Andrew Cotter: "It was a privilege to work with Peter Alliss"

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Today's Golfer columnist and BBC commentator Andrew reflects on his time working with the late, great Voice of Golf, Peter Alliss.

"The thing is… if I died now it would really spoil the evening.” The delivery was as crisp and perfectly-timed as all of his lines – the voice so familiar to anybody who had watched golf over the years.

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Peter Alliss was in his element – surrounded by friends and family, some sitting with him at a table laden with food and drink, others standing close-by. Everybody listening as the great man held court.

It was the evening of an Open Championship week – Royal St George’s in 2011 perhaps – and the Tuesday or Wednesday since, once the golf got underway, you would barely get time for a Pot Noodle before bed, so late were the finishes of our broadcasts.

Peter Alliss working at the Women's British Open at St Andrews with Hazel Irvine.

Here then, before the serious stuff began, was a chance to relax and have a team get-together. One of the houses rented for the week provided the venue and everyone involved in the BBC’s coverage was invited. Plus a few more besides.

Peter was having such a good time – as was everybody else – and he simply recognised the opportunity for a funny line. Yes, one tinged with a dark humour, but that would never stop him.

I actually wrote about Peter in this magazine last year (click here to read) as I wanted to say something before the end of his career. I was very complimentary – though simply truthful – to the extent that when he saw the resulting article, he phoned up and asked for the best address to send the cheque to.

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But I see no harm in repeating the sentiments now. If ever there was a person who deserved a repeat performance in the golfing media it is him. And besides, it is also better to write at a distance – when you have had time to reflect and are not speaking in the immediate aftermath of somebody’s departure when you talk of them only in reverential tones.

He certainly could have cantankerous moments – I am prone to a good few myself. He also cared a great deal about the skill and art of commentary and might grow impatient with those who didn’t quite understand that there were rules to the grammar of sports broadcasting.

Peter Alliss at his Surrey home.

There were also some who would tut at one or two lines over many thousands of hours of commentary at which they took offence. And no, Peter was never one to step carefully along the politically correct tightrope. The sharp and clever line, the quick wit was too good to be dulled by the myriad sensibilities of a modern age. But there was never for a moment any ill-feeling behind the words. 

You only have to watch the end of his acceptance speech into the World Golf Hall of Fame to see that he simply liked to make people laugh. And how, despite his image as being part of the establishment, he enjoyed cutting through the pomposity and saccharine coating which is often thickly spread over American golfing occasions.

WATCH: Peter Allis is inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame

In recent years, we spent a lot of time rueing the loss of live golf on the BBC. All of us – Ken, me, Peter –knew that commentating on highlights was far less enjoyable than live coverage.

And it also meant that Peter was denuded of his real powers. The opportunity to talk over the incidental TV shots between the actual golf shots, the chance to tell stories – to take time to enjoy the tournament and everything that came with it. To observe and remark upon life, which was his real skill.

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You could think of sports commentary as if you were watching in the pub, with somebody sitting alongside you offering an accompaniment. If those voices talk too much, or bang on endlessly about stats and facts then you would eventually look at your watch, yawn and make your excuses. Whereas if that voice is coming up with interesting and witty observations, all delivered in warm and comforting tones, then you might settle in for an hour or two more. And even offer to buy some crisps.

Peter Alliss is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I often prefer to recall not the moments when we were commentating on the back nine of a Major Sunday – hugely enjoyable though those times were. I think instead of when the microphones went down, when the commentary stopped and when we all sat for a while in the box at Loch Lomond or Wentworth, Augusta or St Andrews.

Peter had opinions on everything and a great deal of knowledge on most of those things. But what he had above all was charisma and charm – the ability to amuse and engage as he held forth on some matter or regaled us with a story from the Portuguese Open in the late 1950s. So many of the great voices of sport have stilled now – voices which kept us company as we watched or listened over the years. 

I am sad that he has gone, but I am so glad that I had the chance to work with Peter Alliss. And if you watched golf, you were there as well. Sitting at that table as he entertained us all.

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Andrew Cotter on the Voice of Golf, Peter Alliss - March 2020

Off we go – it’s Masters time again! Though this year something feels different… Ah yes, that’s right. This year the denouement, the dramatic unfolding amid the azaleas and deeply unpleasant pimento cheese sandwiches will not be live on free-to-air television.

They always say the Masters doesn’t really begin until the back-nine on Sunday. I say it only truly gets going shortly after two in the morning on the BBC iPlayer. 

Look, I realise that there are far more serious things happening in the world and besides, we may end up with no sporting events at all this year, as we cower in coronavirus shelters overdosing on anti-bacterial hand sanitiser from Boots. But in its own trivial way, it does feel rather sad that a huge part of the population won’t be able to watch the live drama and colour of Masters Sunday. 

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So I thought I’d take this chance to pay tribute to a colleague. Not because I think he’s going anywhere soon. But because, with live golf ending on BBC Television, it seems a fitting time to say something about Peter Alliss. 

Peter Alliss at home with his wife, Jackie.

He is, after all, the last of those great voices which became synonymous with their sports. Bill McLaren and rugby; David Coleman and athletics; Peter O’Sullevan and racing; Murray Walker and Formula One… The list goes on, but only one remains behind the microphone.

That in itself, when he has just turned 89, is extraordinary. It is also strangely comforting. I know – and he is certainly aware – that there are some modern golf viewers who feel he should be put out to pasture, perhaps with a 7-iron and bucket of balls. Well, persuading anybody to change their minds in this day and age is tricky, but I would like to try and explain what they might be missing. 

First of all, he has always been the greatest observer of what is in front of him on the screen.

It sounds simple, but that is perhaps the most important skill of a television commentator.
To remark upon what we are seeing on the monitor – and what the viewers are therefore watching at home.

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Of course, it is about adding information, but it is also about adding entertainment and interest. Something which he has always done with sharp wit and impeccable timing, knowing that words should accompany the pictures and never suffocate them.

Yes, the gripe that Peter is out of touch with modern players might have some foundation. But that is why you have others who can tell you all about Collin Morikawa’s gluten-free diet, or Viktor Hovland’s hat choice. If Ken Brown or I have plenty of notes at our fingertips it leaves Peter free to do what he does best.

Golf (and all sport) on the BBC has always had to reach a wider audience than the specialist channels and therefore paint with a broader brush. Which is what Peter does, appealing to far more people than just the hardcore golf fan.

Yet there is nobody who has been so immersed in the game throughout his long life.

Sometimes Ken or I might comically roll our eyes at a comparison with Walter Hagen, or a tale about Ken Bousfield. In fact, these are connections that should be cherished. People have short memories in almost everything, but perhaps in sport most of all.

Peter Alliss in his familiar surroundings.

I love the fact that he is a living, working, occasionally grumpy, but always entertaining link to a different age of the game, with both club and microphone in hand.

If people ask me what my favourite moments in broadcasting are I might say The Open or Six Nations or The Olympics. But some of my most enjoyable times have been talking off-air with Peter. Asking about Henry Longhurst. Hearing stories about Palmer and Hogan or perhaps the love life of an obscure Belgian pro in the 1950s. 

Sadly, there is often now a tinge of wistfulness when we chat. Our work revolving around highlights, which greatly diminish the art of commentary.

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What I always loved about golf on television was that it brought you the whole event. The cutaway of the dog on the beach or swimmers in the sea. The spectators asleep in the sun or hiding beneath umbrellas and waterproofs. The shot from the circling plane which showed the coastline or the landmarks nearby. It was all the incidental stuff between the golf itself which brought the best commentary.

Colour and observation and humour – all of the things at which Peter excels – are drained from highlights because they don’t make the edit. Or because there simply isn’t time.

So live golf coverage now belongs elsewhere, to other broadcasters with other strengths. It is bigger and more comprehensive than ever before. The access is incredible, with analysis and detail to make your
head spin. 

Still, I can’t help but lament something lost. Perhaps it is just a voice from a different time.

But I will always enjoy hearing it while it is there. 

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