Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League (BBC4)

This post was originally published on rugbyreloaded.com on 13 September 2010.

Last week's BBC4 programme, Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League, was a subtle and nuanced portrait of a complex character. Paul Greenan and Tony Parker, the show's producers, have made one of the best British sports documentaries of recent times.

The programme was about 18 months in gestation. Paul and Tony's original idea was to make a three-part history of rugby league but the powers that be at BBC4 wanted a single programme based around Eddie Waring.

I have to admit that when I heard that the focus was to be on Eddie, my heart sank. Did we really need more clips of It's a Knockout, the Morecambe and Wise Show and Don Fox missing a goal kick?

But for once, my fears about the BBC were misplaced. Assisted by some great research from Lucy Smickersgill - who dug out some amazing footage, including Eddie on NBC - the producers managed to capture both the man and his place in the game.

Tony Hannan, Harry Waring and I were interviewed for several hours each, and inevitably some points get cut from the final show. A couple are worth recounting here.

The BBC's standard defence was that Eddie popularised the sport outside of the North. But the BBC actually carried out audience research in 1965 to judge the popularity of their sports commentators. Eddie finished next to bottom. He made no appreciable difference to the audience figures. The only commentator ranked below Eddie was rugby union's Peter West, who within a couple of years had left union commentary to concentrate on cricket.

A broader point is, as Asa Briggs points out in his official history of the BBC, that the corporation historically had problems relating to the north of England and especially the industrial working class. With his background and network of contacts, Eddie offered the BBC a way to reach that community. Once they had him, almost nothing could prise him away.

Why should we care if the BBC didn’t treat rugby league seriously? Andrew Tong in the Independent's review of the programme argues: 'So what if he drifted into caricature at times? Few people pilloried Brian Johnston for sounding absurdly public-schooly on Test Match Special, or decried Murray Walker for actually sounding like a Formula One car'.

But of course, neither Johnston nor Walker appeared on variety programmes making fun of their backgrounds. Perhaps if they had appeared on The Goodies telling jokes about Eton or Highgate schools or starred in Monty Python's 'Upper-Class Twit of the Year' sketch Tong may have a point.

And that is precisely the point. There’s a double standard at work here. Other sports did not have commentators who had become known as comic characters. Other sports were not regularly mocked on television or seen as an excuse for comedic ‘creativity’, as in the case of the K-Nine dog at Headingley (which the producer Nick Hunter now admits was a mistake).

There’s nothing wrong with poking fun at rugby league (take a listen to Roy and HG in Australia if you’re in any doubt) but there is something wrong with poking fun only at rugby league. Perhaps if Ian Carmichael, who often played slightly dim British upper-class characters such as Bertie Wooster, had presented Twickenham internationals, there may have been some parity.

I must admit to a minor disappointment with the rugby league evening. The Game That Got Away, the 1969 Roger Mills documentary that aired after Mr Rugby League, had to be cut by fifteen minutes or so. One piece of footage that didn't make it was the second half of Brian Redhead's comments about the intelligence of rugby league. Here's what he went on to say:

If you want to see stupid rugby, go and watch rugby union, and there you will see people play a game where half the things they do they do without thinking. But in this game, although it looks as if it’s all muscle and toughness, nothing ever happens that somebody hasn’t thought about very carefully. And when rugby union people come and play this game, they get outwitted and they don’t realise that they are being out-thought.

One final point. If you want to get the true measure of the man and understand how important Eddie was to rugby league, make sure you check out Eddie's The Great Ones, recently republished by the estimable Scratching Shed, in a book which also includes his fascinating England to Australia account of the 1946 Lions Tour and other journalism. Essential reading for all rugby league fans.