Des Lynam interview: The BBC’s decline, losing out to Cilla Black – and ‘sexy football’ at Euro ’96
Do you remember the BBC’s theme music for Euro 96? No, it wasn’t Three Lions, but instead a choral rendition of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. A classic, in other words. Just like the first person you saw on your screen.
Calling up one of these broadcasts on YouTube, I experienced a Proustian rush of nostalgia as soon as Des Lynam addressed the camera. The magnetism. The mateyness. The moustache. “Dishy Des”, as the tabloids loved to call him, was more than just a face on the box. You felt he was talking directly to you. More than that, you felt he was your friend.
Such was the splendour of that long, hot summer that the comedian Arthur Smith set out to dramatise it. He borrowed the concept of “Play It Again, Sam” – in which Woody Allen took romantic advice from a ghostly Humphrey Bogart – and replaced Bogart with a suave Irishman in a sports jacket. “My Summer With Des” reached cinemas two years later, marking the high point of the nation’s love affair with Lynam.
It was reassuring, then, to speak to Lynam last month and hear that he treasures his memories of the 90s as much as we do. In fact, when I asked him to pick one event to cover all over again, he plumped for Euro 96.
“Football had a smile on its face that summer and it would have been underlined beautifully had England won the bloody thing,” said Lynam, that distinctive voice a little deeper and scratchier now, as he spoke from his home in Brighton. “But I suppose losing to Germany gave me a better out line – something about, ‘We’ve only got to wait another four years’.
“The BBC pulled off a coup by hiring Ruud Gullit,” Lynam added. “He and [Alan] Hansen dovetailed brilliantly as pundits. Gullit coined the phrase ‘sexy football’, which went down well with the viewers. They were both good-looking boys themselves, who kept the ladies interested, and Gullit was one of the greatest footballers ever. He spoke with considerable wit and insight. They made it dead easy for an old hack like me to pull them along.”
This is classic Lynam. The unconvincing modesty. The hint of chauvinism. The old-smoothie charm which turned so many heads. As he wrote in his autobiography, “I was rarely short of a pretty girl on my arm”.
Des’ appeal owed much to his spontaneity – that mischievous twinkle in the eye, a trait he shared with his friend and fellow broadcasting grandee Terry Wogan. Where his Grandstand predecessor David Coleman had made sport feel like a matter of life and death, Lynam was laconic and light-hearted. “If there were mistakes around me, I used to let people into the fact that things had gone wrong,” he said. “That wasn’t the done thing. In those days there was a strict regime at BBC Sport, an army-type attitude where you covered your tracks. Then this civilian arrived and things changed a little bit.”
Did he enjoy chipping away at the self-importance of Big Sport? “Correct,” he replied. “Later on, when they introduced beach volleyball to the Olympics I couldn’t understand it because there already was volleyball in the Olympics. I said, ‘Going down to the pub is not yet an Olympic sport but this is’. Before me, it wouldn’t have been said that way.
“I was also lucky enough to have a great editor at Grandstand called John Phillips, who came up with so many ideas.” Among these was the famous April-fool stunt of 1989, in which the backroom crew – who were always visible over Lynam’s right shoulder – staged a punch-up for the cameras. Their fake altercation was then replayed in slow motion while he delivered an impromptu commentary, complete with a Colemanesque, “Quite remarkable”.
Lynam’s mastery of live TV was unparalleled – except for one brief exception, which would haunt him for the rest of his career. On location in Naples during the 1990 World Cup, he decided that his pre-prepared script setting up England v Cameroon was a little prosaic. But as he tried to adapt it on the hoof, he lost his way. “I’m so sorry,” he confessed. “I’m forgetting what I’m saying.”
Looking back at the episode now (it’s amazing what you can find on YouTube), it seems innocuous. And yet for Lynam himself this was a gut punch. “I always felt I was in total control, whatever happened,” he said. “But that shocked me to the core. Once I was out of control, I didn’t know where I was, or who I was. Ironically, just before that I had done a live one-minute link to camera as a trailer, word perfect, smiling. Then when the show started, I was just mumbling.
“I went back to London, because we had done our two live games, and said, ‘I am sorry about that f— up the other day’. Jonathan Martin [then the controller of BBC Sport] said, ‘You don’t become a bad broadcaster overnight’. So I got on with it. It didn’t happen again, though I was always frightened it might.”
Perhaps it was this unhappy memory that persuaded Lynam to give up live broadcasting after the 2004 Euros, when he was only 61. As he wrote later, “I wanted to leave the business at the top of my form”. He dropped out of view quickly, apart from a short stint on Countdown in 2005-06. Then, last year, he was disgruntled to hear that one of his old muckers, Mark Lawrenson, had suggested that he had Alzheimer’s. “I am still compos mentis,” Lynam gravely assured me. “I think I was limping at Brighton football club when he saw me last.”
As a regular listener to BBC Radio Five Live, he still finds that the old Grandstand music – which receives an airing from time to time – provokes an anxious lurch in his stomach. “When I first moved over from BBC radio to TV [in 1977], they threw me onto Grandstand for a couple of weeks. I was racked with nerves, and that music filled me with nerves even more. I never got used to enjoying it.
“It’s sad in a way that the show ended [in 2007]. But understandable. When you can watch a live event on satellite TV, why would you settle for a minor sport somewhere on Grandstand? On a Saturday afternoon, we ended up showing two or three sports that not enough people cared about. It was due to end.”
Lynam sounds slightly melancholic when analysing the state of the modern BBC and its sports portfolio, which has shrunk significantly since his heyday. He has warm words for the man who succeeded him on Match of the Day, Gary Lineker – “He is very articulate, with a nice touch of wit” – and praise for Gabby Logan, one of the few presenters he rates for being able to work across different sports.
And as for the BBC itself? “It is a minority-sports channel now. The golf has gone, the Grand National has gone, Formula One has gone. It’s Wimbledon… and forget it. I think they still make a pretty good job of what they do, but the broadcasters go here, there and everywhere, In my day, we were contracted to the BBC and that was it. I used to say that working for the BBC was a cause, not a job. And then I promptly went to ITV! Rose [his wife] is always having a laugh about that.”
Is there enough support for sport in the upper echelons of the Corporation? “There never was. I think the Head of Sport always had to battle hard. In my time it was Jonathan Martin – he was a battler. I know Barbara [Slater, the current head of sport] but I don’t know how tough a cookie she is.”
News of Lynam’s switch to ITV broke in August 1999, causing quite the furore. Even in hindsight, it still feels like a tipping point – the end of a golden era in sports broadcasting. Lynam agrees that he became a target thereafter, while adding that, “I was expecting it, so I wasn’t unduly bothered”.
Lynam courted intimacy with his audience. One of his most memorable lines came when he opened the coverage of England’s opening game of the 1998 World Cup, a midweek lunchtime kick-off against Colombia, with the mischievous enquiry, “Shouldn’t you be at work?” He enjoyed that so much he made it the title of his autobiography. But that bond with the viewer now counted against him, making the change of channel sting like a betrayal. As Des’ old flames, we still loved him – forgave him, even. But the relationship was never quite the same again.
In truth, though, it would have taken a strong man to turn these suitors away. “The head of ITV and head of ITV Sport both came to my house,” Lynam recalled, “and the head of sport was carrying a briefcase. I said, ‘I hope that’s full of money’, and he replied, ‘It’s funny you say that’. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I did have a few gripes with the BBC at that time.
“The BBC offered to raise my money if I stayed, but I would have had a bad conscience about getting all those old ladies to pay their licence fee and fund my ridiculously high salary. I didn’t mind with ITV because it was a commercial model.”
I raised the oft-stated theory that ITV’s commercial breaks had cramped his style, disturbing his comfortable fireside manner. “Yes, there was less time to relax and have a chat. I didn’t really notice it. But I went from being a reasonable broadcaster to a below average one.” This last remark was not intended as self-criticism; more as a reflection of the indifferent notices he had received from newspaper TV critics.
“That’s the nature of the beast,” Lynam added, in a philosophical tone. “There always had to be someone attracting the bad lines, and that was me for a bit. I went into the newsagent one morning near where I used to live, and he said, ‘Hey, you’re on the front page’. There was a banner headline on The Sun as though they had found Osama Bin Laden. It said, ‘Cilla 1, Des 0’. We had been chucked out of our slot, because ITV had been showing football highlights in the early evening which affected Blind Date, but Cilla [Black] got very sore and they moved us back again.”
Looking back, one wonders whether Lynam’s 19th-hole badinage would be tolerated in a broadcasting age where offence is easily taken and not easily forgiven. Indeed, in his last year at ITV, he became an unwitting bystander in what was arguably the first instance of cancel culture. The cancellee was Ron Atkinson, who had been caught describing Marcel Desailly in grossly racist terms. Weirdly, it happened after the commentary team had put down their microphones, unaware that their backstage chat was still being broadcast in the Middle East. Lynam still feels that ITV were partly responsible – not for the comments, of course, but for this technical glitch.
“Ron was saying scurrilous things about Desailly. The ITV bosses took a very dim view and he left immediately. I am not defending what Ron said, but I would point out that he started the careers of many black footballers in this country, when he was West Bromwich Albion manager. He was terribly hurt, but he wrote us a wonderful letter wishing us the best of luck covering the Euros in Portugal. He had to be a big man to do that, because he was hurting like hell.”
Lynam, you feel, would never be more than one raised eyebrow from a social media pile-on, so it is probably for the best that he avoids Twitter and Instagram entirely. “What baffles me, and I am getting pretty old, is that people read horrible things on social media all the time. I saw somebody on TV saying that she felt bitterly insulted by all these remarks on Instagram. But if you’re being insulted on Instagram or in the newspapers, why read it? I don’t understand social media so I stay away from it.”
At 78, Lynam has spent a relatively pleasant pandemic, thanks to a spacious garden and regular games of online chess with his son. “I taught him to play at four years old, but when I picked it up again this year I found I couldn’t beat him any more.” He would like to get out for more rounds of golf but his back has been playing up, so Rose encourages him to keep swimming and stretching. “I do a lot of staring into space,” he joked, in his familiar deadpan way.
Is it true, then, that Rose was the woman behind Nessun Dorma – the BBC’s much-loved theme music for the 1990 World Cup? “One or two others have claimed it. But I know for a fact that we were sitting at home playing Pavarotti records, and she suggested that we could use him. Actually, it was another tune that we came up with. I mentioned it to the BBC and they came up with Nessun Dorma. I still think it’s the best ever intro for a sports show.”
He has a point, but then the same could probably be said of the Grandstand theme. And it’s not just about the music. The Birdie Song would probably sound terrific as long as you knew that Lynam was stationed in front of the camera, ready to soothe the nation’s soul.