As an antidote to the madness of British elections, I found myself at the Wimbledon tennis site today for the annual press conference to announce the prize money and other changes for the fortnight. But while I was there I saw something else which I’d urge all fans of tennis and broadcasting to have a look at if they can.
This year sees a remarkable trio of anniversaries. It’s the 90th anniversary of the BBC covering Wimbledon (on radio), which makes it the oldest outside broadcast operation of a sporting event in history. It’s also the 80th anniversary of television coverage of Wimbledon, and the 50th anniversary of colour television coverage of it.
To celebrate the triple milestone, the BBC has combined with the All England Lawn Tennis Club to mount an exhibition inside the Wimbledon Museum on 90 years of their coverage of the tennis. The Wimbledon Museum is a must for all tennis fans visiting London, and it’s in fine fettle. But I was keen to see this particular temporary exhibit, which is on for the rest of this year.
One of the things that struck me was a bit of early radio commentary, in which the commentator, introduced only as ‘Colonel Brand’, commentated on a match between Bunny Austin and Don Budge. But as the caption board next to the recording explains, Austin and Budge never played the match that the colonel commentated on, which leads to the suspicion that he was trying to show how radio commentary could be viable, and in order to show it he fabricated a match and presumably commentated purely from his imagination! (I should add that Colonel Brand did exist and he was a commentator – there’s a picture of him with a colleague at the microphone – so he was no impostor, but clearly he wanted the two impostors of real commentary and imagined commentary to be treated just the same.)
Another thing I learned was that before the second world war Wimbledon didn’t have ballboys but ballmen. There’s some silent footage – presumably amateur but maybe BBC – of the 1937 final between Budge and Gottfried von Cramm. The cameraman pans away from the tennis to record the arrival of Queen Mary in the Royal Box, his hand shaking with the awe of it, but when he returns to the tennis, it’s clear the ballpersons are fully grown men. I ran into the former tennis commentator and historian John Barrett afterwards, and asked him when the men grew into boys; for once the sprightly 86-year-old JB was stumped by a question about Wimbledon.
And I also learned that the dramatic signature tune to the BBC’s nightly Wimbledon highlights programme has the rather underwhelming title of ‘Light and tuneful’ – yes, that’s the name of the tune! I might try meditating to it, now I know what it’s called.
I would strongly recommend a visit. And as for Wimbledon itself, it starts this year on 3 July, which is as late a date as it’s started since 1895!