Tuesday 25 May 2010 | TV & Radio Obituaries feed


Bill McLaren

Bill McLaren, who died on January 19 aged 86, was to millions of sports fans “the voice of rugby”, bringing wit, erudition and style to hundreds of commentaries on BBC radio and television in a career spanning half a century.

Game of rugby unites for fitting tribute to Bill McLaren's name
Legend: Bill McClaren in familiar pose in the commentary box Photo: DAVID DAVIES/PA

His hallmark was the mellow Scottish baritone with which he described the action on the pitch, a voice once described as being as warm and satisfying as a flask of Scotch broth on a raw January afternoon at Murrayfield. It could be clipped or melodious as the occasion demanded; such was his command of language and knowledge of the game that even viewers with no particular interest in what was happening would be drawn in by his narrative flow.

Famously fluent, McLaren cheerfully broke the first law of television commentating, which holds that you should only speak when you can add to the picture. But as his fellow broadcaster Brian Johnston noted: “I honestly don’t think I have ever heard anyone say they did not like Bill as a television commentator and there can be precious few — if any — of whom that can be said.”

Self-effacing, undemonstrative and steadfastly traditionalist, McLaren fashioned a unique style at the microphone, adopting a wryly Olympian tone in which he treated victor and vanquished with equal respect. But beneath the surface calm lay a deep reservoir of nervous angst: “You have got to be keyed up like the players,” he told The Daily Telegraph in 2002, the year he retired from broadcasting. “Trust in your ability and experience, just as the players do.”

McLaren was never less than totally prepared, and always did his homework before a game. Following a tip from the racing commentator Raymond Glendenning, he reinforced his research by preparing cards for each player and a large piece of paper — his “Big Sheet” — containing essential details of the teams, ground, referee, touch judges and coaches. On the morning of a match, he would re-read the laws of Rugby Football.

He took another tip from Richard Dimbleby – to collect as much information as possible before a game. “You’ll only use about three per cent and you’ll feel that much of your work was wasted,” Dimbleby warned. “But don’t you believe it.”

McLaren’s encyclopedic knowledge of rugby was matched only by his scrupulous impartiality. But his customary sang-froid threatened to desert him in the 1969 international between Scotland and France. When, with a minute to go and the score tied at 3-3, Jim Telfer broke to score the winning try for Scotland, viewers could just discern an upward change of pitch in McLaren’s normally unruffled tones.

William Pollock McLaren was born on October 16 1923 at Hawick in the rugby-mad Scottish Borders. In 1935, when he was 11, his father took him to watch the All Blacks. William played at flank forward for the local high school and later for the Hawick side. During the Second World War he served in Italy with the Royal Artillery, where as a second lieutenant he fought at Monte Cassino. As a forward spotter in 20/21 Battery, 5 Medium Regiment, he was identified enemy targets and relayed the information back by radio.

His ability to report concisely and accurately proved invaluable in his future career as an observer of top-class rugby.

Another wartime experience haunted him all his life: a huge pile of some 1,500 mutilated and unburied corpses in an Italian churchyard, the victims of a massacre. At 21 the sight changed his life and forged his attitude to sport. Rugby was in his blood, he explained, “but in the great scheme of things it really doesn’t matter”.

On his return from the war he trained as a physical education instructor in Aberdeen. But on his arrival home in Hawick he went down with tuberculosis. He spent 19 months in a sanatorium where he was treated with the new miracle drug streptomycin, which saved his life.

Always a useful rugby player as a young man, McLaren had turned out for Scotland against the Army and in 1947 had played in a Scotland trial, but the onset of TB put paid to any hopes of an international career. After his recovery he taught physical education in local schools, became a supervisor and coached several players who went on to play for Scotland.

At the same time he was covering rugby for the Hawick Express. Without his knowledge, the editor recommended McLaren to the BBC. By way of an audition, he was invited to commentate for Scottish radio on a game between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and this led, in 1953, to his national radio debut covering the Scotland v Wales international. In 1962 he switched to television.

His years commentating on rugby for the BBC’s Grandstand programme on Saturday afternoons (largely unseen, for he rarely appeared in vision) earned McLaren the accolade of “the players’ commentator”. He intuitively knew what the players were thinking — “He’ll be cursing himself” or “He’ll be sorry about that”.

In 2002, on his retirement from the commentary box, the crowd at Cardiff Arms Park for the Wales v Scotland international sang For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow, while one Welsh supporter unfurled a banner proclaiming “Bill McLaren is Welsh”.

“No one voice is more closely associated with a single sport,” declared the Telegraph’s rugby correspondent, Brendan Gallagher, “and ironically that is now a cross rugby must bear. We have heard the 'best’ already. Nothing can or will compare with McLaren in his pomp. He didn’t just reflect rugby’s camaraderie and ethos, he helped inspire it. Right sport, right man, right time.”

McLaren’s services to rugby were recognised in 2001 when he became the first non-international to be inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame. He was appointed MBE in 1979, OBE in 1995 and advanced to CBE in 2003. His autobiography appeared in 2004.

Away from rugby, McLaren was a keen golfer, playing off 10 in his late seventies.

Bill McLaren is survived by his wife, Bette, and their elder daughter.

Their younger daughter died of cancer in 2000.


Comments: 10

  • Bill McLarens passing is as if someone has removed the warm and cosy scotland scarf from my neck as I've stood frozen, watching many rugby matches over the years. Even though this gentleman is gone...I think I will always look up to the commentary box for him or switch on the radio and still expect him to be there.

    I hope God likes rugby...!!!

    on January 31, 2010
    at 06:27 AM
  • Bill McLaren was a great commentator. Sports correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP)in London between 1989 and 1994, I appreciated Mr. McLaren's enthousiasm for rugby, his love for the game and the players, his vision also on the ground. During Winter, that was a pleasure each Saturday afternoon (the Five-Nations Tournament at this time) to watch the BBC and listen Mr. McLaren.
    Christian Collin

    christian collin
    on January 21, 2010
    at 06:05 PM
  • It is ironic that Brian Moore was chosen to give a tribute to Bill McLaren.Bill was not just brilliant tecnically but he was the epitome of objectivity although I understand he almost lapsed when his son-in-law, Alan Lawson, scored a try against England.If Moore demonstrated the same objectivity we would be spared his one sided commentaries on 6 Nations matches involving England eg 'WE should have had a penalty'.He does need to improve himself by reviewing Bill's tapes.

    Craig Kennedy
    on January 21, 2010
    at 01:55 PM
  • "That's a HUGE Garryowen...It's got snow on it"

    Arty Gunner
    on January 21, 2010
    at 12:31 PM
  • I am convinced that he invented the term 'put in' to describe the action of the scrum half at the scrum

    Brian Morgan
    on January 21, 2010
    at 08:53 AM
  • ''No one voice is more closely associated with a single sport'' . Oh yes it is ! Richie Benaud is to cricket what Bill McLaren was to Rugby Union .

    John Fogarty
    on January 21, 2010
    at 06:29 AM
  • I always enjoyyed Mr McLaren's description whenever the French No 8 Olivier Rumat got the ball - "Rumour has it".

    Patrick Hardy
    on January 21, 2010
    at 06:28 AM
  • Among McLaren gems tow more must be included.
    'There he goes all trumpets blaring' and 'That's another seige gun kick'

    Tony Eaton
    on January 20, 2010
    at 06:16 PM
  • My favourite memory of this great commentator is of one of his rare mistakes.
    Engand were playing Australia someyears ago and at half-time the camera was on the England team who were in huddle in the centre, Suddenly there were loud cheers and the camera swung over to a corner of the pitch, where a topless Erica Rowe was being led off, "Well,I don't know what this fellow thinks he's doing",said Bill. Some fellow!

    Derek Reeve
    on January 20, 2010
    at 05:13 PM
  • So another dazzling light is extinguished in the once-great pantheon of BBC sports commentary. The sad death of the incomparable Bill McLaren highlights the paucity of talent now on display at the corporation. In my youth I was enthralled to enjoy the mellifluous tones of Mr McLaren which enriched my enjoyment of watching televised rugby. In a similar manner, my levels of pleasure in viewing other sports were enhanced by the professionalism of commentators of the same high quality.

    Football had Kenneth Wolstenholme and Barry Davies; Boxing had Harry Carpenter; Athletics had David Coleman; Skiing had David Vine; Lawn tennis had Dan Maskell; Racing had Peter O'Sullevan; and so on it went.

    My own favourite sport, Cricket, had almost too many consummate professionals to list: John Arlott, Jim Laker, Brian Johnston and Richie Benaud being just a masterly quartet who excelled in that sport.

    My personal favourite commentator, however, was Alan Weeks, who proved during his career that he could direct his talents to innumerable sports, and being equally authoritative at them all.

    Compare all those mentioned above (and a few more that I apologise to for forgetting) to the bland, banal, characterless and unauthoritative voices that pervade the corporation's sports coverage today. Or compare them with the shrill and strident shrieking of such individuals as Alan Green or John Motson, the presence of whom in my living room necessitates that I either turn down the volume to watch the match in silence, or switch off the radio altogether!

    Many thanks to you, Bill Mclaren, and the other erstwhile greats for the sheer unadulterated pleasure you gave me. I fear your type are sadly confined to history, and that is a great shame.

    Alan Barstow
    on January 20, 2010
    at 02:52 PM

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