'Liz Taylor asked where we could talk. I said: In bed' - broadcaster Ian Robertson has seen it all, but he says nothing beats the Six Nations
This will be the 45th year that Ian Robertson has covered the Six and before that the Five Nations for BBC Radio. It is a longevity which, he admits, is quite a surprise given what happened to him early in his career.
He had barely started as a rugby commentator when he was sent to cover a game at Rosslyn Park. He was told beforehand that he was to share the airwaves with a guest pundit: the thirsty actor and rugby enthusiast Oliver Reed. It was an instruction from the BBC’s head of sport, so it had to be taken seriously. At kick off, however there was no sign of Reed. It was one of those busy afternoons of sport when match reporters were obliged to commentate as if live, the programme producer fading them up on air when required. So Robertson began without his guest, occasionally getting urgent instruction through his headphones to bring in Reed the moment he appeared.
“And then I saw him,” he recalls. “He was wearing a magnificent full-length mink coat and weaving his way towards me, bouncing off spectators. I realised he was in no state to do anything, let alone broadcast. Through the headphones I could hear the producer saying: ‘We can see pictures of him on the television coverage, he’s there, bring him in.’ Well, I was broadcasting as live, I couldn’t say: ‘I can’t do that he’s
p----- out of his brains.’ I ignored him for a few minutes, then the producer said to me: ‘If you don’t bring him in now, you’re fired.’ OK, I thought. I took a deep breath: ‘So with me the great Oliver Reed, a huge Rosslyn Park supporter. Amazing performance by the Rosslyn Park pack, they’re holding on against the odds, that’s a surprise isn’t it?’ And he roared: “No f------ surprise to me, we’ve got a f------ good pack and we’re f------ better than those f------.’ ”
By sheer good fortune the Reed interjection took place when the broadcast was not going out live. Which means Robertson will be at the helm once more for the forthcoming Six Nations. It is clear even as he prepares to report on it for the 45th time that his enthusiasm for the annual competition remains undimmed.
“I’m as excited as I was the first time I did it,” he says. “I love the Six Nations. So often a team will do what you don’t expect.”
Robertson knows, from the inside, all about that. He had been a fine player in his youth, selected for Scotland eight times, culminating in a victory in the Calcutta Cup in 1970. Though he suggests his game was not suitable for today’s muscular rumble.
“I was a fly-half who kept out of the way of the opposition,” he says. “Jim Telfer recently said he’d only ever seen me make one tackle. That was an exaggeration. It wasn’t a tackle, I’d tried to get out of the way but the player side-stepped and collided with me.”
Despite his evasive tactics, his playing career was curtailed by knee injury; he was obliged to retire before he was 25. At the time he was teaching at Fettes, the Edinburgh school. One of his pupils was Tony Blair.
“I was very friendly at Aberdeen University with Tessa Jowell,” he recalls. “And I ran into her when Blair was PM and she said: ‘Tony speaks very highly of you.’ I said to her: ‘I assure you he would not.’ I wouldn’t say we had a warm relationship.”
He had been enjoying teaching for four years when, out of the blue, he got a call from Cliff Morgan, then BBC radio’s voice of rugby. “He said he was moving on to television and the BBC needed someone to do radio,” he recalls. “I’d never done any broadcasting. It was a total punt on his part.”
It turned out to be an inspired piece of recruitment. Robertson’s first Five Nations was in 1973, three years after he had played in it. Several of the players he was commentating on were former colleagues. Though he says he never found that a problem.
“My mentor was Bill McLaren. If the ball was dropped he wouldn’t say: ‘What a horrific mistake by that useless full-back’. That wasn’t his style. He’d say: ‘It went right up to the sky and came down with ice on it and the poor man did well to get his hands on it.’ I wasn’t ever quite so generous, but I never stabbed people in the back. Generally we looked on the positive side.”
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Robertson’s impression of the McLaren borders lilt, incidentally, is pitch perfect. As is, across the course of an afternoon’s conversation in his north London home, his John Humphrys, Phil Bennett, Gareth Chilcott and, unexpectedly, Liz Taylor. He had met her after he had been asked by the family to write a biography of the rugby-mad Richard Burton. And he captures Taylor’s flirtatious purr to perfection.
“She said to me: ‘Where do you want to do the interview?’ I said: ‘Well, if given a choice, in bed, making love.’ Without missing a beat she said: ‘Well I’ve hurt my neck so I can’t do anything now. But if you come back in a month’s time I’m sure we can arrange something. I just hope I don’t disappoint you.’ I said: ‘I have a horrible feeling it would be me doing the disappointing.’ ”
In one aspect of his life, however, there has never been a moment’s disappointment: the Six Nations. He loves the rolling maul of travel, the visits to Europe’s great capitals, though he remembers “going on Radio 4 and getting shouted at by John Humphrys because I forgot to include Cardiff in my list of top Six Nations cities”.
It is a competition, he says, that has, over the years performed a strange sporting alchemy, changing completely even while remaining fundamentally intact. “The intensity has increased,” he says. “The stakes are bigger, so have the players. Taller, stronger, faster, fitter, unrecognisable from my day.”
Yes, but are they better?
“Well,” he says pausing for a moment. “They’re different.”
Whatever the increase in scale, his ability to communicate the Six Nations whirligig remains undimmed. “That was one thing I learned from Bill McLaren,” he says. “You can get excited and pass that excitement on to the listeners. But try not to get hysterical, so that your voice is already in falsetto before you’ve even got halfway through the try. Give it everything, but under control.”
He has only lost control a couple of times, he says. Once when Scotland won the Grand Slam in 1984 and once in 1999 when he suggested that Scott Gibbs’s title-securing try for Wales against England meant Scotland, long out of contention, were champions.
“No idea why that came out. I think they’re still running it on blooper tapes to this day.”
His most memorable commentary, though, came not in the Six Nations but in the 2003 World Cup final. Fourteen years on, his description of Jonny Wilkinson’s dropped kick is still capable of making the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. “I think it annoyed a lot of Scots how carried away I got,” he says. “I tell them I had a big bet on England winning, a bigger bet than I actually had. Then they realise why I was getting so excited.”
Now, at 72, he says this will be his penultimate tournament as a commentator, one in which he thinks he might see Ireland triumph and Scotland provide their best performance in 20 years.
“I’ve had a wonderful run, enjoyed every second. If I can still get a noise out of my throat, I’ll do one more Six Nations after this.”
And then what? What does he plan on doing in retirement? “I’ll go and watch the Six Nations as a spectator. Nothing better.”
Six Nations 2017 is live across BBC TV, Radio and online.