Eddie redux

Anthony Clavane's fascinating play about Eddie Waring, Playing the Joker, produced by Red Ladder Theatre Company, is currently touring and week worth going to see. Needless to say, Eddie remains as polarising a figure today as he was forty years ago, as the post-play discussions have shown. 

I've written about the 2010 BBC4 documentary Eddie Waring: Mr Rugby League about him here, but for a broader historical view of him, the following is an extract from my Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain, published by Routledge in 2006.

"Eddie Waring had been the BBC’s rugby league commentator since 1951 and had been an advocate of televising live rugby league since 1950 when he had seen how American football was televised in the USA. As well as his TV commentaries, he was also the sport’s leading journalist, working for the Sunday Pictorial and the Sunday Mirror. As early as 1952 reservations had been expressed about his commentary style - many felt he was too jocular in his comments and that his personality tended to overshadow the action on the pitch - and these grew stronger from the mid-1960s as the fortunes of the game subsided and Waring’s fame increased.

In 1966 he became a presenter of BBC TV’s It’s A Knockout and was to become one of comedian Mike Yarwood’s most famous impressions. As the BBC’s rugby league commentator he fulfilled all the expectations of the northern stereotype: his sometimes unintelligible accent with broad vowels, his insistence on using humour in almost every situation, even the outdated trilby he was always seen wearing.

Worse, many of Waring’s supporters outside of rugby league praised him in terms which reinforced the stereotype. Geoffrey Mather of the Daily Express claimed that Waring’s ‘lips [were] equipped with tiny clogs’. Ian Wooldridge attacked those who criticised Waring and argued that his image ‘was all about slagheaps, Tetley’s ale, black pudding, Lowry paintings, busted noses’. The fact that many, such as Michael Parkinson, often incorrectly and unfairly thought that Waring had little understanding of the game merely added to the stereotype of the unintelligent northerner.

In fact, a great deal of Waring’s on-screen persona was an act. One only has to look at his journalism, or his war-time management of Dewsbury, to see how far from the truth his TV image was. As a journalist, Waring was extremely talented. Astute, opinionated and well-connected, he helped to fashion the pugnacious style of sports journalism that appeared in the mass circulation dailies in the 1950s and 1960s. His articles and books are full of verve and passion for the game, its history and its culture. Through his career he had helped to raise tens of thousands of pounds for players’ benefits, amateur clubs and many other rugby league causes. Perhaps more than any other journalist, it was Waring who also promoted rugby league’s egalitarian ethos: ‘For years I have been plugging rugby league football as being the most democratic game in the world,’ he told his readers in 1948.

But by the late 1960s, the commentator seemed to be becoming bigger than the game. ‘Eddie Waring is rugby league’, said Cliff Morgan, the former Welsh rugby union fly-half who was BBC head of outside broadcasts. Rugby league’s weaknesses meant that Waring became identified nationally as the embodiment of the sport. His TV appearances on It’s a Knockout and programmes such as the Morecambe and Wise Show meant that he had probably had a higher profile than the game itself - certainly one couldn’t imagine soccer commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme attracting such attention. And when people laughed at him, it seemed to many in the game that they were not laughing with him, but at the north and rugby league itself. It was this that caused many in the game to become antagonistic towards him as a commentator. 

The issue came to a head in 1971, when the Manchester-based firm of John Caine Associates was appointed as the RFL’s marketing consultants with a brief to look at the problems facing the game. When they published their findings, a substantial section of the report dealt with the BBC’s presentation of the game, which, it said, was ‘totally detrimental to the life of the game’. Waring’s role as a commentator was characterised as ‘unfortunate’ and his humorous style criticised because ‘the laughter is patronising and lends support to the view of rugby league held by midland and southern watchers’.

The BBC’s response was one of outraged intransigence: ‘Eddie Waring is not just a commentator. He is The Commentator [sic] and the five million viewers prove it,’ declared the BBC’s Derek Burrell-Davies, who had been the first BBC producer of rugby league in 1951, inadvertently confirming that the BBC did think that Waring was bigger than the game. Waring himself seemed to have little understanding of the criticisms of his commentaries, claiming that ’the BBC would not employ me’ if he wasn’t accurately reflecting the language of northern England.

The controversy only made the BBC more determined to keep him. In 1976 the 1895 Club, which had been formed by supporters based in St Helens to campaign for an improvement in the sport’s image, presented a petition with eleven thousand signatures to the BBC calling for an improvement to its coverage and heavily criticising Waring. The BBC took no notice and Waring carried on commentating until his retirement in 1981."