Friday, May 02, 2008

Musing on Commentators

What makes a good commentator? Who is the best commentator? It's a subjective issue, and people tend to have a love/hate relationship with the guys who are paid to yap about racing. It can't be an easy job, trying to speak fluently about what's happening on a tiny monitor screen, struggling to select page 2 on the timing screen in the full knowledge that they're almost certainly missing a massive crash or engine explosion in the process. That doesn't stop us slagging them off whenever possible.

First of all, who's the worst commentator? Well, I'm not an F1 fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I'll switch it on while I read the Sunday paper if there's nothing better on. You never know, there might be a huge crash. Anyway, pretty much everybody on the planet is agreed that ITV F1 commentator James Allen is the worst, most boring, most annoying, most irritating imbecile ever to pretend to be a racing commentator, and I'm not going to argue with them. Nobody in the universe thinks he's fit to lick the boots of Murray Walker, the legendary commentator who is best known for F1 but actually has motorcycle racing coursing through his veins. (His father was a successful pre-war motorcycle racer, and the father and son duo commentated on the Isle of Man TT many times.) So not all F1 commentators are evil, but James Allen is.

On to motorcycle racing commentators. The MotoGP commentary team on British Eurosport consists of two posh-sounding Englishmen and an American. In the commentary box are Julian Ryder and Toby Moody. The small, bald Moody is greatly enthusiastic and knowledgeable, but loses a couple of million points by being a huge F1 fan. And he has a daft way of pronouncing things, putting the emphasis in strange places, "In second place is Nicky Hay-DEN." And got pretty tedious in his support for the sucky tyre war of 2007. However, all in all he's on the right wavelength, especially with his limitless reserves of enthusiasm.

Julian Ryder is as big as a grizzly bear and three times as hairy. One of the most knowledgeable commentators who has never been a racer, author of many books and writer of the excellent "Ryder Notes" on Superbike Planet. Hates F1 ("The boss of Honda is here to see the MotoGP qualifying, then he's heading off to watch the F1 procession tomorrow") and loves football, particularly Liverpool F.C. Has an extremely in-depth knowledge of how motorcycles work, and can communicate it to the masses. He's one of the greats.

Next, British Eurosport's pitlane reporter, Randy Mamola. A star of 500GP in the 1980's, with 13 wins, runner-up in the championship 4 times, and the youngest rider ever to finish on the podium in the top class. He rides the 2-seater Ducati at each round to entertain VIP's and raise money for his charity, Riders for Health. (This means he actually knows first-hand what the track conditions are at each race.) Rides all of the MotoGP bikes at the end of year journo-fest, and a damn sight faster than the rest of the journalists, too, so he actually understands how each bike handles and delivers power. The little Californian speaks English as if it's his 7th or 8th language, but that just adds to the charm. A great sense of humour tops it off, so Mamola is another of the commentary stars.

I usually watch MotoGP on Eurosport, but there's also the BBC coverage with Charlie Cox and Steve Parrish. The Aussie Charlie Cox is witty and has an engaging personality, but is really a car person. I seem to recall seeing footage of a touring car having a massive high-speed roll with Cox at the wheel. Very impressive. He's also a good laugh and has a nice turn of phrase: "Down on power? That thing couldn't pull the skin off custard!" Cox does divide opinion due to his lack of bike experience, but he's not too far off the mark.

Steve Parrish is a legend of British motorcycle racing. A close friend of Barry Sheene, former racer and team manager, he's been there and done that. He is also a deeply hilarious person with a reputation for practical jokes. One story, which appears to be true, is that he was on a plane between MotoGP rounds a few years ago when John Hopkins got on. When the cabin crew heard that Hopper had broken ribs, they were all set to chuck him off, because if he developed a punctured lung the plane would be forced to land immediately at the nearest airport, costing the company tens of thousands of dollars. Up stepped Parrish, who implied he was a doctor without actually saying it, and proceeded to examine Hopkins and pass him fit to travel. In short, Parrish is a genuine nutter, and a great commentator due to his experience and humour.

Finally, on to Eurosport's duo for World Superbike, World Supersport and British Superbike action: Jack Burnicle and James Whitham. As a former BSB Champion, and race winner in the WSS and WSBK categories, Whitham has the experience and knowledge to be a great commentator. Whitham also has that elusive quality of charisma. He's immensely likeable and just plain damned funny. His Yorkshire humour is as dry as the Gobi desert, and his anecdotes never fail to provoke belly laughs. James Whitham is hands-down the best commentator on TV.

Although there's a touch of Grampa Simpson about him, Jack Burnicle is a real enthusiast. Opinion is divided as to whether his rambling style is great or stupid, but I think he's the perfect foil to Whitham and there's nothing wrong with his off-topic musings, especially since Whitham never lets them go on for too long. To quote a few moments of their World Supersport commentary from the brilliant Assen race:

Burnicle: Johnny Rea is leading [pronouncing it "Reeyah"]
Whitham: It's pronounced Ray, Jack.
Burnicle: Sorry, I was thinking of the old guy who owned my local chip shop back in Middlesbrough.
Whitham: He's out there racing, is he?

So there we have it. I don't think there are any bad motorcycle racing commentators out there just now. Even the ones who stand in for the regulars from time to time usually do a respectable job, considering that they tend to be stuck in a TV studio, pretending they're at the track. Certainly, none of them are within a million miles of the painfully talentless James Allen. However, the one who I'd class as head and shoulders above the rest is James Whitham. The knowledge, the experience and the irreverent humour all combine to make his commentaries unmissable.


Rob J Jones said...

Like Parrish, he's been there and done it. Can't stand Cox, he hasn't.

Same for F1 in the UK: Like Brundle, he's been there, done it (although some time ago). James Allen: not been there and does not know what he is talking about.

I refer your readers to and their "Stop the Cock" campaign. 'Nuff said.

Nicebloke said...

Here in the US we have Jonathan Green plus various racers for WSBK. He's terribly annoying but very enthusiastic, so I don't mind listening to him. I think Cox and Parrish are the best out there, but I agree with you that we're pretty spoiled by decent commentary teams in motorcycle racing (except for the Speed Channel team of Ralph Shaheen and Freddie Spencer for AMA Superbike, who pretty much suck).

Andy Daly said...

Agree about Whitham. My ideal teams: Ryder/Moody, Whitham/Burnicle and for the sideways mob, muppets Nigel Pearson and Kelvin Tatum. Wouldn't be without them. It's much more entertaining.
See 'The Carbon Fibre's in the kitty litter'

Trevor Jenner said...

I am an old style arse up head down rider and watch track racing at every opportunity. Jack Burnicle and James Whitham are the best for me by a mile. I am not from Yorkshire but really appreciate James Whitham's style, his technical comments are spot on and delivered without any holier than thou attitude. Long may they continue and I agree with the original post.

Chuck Lantz said...

A few years ago, James Allen was the pit lane reporter for SpeedChannel here in the USA, working with Bob Varsha, Steve Matchett and Dobbsy. In that roll he was limited to very short comments, which was a blessing.

But for us in the USA, the very worst commentator is Jonathan Green, who does WSB. When the race is proceeding smoothly, Green isn't too bad, but when anything dramatic happens, he quickly escalates into using a screaming, high-pitched wail that could curdle milk. Beyond annoying. He's even worse than Ralph Shaheen and Dave "DePain", if that's possible.

Just how much do I despise listening to Jonathan Green? Here's a perfect example. The Laguna Seca round of the WSB is on TV right now, live, and I'm not watching. I'll watch later, with the sound turned off.

Vaughan Maybury said...

I agree with Chuck Lantz, Jonathan Green sucks! Where does that hideous accent come from? It brings to mind a schoolboy definition of noise - two skeletons having a bonk in a tin bath. If the ambient noise was on one side of the stereo sound and the commentators were on the other there would be a choice. The current option of having to listen to Green plus motorcycles racing or no Green and no motorcycle racing is like choosing between spinach or brussel sprouts. Get some speech coaching Jonathan or get a job scaring crows.