Unflappable master of the TV sports show

David Coleman - Born: April 26th, 1926; Died: December 21st, 2013

Sports commentator David Coleman. Photograph: BBC/PA Wire

Sports commentator David Coleman. Photograph: BBC/PA Wire

Sat, Jan 4, 2014, 09:41

David Coleman, who has died aged 87, was a major figure, perhaps the major figure, of that distant era when television broadcasts of Britain’s national sporting events – the so-called crown jewels – were almost the sole and exclusive preserve of the BBC.

Coleman was the very embodiment of that pre-eminence. As the corporation’s champion sports presenter throughout much of the second half of the 20th century, he had an enthusiastic, knowing, taut professional style and a crisp, classless delivery. In addition, he was the pathfinding master of ceremonies for such long-running regular programmes as Grandstand, Sportsnight and A Question of Sport.

In all, Coleman led the BBC’s coverage at 16 Olympic Games (summer and winter), five World Cup football tournaments and many FA Cup finals and Grand National races. He realised that successful television commentary required both passion and brevity.

Following his final Olympiad at Sydney in 2000, and only months from his 75th birthday, at a ceremony at the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) base in Lausanne, Switzerland, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch pinned to Coleman’s lapel the rare Olympic Order medal. He thus joined such illustrious company as Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen and Emil Zatopek.

Throughout his broadcasting career, he saw himself as the hard-nosed, everyman journalist. Rivals were never comfortable with him. In the mid-1960s when ITV hired the amiable Eamonn Andrews to launch its Saturday afternoon World of Sport programme to take on the BBC’s Grandstand, Coleman dismissively told him: “I’ll blow you out of the water!”

Similarly, at the end of that decade, when ITV attempted to challenge BBC’s football monopoly, Coleman would refuse, before cup finals at Wembley, even to shake the hand when proffered with a “good luck for a good commentary” from the commercial channel’s comradely Brian Moore. The two remained distanced rivals for almost 30 years.

Moore recalled: “All round the world, David offered no real friendship. He was so spiky. If he even said ‘hello’, it was more with a sneer than a smile. But while his temper was short, his standards were immensely high. His hard edge made him as formidable a journalist as he was an opponent.”

The BBC’s performers in the early postwar period were recruited occasionally from radio, though more usually, it seemed, from the officers’ mess or the old boy network. Certainly, up in Cheshire, young Coleman had never seen television as a boy. His route was to be journalism’s traditional one.

He was born in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, into a family that came from Co Cork. He attended a local grammar school and worked as a trainee on the Stockport Express before two years of national service. He was stationed with the army’s newspaper unit, where he had postings in West Germany and east Africa.

On demobilisation, he joined Kemsley newspapers in Manchester before becoming a youthful editor of the weekly Cheshire County Press. He was a gifted amateur runner and in 1949 won the annual Manchester Mile. After injuries prevented him from entering trials for the 1952 British Olympic team, he wrote to the BBC.

By 1953, he was putting in regular scriptwriting shifts in the BBC northern region’s Manchester newsroom, and the following year joined its staff in Birmingham. At once came the opportunity of which ambitious juniors dream.

On May 6th, 1954, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. While the BBC’s sports department in London, led by Peter Dimmock, was scouring the metropolis desperately for the shy hero, they filled in time with an interview by a fresh-faced newcomer from the midlands with the popular Argentinian golfer Roberto de Vicenzo.

Thus, Coleman was up and running and soon, as BBC Midlands’ new sports editor, he was being accepted by London as the likeliest of bright lads. In 1958 Dimmock launched Grandstand on the national network. He introduced the inaugural programmes himself and then handed over to Coleman, “who’s 20 times better at it than me”.

A professional perfectionist, he could be a hard man to work with. Coleman could reduce insecure minions to tears, and often did. He liked cold-eyed, no- nonsense journalists around him, not television’s regular vaudevillians.

A contract wrangle kept him off the screen for almost 12 months in the mid-1970s. It was less about money and more about editorial control and the number of events he would cover.

In the studio or on location, Coleman’s unflappability was legendary and, however many top-dog stars have since tried, his legend has never been outshone. Masterly, too, was his awesome command of the live teatime scores teleprinter: “Queen of the South one, Airdrie one, means Airdrie move up three places on goal difference, but Queen of the South slip a place because Brechin won today.”

After fronting Grandstand for a decade, he moved to a midweek slot with Sportsnight (1968-1973), though he later returned to the Saturday programme. From the early 1970s he was the BBC’s senior football commentator, and from the early 1980s he concentrated on athletics. He also brought a businesslike geniality to chairing A Question of Sport (1979-1997).

Coleman, awarded an OBE in 1992, resented retirement in 2000, but he had set the standards. When, for all those decades, BBC television ruled the waves, for most of the time he was master-commander on the quarterdeck.

Few acts have been harder to follow. Yet Coleman never played the celeb superstar, and resisted the after-dinner circuit. Deep down, he was most attached to his home, his wife, Barbara, and their three daughters and three sons, all of whom survive him.