that one of the athletes on the programme was an Everton fan and I'd come up with a simple question around Everton being nicknamed the Toffees.

To my relief, he seemed to buy it - albeit reluctantly, but only on the grounds that I rang John Motson at home! It was 8am! Another of my idols and all on the same day! Why, I thought, did I have to call Motty up about a simple question? I was an Everton season ticket holder after all, it was an insult to me I thought.

I got Motty's number from the legendary QofS contacts book and rang him up. Not best pleased to be woken so early in the morning, Motty did laugh quite a bit when I explained the story to him. He knew what David was up to. He was testing me out to make sure I understood the golden rule - check everything and not just once but one hundred times.

I now understand that David was not only broadcasting to 300 people in the Television Studio, but to 10 million people at home, who were watching one of their favourite shows. The reputation of David, the programme itself and all those working on it would be seriously damaged by a question that wasn't factually correct.

So for the next two years David made my life hell. He never trusted me one bit, chopped and changed questions for fun and ran me a right merry dance every filming day - and in particular during the week leading up to the recordings.

All of us on the production team also knew not to have too much to drink or stay out late the night before a recording because you had to be at your very best to handle David the following day.

Ian Botham, David Coleman and Bill Beaumont on A Question Of Sport

Ian Botham, David Coleman and Bill Beaumont on A Question Of Sport in 1994

Those two years had the greatest influence on my career without any shadow of doubt. David taught me about professionalism. He is the most professional person I have ever worked with and he set the standards that everyone has since followed.

To the tiniest detail everything was checked out. I remember once tracking down the head of the BBC Pronunciation unit on holiday in India to check out the correct way to pronounce an athlete's name.

Hours I spent tracking down this respected BBC employee up in the hills in the middle of nowhere and, don't forget, those were the days before mobile phones.
Proud of myself for getting hold of him I beamed up to Coleman with the news. Expecting a big pat on the back for my tireless work I soon got a shock. He already knew. He'd spoken to the guy before a big athletics meeting months earlier. He was just checking that I was checking!

Then one day, two years later, our relationship changed. Suddenly he was extremely pleasant to me and stopped insulting me. Suddenly he stopped checking that I was checking. Suddenly he'd believe me if I said Everton were nicknamed the Toffees. David knew I'd served my thorough apprenticeship and learnt the important lessons that he had wanted me to.

To this day I value his professionalism more than anything in my career. I also got to know a very special man indeed.

His relationship with sports stars was something I've never witnessed before and never will again. The biggest names of the day would come in for Sunday lunch when we were filming QofS. And they were all in awe of David. They'd grown up with him themselves as young men or women wanting to be sports stars. They respected him more than anything and anyone in the business.

David is a very private man and would never let me do a documentary on him. And boy did I try.
For years I tried and tried. It wasn't for him the celebrity life which he could have enjoyed as the star and host of every major sporting event, QofS and even Spitting Image.

He very rarely gave interviews - even though he interviewed just about every top sports star in the world himself.

I once begged him to do an interview for a QofS documentary I was making and he repeatedly said no. Unusually for me, I had admitted defeat. But just before the programme needed to be finished and a few days before I was about to get married, he rang me up and said he wouldn't let me down and did the interview. That was the nature of the man. I changed my stag weekend plans to go and do it!

I was very sad when he left QofS and I have the fondest of memories working with him. My wife worked on the programme as well. She was more on the financial and organisational side and not the editorial. He was always nice to Rachel. And never gave her a rollicking over questions!

Over the past few years we've kept in touch and he will ring the family home to see how we are all doing and how my three children are getting on.

He always has a lovely chat with Rachel and the kids and then as soon as I pick up the phone he'll berate me for a guest we've had on a programme I might have made. I always take it in good grace and always know that it's just David making sure I'm not getting too big for my boots and that I'm always setting the highest standards possible.
Eventually, like Clive Tyldesley and Charles Lambert, I wore David down and last year he agreed that I could make a documentary on him.

David is above all a family man and devoted to his lovely wife Barbara, his six children and many grandchildren and we've interviewed his wonderful family that he adores as well as some of the biggest names in sport today like HRH Princess Anne, Sir Bobby Charlton, Lord Coe and Sir Ian Botham.

He was the pioneer of modern sports broadcasting. He set the standard that everyone else has since tried to follow. I was very fortunate to spend the day with him recently and we laughed about old times and old rollickings. He's 85 this year but is still sharper than anyone I know.

The documentary looks back at a remarkable career which saw him cover 11 Olympic Games and just about every major sporting event from the World Cup, to the FA Cup final, the Grand National, Grandstand, Match of the Day, Sportsnight with Coleman, Sports Personality of the Year, the list goes on. Television will never see an all-rounder like David again.

He's also a great example to anyone starting off on a dream in any walk of life. He had an incredible work ethic and professionalism that was vital for success.
Above all, though, he cared greatly about everything he did. It was because at heart he was a sport fan.

At times he was very difficult to work for and although he probably wouldn't admit it publically, it was because he cared greatly about those who worked with him. He wanted us all to do well in our private and professional life.

I hope you enjoy the documentary. I know David will watch it and probably be the first person on the phone to discuss what we could have done better!
Happy birthday to the Quite Remarkable David Coleman.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    You say that he acted like this in order to make his colleagues reach the same professional standard he set himself, but that doesn't explain something that you haven't commented on at all, namely his viciousness towards others in general, as illustrated by this piece from the autobiography of the late, great ITV commentator Brian Moore:

    "Nobody is more competitive and I had the feeling that he had a pretty high opinion of himself and of the BBC. I had no contact with him on those Wembley days which was probably to my advantage since he would doubtless have set out to denigrate ITV and probably me with it. That's his way. I once went to watch a game in Cardiff where he was broadcasting. 'You here looking for an audience?' he said as an introduction with that mixture of smile and sneer. I never sought David's company and he didn't seek mine. We preferred to keep our distance."

  • Comment number 3.

    Let's also not forget that he took the Corporation to a tribunal in the late '70s after being dropped from the Cup Final commentary and feeling that he was being sidelined from too many big events.

    Now from what you say, there's no doubt that the lessons he imparted upon you and other people he worked with were valuable ones, but you can't help but think whether there are other ways to teach these effectively without resorting to intimidation and riding roughshod over people and their feelings under the guise of "professionalism".

  • Comment number 4.

    Fortunately, we live in a more enlightened time of workplace relations where these is a lot more respect and courtesy between superiors and their underlings; indeed, I work in a Human Resources department and can tell you that if anyone behaved in my organisation the way that Coleman did in the BBC back then, they'd be facing disciplinary proceedings.

    I hope that you and your other colleagues in positions of superiority within BBC Sport - and indeed within the Corporation and broadcasting in general - treat those below you rather more considerately than Coleman did with you, and not just for the reasons of maintaining good workplace relations; as the saying goes, "be nice to people on your way up because you'll need them on your way down", and you just have to look at what happened to Richard Keys and Andy Gray earlier this year as proof of that.

    (PS: I had to post this in separate chunks as your software wouldn't let me submit it all in one go)

  • Comment number 5.

    OK, my first section was censored, but it referred to the fact that the most prominent Coleman clip on YouTube is of him tearing strips off notable former BBC Sport producer Jonathan Martin over a messed-up studio link during the 1970 World Cup - which, as the comments that accompany the video prove, don't give you that great an impression of the man.

  • Comment number 6.

    Human Resources eh Jason

    says it all really

  • Comment number 7.

    Nice article Carl, I will watch the programme with interest. And to be fair, you have given a pretty balanced view of the man so not sure why Jason Crawley is getting so excited!?! I think the BBC should offer David Coleman a guest berth for the Olympics next year. I think it will be interesting to hear what he thinks of London 2012 in comparison to other Games.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    On a personal level he also had very poor relations with Kenneth Wolstenholme, and i agree with some other posters here that it is fair to say that his habitual haranguing of subordinates would not pass muster in today's BBC, but for me he was the greatest commentator we have ever produced, a man of real gravitas, and knowledge, and, despite the occasional tendency to commit the odd Colemanball, a truly memorable wordsmith.
    Added to which the fact he commentated sublimely on my two favourite sports, football and athletics, during my adolescent years, and i conclude that i regard him as one of the greats, and i look forward immensely to this long overdue tribute, which i trust is loaded with rare archive.

  • Comment number 10.

    I suspect we've all had work colleagues or superiors we didn't like, but I tend to judge people by how good they are at their jobs, not by whether I like them personally or not. In David Coleman, we were lucky to have another of that great generation of commentators to whom a tribute such as this is long overdue. His ability was summed up best for me by something he said of Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics when he said she "had the world at her feet and a nation's soul on her back." To sum up in so few words the symbolism of that race to Australia is a very rare gift.

    For me, as a fan, I am merely pleased that this programme has come while David is still here to see how highly he is regarded, and rightly so, within the sporting world.

  • Comment number 11.

    Loved his commentaries on Coe v. Ovett races in 70s/80s, especially at the Moscow Olympics - "...those blue eyes, like chips of ice...", as Ovett eyed gold.

    Coleman epitomises the golden era of televised sport, when TV brought top events and drama into your living room and everything seemed on a more human level than nowadays, where the money derived from television has actually distanced sportsmen and women away from their audience, and it turned itself into a big corporate monster.

  • Comment number 12.

    I remember David Coleman as a very excitable commentator at times. This would explain the phrases that laid the foundations for Private Eyes's "colemanballs" column. "Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class" from the Mexico Olympics was the one I remember best - because it was a good, pithy statement (as well as being a most incredible double entendre).

    Live commentary always carries some risk of bringing with it an unfortunate phrase or two - there's no time for the commentator to reflect on what they are saying.

  • Comment number 13.

    I was one who never truly appreciated David Coleman during his time. To me, he came across as my dad commentating on events with his sweater and slippers style. That was obviously part of his mass appeal and long-standing style.
    However, I wish more of today's commentators would take a course in Coleman's skills. Coleman could talk without becoming critical of the athletes or offering too much of his own opinions. He basically told the viewer what was happening and conveyed his excitement.
    Coleman was part of a generation of commentators from John Motson, Barry Davies, Bob Wilson and all, that provided a wonderful Saturday afternoons sport on Grandstand.

  • Comment number 14.

    ""Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class" from the Mexico Olympics was the one I remember best" - except it was Ron Pickering in Montreal.

    All people at the top of their profession in the UK can't but help attracting detractors. Coleman did convey tremendous knowledge about all the sports he commentated on. And IMHO he got it spot on re ITV and Brian Moore.

  • Comment number 15.

    great commentator great guy
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 16.

    For Colemanballs who can ever forget the classic "the batsmans HOLDING, the bowlers WILLEY".

    I sometimes wonder if he actually planned these Double Entendres!

  • Comment number 17.

    Re number 9

    Wolstenholme remained a very bitter man with regards to Coleman replacing him as the BBCs main football commentator- KWs autobiography written 25 years after the event showed he (KW) never forgave the BBC top brass-

  • Comment number 18.

    It is only retrospectively that we appreciate high quality sports commentators.

    As usual everybody thinks they could do the job but fail to appreciate the commitment and professionalism. Apprenticeships should be tough and testing otherwise you end up with sub standard product / service.

    Mr coleman was passing on what it took to succeed in his industry and give the public what they paid for high quality entertainment and professional commentary.

    Good on him...

  • Comment number 19.

    He was marginally better than David Vine.

  • Comment number 20.

    "the batsmans HOLDING, the bowlers WILLEY"....was actually said by Brian Johnston.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 22.

    David Coleman was one of the greatest Commentators that the BBC could ever have.
    Grandstand, Sportsnight, A Question of Sport...says it all about him.
    Coleman sits alongside the best of BBC Sport including David Vine, John Motson, Murray Walker...the list goes on....a legend in his own right.

  • Comment number 23.

    Re. the Colmanballs "opens his legs and shows his class" etc I actually remember this piece of commentary from the 1976 Olympics. It was made in commentary on a qualifying round of the 100m and was said of Valeri Borzov (who later did not succeed in defending his title). He was sufficently better than the rest of the field he was able to start slowly and accelerate away from his rivals. I am 100% sure of this and recall was sufficiently amused to almost immediately leave the telly to seek out my father to tell him. I think the qualifying rounds of the 100m would predate an appearance by Juantorena certainly in the 400m where that comment might have been most expected to be said. Do recall the "man among boys" comment about Juantorena in the 400m events; he just looked bigger than everyone else in the field.
    I've always believed it was Coleman rather than Pickering who said it (more the sort of thing he'd say) but have had seeds of doubt sown by having read that those two agreed it was said by Pickering. Wonder if the BBC have archives of the 1976 100m men's qualifying rounds?

  • Comment number 24.

    a fitting tribute to a great broadcaster but sad there wasnt an "upto date" interview with the man himself.

  • Comment number 25.

    Why do so many otherwise great sport commentators behave like they are bigger than the event they're covering?
    Coleman was like that, brilliantly efficient but you always got the impression that his was the official version, screw anyone else. Was he REALLY a fan in the way that Carpenter or Motson, Stevenson or Cheese, were/are fans? That's the sort of person we want commentating.
    Always wondered how he reacted the next time he met John Sherwood after the "Who cares who's third?" blather, which Wikipedia calls a "near orgasm of excitement", when commentating on Hemery's win in Montreal.
    Some sports commentators are loved by genuine fans; can't imagine Coleman ever was.

  • Comment number 26.

    4. At 10:24am 23rd Apr 2011, JasonCrawley wrote:
    Fortunately, we live in a more enlightened time of workplace relations where these is a lot more respect and courtesy between superiors and their underlings; indeed, I work in a Human Resources department and can tell you that if anyone behaved in my organisation the way that Coleman did in the BBC back then, they'd be facing disciplinary proceedings.


    Hope you watched it as John Motson made that very point-Ironically Motson said people would go "running to the HR DEPT" these days !!

    from the film i Got the impression Motty doesnt agree with your point of view sir

  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 28.

    I missed the programme on Tuesday night as I was in work, and forgot to record it. No problem, I thought, this is where good old iplayer comes into its own. Alas, for some reason, the programme is unavailable on the iplayer. Is there a reason for this, and will it become available?

  • Comment number 29.

    That just about sums it up sport has no need for this type of gamesmanship

  • Comment number 30.

    Will this documentary be shown again? I missed all screenings and noticed not it is not on iplayer

  • Comment number 31.

    Carl, please can you pass on to the production and editorial team my delight at what a fantastic programme this was. Of course David had his idiosyncracies however I forever despair when so many people want to look at the negative side of a person or story. Regardless of some of his personal conduct pointed out by some here, the man added so much to sporting events, great moments and TV programmes with amazing knowledge, impeccable timing and a perfect choice of words. I'm sure he wasn't easy to work with, but the end result was superb. The same is true of the programme and thanks to the BBC for commissioning and showing this programme. I'm only 37 however it was quality throughout and brought back memories for me that I will cherish.


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