News of the late Sir Peter O’Sullevan’s recent passing carried with it a particular melancholy. It wasn’t simply another case of a voice of my youth being silenced. Some of the details of O’Sullevan’s life marked him out as an irreplaceable figure, and that partly derived simply from his longevity. He was one of the last living connections to certain particular places in time. That he was the son of a resident magistrate in Ireland elicits thoughts of the stories of Somerville and Ross. The japes in those books typically involved horses, too. His giant commentary binoculars were recovered from a German U-Boat. And, given he was a keen and successful punter, one is charmed by his pre-season tours of French stables where he got the inside track on many a later triumphant raider in English races, research made far less burdensome by the fluent French he learned at his Swiss boarding school.
Most importantly for those who followed racing, O’Sullevan was truly a great commentator. The sports broadcaster needs many qualities to be placed in that upper echelon. A good commentator embodies enthusiasm for their sport while also conveying authority. Pitch is important, as well as timing when to modulate the voice, rising to a level of excitement and urgency commensurate with the unfolding events without losing control. And it helps to be able to cap that off with a memorable turn of phrase. Kenneth Wolstenholme had it. Bill McLaren had it. In his own memorable way David Coleman had it. And O’Sullevan also certainly had it.
Great commentators become part of the events they act as medium for, and O’Sullevan presided over many great moments in racing history. Watching Red Rum’s third Grand National victory again in the last week was also to be reacquainted with the unique nature of the National TV broadcast, with a team of race readers calling the race in different sections of the racecourse. It represents a kind of broadcasting analogue to a relay race, with the words “Over to you, Peter!”, uttered as the leaders cross the Melling Road before taking on the final few fences, being the commentating equivalent of Usain Bolt being handed the baton for the glory leg down the home straight.
The new football season kicks off today, and while O’Sullevan was solely devoted to racing commentary, his methods, delivery and meticulous research offers an example to anybody entering the profession, no matter what their sport. He commentated on races in which he had a personal interest without compromising his integrity by betraying blatant bias, a particular scourge of football coverage, especially in European club football games. And he didn’t yelp like a hyena at a climactic moment, another blight that football fans are expected to put up with. I’ll concede that different parts of the world have different cultural expectations when it comes to sports commentary; for example, South American football coverage has its own particular rhythms, and I would be the last to cast aspersion on how they do it. But Britain and Ireland has its own template, and nobody exemplified it better than Peter O’Sullevan.