One hundred years on from his birthday, Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League traces the history of the sport through the life of the former journalist from Dewsbury who rose to become one of the stars of light entertainment.
Eddie Waring is the man who introduced millions of TV viewers to rugby league - a 'national treasure' who evangelised about a sport he loved.
But Eddie was much more than a hired voice: he was an entrepreneur, a fixer, a manager and a visionary who wanted to take the game to a new level beyond its North of England heartland.
Yet as Eddie’s star rose - through the world of light entertainment - the former sports journalist from Dewsbury also became one of the game’s most divisive figures. For some he was "Uncle Eddie", a warm and friendly voice of the north; for others he was a negative northern stereotype who was failing to take the game seriously.
The programme shows how Eddie began his career as a typewriter salesman in his home town of Dewsbury in West Yorkshire before becoming a journalist covering rugby league games.
While working as a local reporter he also managed the Dewsbury boys’ team who he re-named the Black Knights, and eventually he joined the BBC to become the voice of the sport, covering cup finals, internationals and league games for Sportsview and Grandstand.
Appearances on shows like Morecambe and Wise and It’s a Knockout took his career to a new level. But for some fans this was a step too far; they thought Eddie was becoming a figure of ridicule - viewers were laughing at him and the sport of rugby league.
In 1976 a group call the 1895 Club claimed 11,000 fans had signed a petition asking for the removal of Eddie and for changes in the way the game was portrayed.
1895 Club member, Phil Pennington, says in the documentary: "He actually got in the way of the game being properly presented. You felt you were being patronised. Eddie sort of embodied a north of England that had probably disappeared by the end of the second world war. This was the 1970s, remember."
Biographer Tony Hannan says: "There’s a conflict between Eddie himself who feels he’s evangelising the sport and spreading the game, helping it to expand, and the people who are actually involved in rugby league in the north of England who don’t see it that way at all."
The BBC disputed the numbers that had signed the petition, dismissed many of the points and stressed Eddie had never been more popular.
But for Eddie the damage was done.
Years later he suffered dementia and died at High Royds mental hospital outside Leeds in 1986.
A decade after he died rugby league’s fortune turned with the creation of Super League and money from Rupert Murdoch’s BskyB. The game finally had a new image, something Eddie would have recognised.
Historian Tony Collins says: "The way in which it adopted the nicknames, brought in the razzmatazz, attracted families on the basis of the match day experience with lots of things going on at the ground…that was the type of thing Eddie was arguing for in the 1940s, which demonstrates how far ahead of his time he really was."
Biographer Tony Hannan says: "It’s really easy to overlook the entrepreneurial nature of the man and the fact that he was actually a visionary.
"Yes he was an entertainer but first and foremost he was a rugby league man. He was a rugby league man both of his time and a rugby league man who was ahead of his time."
It's a Knockout
Eddie Waring with co-presenter Stuart Hall on the TV show It's a Knockout.
Morecambe and Wise
Eddie Waring and other TV personalities on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special in 1977.
This programme is part of Planet North, BBC Four's season of films celebrating the culture, history, life and architecture of northern England.Go to the Planet North site
- Paul Greenan
- Executive Producer
- Tony Parker