Obituary

Brian Johnston

JOHNSTON, BRIAN ALEXANDER, CBE, MC, who died on January 5, 1994, aged 81, was among the best-known and best-loved of all cricket broadcasters. Along with John Arlott, who died in 1991, he was the central figure of BBC's Test Match Special and responsible for its unique style. Brian Johnston's major contribution to the game was to maintain that it was wholly fun, like life itself; cricketers were never incompetent, they were always unlucky ( "He's just dropped three catches, poor chap").

This could only be a partial view of cricket and his broadcasting thus never had the richness or depth of Arlott's. But he was a tremendous all-round professional-among the greatest ad-lib outside broadcasters - who upheld his standards and his enthusiasm until his heart attack a month before he died. Even then, he was on his way to do another edition of his one-man touring show, An Evening with Johnners. He was mourned by many millions.

Johnston was born in Hertfordshire on June 24, 1912, and was only ten when his childhood was touched by tragedy with the death of his father in a drowning accident. He went to Eton and Oxford; at both he spent his summers keeping wicket, with more zest than brilliance. Johnston served in the Grenadier Guards, won the Military Cross and made the contacts that enabled him to join the BBC after the war. It was an example of the Old Boy network at its best: it rapidly became obvious that he was a heaven-sent radio personality with the gift of sounding fascinated by everything and everyone. He brought this, with immense success, to such programmes as In Town Tonight and On The Job.

He interviewed music hall artistes, a task he loved, and, for Down Your Way, thousands of local worthies. If any of them failed to interest him, he never let on. With immense gusto, he performed such stunts as spending a night in the Chamber of Horrors, lying between railway tracks while an express thundered overhead and reporting from inside a pillar box, snatching letters from bemused members of the public.

His cricket commentaries began when Test cricket resumed on television in 1946 and he remained on TV until he was abruptly sacked - without a word of thanks - in 1970, when executives decided they wanted ex-players instead. At once, he switched to radio and, aged 58, began his stint of almost a quarter of a century on Test Match Special, during which he reached the height of his fame. The prep school japes, puns and nicknames and the chocolate cakes sent in to him by adoring women listeners became his trademarks.

His double entendres ("Neil Harvey, standing at leg slip with his legs wide apart, waiting for a tickle") became legendary enough to attract their own Apocrypha: there is no record of him or anyone else ever saying live "the bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey". After Arlott retired in 1980, some people felt that the frivolity had taken over the programme too much; indeed all Johnston's professionalism may not be remembered as much as the minute and a half of bizarre radio history created in 1991, when he broke down laughing after Jonathan Agnew had described a dismissal by noting that Botham didn't quite get his leg over.

Only very, very rarely did the humour drain away: he made an extraordinarily vehement speech against the boycott of South Africa at a special meeting of MCC in 1983. However, he will be remembered by friends, acquaintances and listeners alike for his sunny disposition. Even people who only heard him felt for certain he had a twinkle in his eye. It takes a superb performer to convey that on radio.

© John Wisden & Co